Tales of a former head of State accumulating a wealth of K61billion are not new in this country. There is another case in court involving an alleged K1.7billion donor money deposited in an account of another former head of state. There were also issues to do with the first president wealth and assets including some of the state residences for those that can dare remember.
And now we have found ourselves in the mix of “cashgate”. Billions of tax-payers money have been stolen, and you cannot rule out the invisible hand of senior incumbent political leadership behind scheming such unprecedented wanton theft of funds. What is surprising, however, is the fact that no practical measure shave been put in place to stop such alleged abuse. It is time that we established a Transparency and Accountability Commission with much wider ranging powers to deal with such abuse. Maybe the powers of a head of State must also be reduced and a strong system of checks and balances established. No system, at least practically exists to stop the perennial theft of public funds, except calls to prayer, yet those that brought religion to us have moved to put in place systems that stop abuse of public resources.
The story of political leaders abusing power and using elected offices to enrich themselves appears to be a common African malaise, and Malawi is no exception. A problem with such impunity is that it stifles competition and kills hardwork by providing bumpy ground to some. Furthermore, it scares away all potential innocent investors unwilling to pay rent to offshore accounts of politicians or their surrogate family-private trusts. We usually end up with crooks that use our resources, pay no taxes as long as they massage bellies of sleek politicians.
For example, there is a law requiring public officers from the head of State to a certain level downwards to declare their assets. The law is silent and can do nothing if such elected officials do not declare their assets. It is a catalyst for abuse of public offices and is being currently exploited to the fullest. Guidelines for political party funding are quite weak and there is no law that compels political parties to declare their sources of funding. Sometimes one is tempted to think if the Forfeiture Act was re-established with some variation such abuse can be arrested.
In my view, I believe that we can establish a transparency and accountability commission with wider ranging powers, including prosecution, annual compulsory disclosures of incomes and taxes paid by senior public officers up to the head of State including political parties. All senior public officials in this category should file tax returns and declare their sources of income under oath on an annual basis. The Transparency and Accountability Commission can lead the process as an independent body that ensures all senior public officials are accountable for their actions and punitive measures are put in place for any unexplained exponential rise in wealth.
Political parties remain one major conduit through which public funds are channelled. Up to this day, I do not believe that taxpayer funds should be given to parties with a certain threshold of seats in Parliament. My understanding is that a political party is an association of like-minded individuals that share certain common ideals. Its members must be in a position to fund their activities, and should not put a bill on the taxpayer.
My main concern is the fact that we continue to see unregulated political party funding. Consider cases where political parties hold huge fundraising functions and private individuals make some absurd donations that appear no less than an investment in an overpriced government contract. If you can fast track things, one can see the apparent link with how government contracts are given to recover some of these donations, and the tenderprenuer billionaires we create in the process. We need to put a legislation that restricts the amount of money an individual company or person can contribute to a political party. If properly established, Transparency and Accountability Commission, under an effective legislation will have to compel all political parties to declare on an annual basis their sources of income and publish its list of donors. If there is no compliance, trustees of the concerned parties can be held to account or even have bank accounts of such parties frozen. It borders on intent to defraud the people of Malawi through indirect methods.
To get matters right, there are a lot of loopholes in the public finance system that are facilitating such abuse of taxpayers money. In a week’s time, we will celebrate five decades of independence. What are we going to show for it? Well I can think of daily power cuts, youth unemployment, poor road networks, poverty of undefined degree, malnutrition, lack of world class medical facilities, mud huts even in the capital and commercial city, lack of clean water, poorly funded universities amongst other indicators of depravation. Over a hundred thousand students have just started writing their exams, and all need a university or college that cannot accept them due to limited space or capacity. Every year we will have such a number of students or even more sitting for MSCE and dreaming big. Where are we going to take them to if elected leaders can willingly get billions of taxpayers’ money meant to solve these problems and secure it in offshore accounts?
A culture of transparency is indispensable in any functioning democracy and modern business environment. We have to fight for it and hold our elected leaders to account for their abnormal wealth instead of singing usual praises of “God given presidents”. Some gods are counterfeit or fake. We need to tell our kids that you can make it in life, create a business, and employ others without necessary getting politically connected or even running for an elected political post to defraud the taxpayer.