Honourable Folks, as the head of the civil service, Chief Secretary Hawa Ndilowe appears too relaxed in the aftermath of the cashgate for my liking.
True, with the help of international forensic experts, government is combing its cupboard to see what’s missing, its value, how it went missing and probably who could have been responsible. It’s also likely that the audit would recommend what action to take to seal the potholes. Some more folks may be given a hard legal kick in the teeth, if only to prove in an election year that government left no stone unturned.
But whatever investigation is taking place now won’t negate the fact that cashgate happened, allowing criminal networks of civil servants, the business community and, most likely, bank officers as well to fleece government of its revenue for over five years undetected.
Unofficial estimates indicate over K90 billion (US$215 827 338) worth of assets were stolen during the autocratic reign of the late Bingu wa Mutharika through cashgate. When Madam Joyce Banda rose to power and introduced government running by globe-trotting, cashgate made her leadership style an embarrassing tail-spin flop when an estimated K20 billion (US$47 961 630) got stolen within her first year in power.
So porous has been the JB administration that some criminals within the system had the temerity to draw millions, if not billions, of taxpayers’ kwacha from government accounts and use the money to buy buses whose use none of the so-called government controlling officers knows anything about. In fact, no government ministry or department has claimed ownership of the controversial buses purchased at the expense of much-needed drugs for our public hospitals and teaching and learning materials for our public schools.
But the enormity of the loss to the citizenry is much more than that. Cashgate has eroded donor confidence in government’s ability to protect public funds and ensure they are used for the intended purpose. Consequently, the donors have walked out on the JB administration, freezing budgetary support at a crucial time in the implementation of biting reforms to the economy which they passionately encouraged and pledged to support.
Now our currency has been greatly devalued and floated, pushing inflation and interest rates to the shores of the blue skies and, in the process, reducing our buying power by more than 50 percent and sending the majority of hard-working, honest and law-abiding Malawians rolling down the cliff to land with bump in the abyss of abject poverty.
Who in government, amid the suffering there’s today, can stand up and say the reforms we embarked on are bearing fruit and there’s light at the end of the tunnel? Yet, while we’ve been doomed by political mediocrity to move, trance-like, in a circle of hunger, poverty and disease for 50 years now, the rest of Africa, especially where there’s no civil strife, is moving on steadily to claim the 21st century!
Our own neighbour, Zambia, has already graduated into a middle-income economy and Mozambique and Tanzania—the other countries we share borders with–are heading the Zambia direction as well. Another landlocked African country, which is less endowed with mineral and oils as Malawi, was rocked in a civil war but is now an economic success that has mesmerised the world is Rwanda. As for Malawi, experts say if we continue moving one step forward and two steps backwards, we have more than 60 more years just to free the majority of our people from the shackles of deprivation.
All this makes for a compelling case for Mrs. Ndilowe to get out of her comfort zone and start in earnest reforming the rusty civil service which she heads. For much too long inertia, impunity and other vices which breed corruption and under-productivity—altogether defining the zaboma cultural mentality– have rocked the civil service, retarding national development in the process.
What is new about cashgate may only be the name and probably the enormity of the scam. In 1997 or thereabout, when Bakili Muluzi was at the helm, fraudsters who included Cabinet ministers, civil servants and unscrupulous businesspersons networked to fleece government of K187 million meant for the construction of schools.
What a waste of time and resources then it would be to elect councillors to spearhead development through the decentralisation programme if the civil servants entrusted with the provision of technical expertise and stewardship over financial and other resources aren’t first exorcised of the zaboma syndrome whose opportunistic diseases—cashgate and the education scam—have had a crippling effect on the functions of Capital Hill itself, the seat of Central Government?