The much acknowledged assertion that there is a concentration of power in the office of the country’s President has not grabbed the attention of major parties contesting in the May 21 2019 Tripartite Elections.
In their respective manifestos, the four political parties—DPP, MCP, UDF and UTM—have made convincing promises towards introducing means of fighting corruption, but these too fall short of addressing the challenges observed during the first ever National Anti-Corruption Conference held in May 2017.
Fresh from the news of procurement and contractual scandals in security agencies, notably Malawi Police Service and Malawi Defence Force, the political parties have put scrutiny of contracts and public disclosures of procurement plans in the forefront.
However, few of the political parties have recognised the importance of efficient and fully commercialised parastatals that would be free from political or financial manipulation, some of the factors that have for many years run down the institutions to the point of crippling their operations.
Various pieces of legislation give the President power to, among other things, appoint members of boards of parastatals and heads of governance institutions as well as summoning meetings of Parliament.
This arrangement has created a perception among many of the appointees that they are only answerable to the appointing authority and by extension the political party in power; hence, they fail to question decisions of the Executive and facilitate abuse of resources in the name of the governing party.
The Public Service Reform Commission which Vice-President Saulos Chilima headed between 2015 and 2016 put trimming of presidential powers and right sizing the civil service at the top of the agenda.
In 2014, DPP also promised to reduce presidential powers in its manifesto but five years later, they have little to show for this in terms of action.
Apart from changing the way the director general of Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and Auditor General are appointed to include advertising for the position and instituting a panel to shortlist and interview candidates, powers of appointment to these offices still rests in the hands of the President.
Perhaps this is the reason in its 2019 manifesto, DPP has completely ignored its earlier promise and has instead reminded the other arms of government about the doctrine of separation of powers, clearly marking the territory of the Executive from influences of the Legislature and the Judiciary.
UDF has also not addressed the issue of presidential powers, preferring to promise an effective Cabinet appointed on merit not mere cronyism.
On governance, UTM Party stands on the strength of Chilima’s heading of the public sector reforms in the first years of the DPP administration voted into power in 2014.
But the UTM Party manifesto has failed to utilise that to deliver on what DPP failed to do when proposals to trim presidential powers were shot down at Cabinet level.
Instead, UTM Party has capitalised on the victimisation which Chilima has suffered as Vice-President by promising to change the role from one that is merely delegated to having powers to head at least one key ministry and enjoy the designation of Deputy Commander-in-Chief.
Reads the party’s manifesto: “At all times, the First Vice-President is a President–in–Waiting. In this regard, we, at UTM, shall propose constitutional reforms which make it clear that the Vice-President is not a mere delegate of the President.”
To their credit, UTM have consistently spoken about amending Section 91(2) of the Constitution to remove the immunity of the President from criminal prosecution while in office.
Perusing through the manifestos, MCP is the only party that has mentioned the dangers of resting powers of public appointments in the Head of State.
“To establish a public sector that is fit for purpose, the MCP government will do the following: Reduce presidential powers in public appointments to ensure that the bureaucracy is served by the best and brightest minds,” MCP says.
But governance commentator Boniface Chibwana said in an interview this week that there was too much rhetoric when it comes to reducing powers of the country’s President.
He said: “It is true that the President has too much power, especially on appointment of senior public officials. This has an implication on transparency and accountability when it comes to implementation of government policies.”
Chibwana could not see a political party that was demonstrating seriousness on reducing presidential powers, but urged active citizenship to monitor the promises made through party manifestos.
The 2017 National Anti- Corruption Conference recommended financial and operational independence of the ACB and sealing loopholes through which corruption occurs in the public service.
Since the conference, the forensic audit covering the period 2009 to 2014 has disclosed that the same five families were enjoying high valued government contracts although evidence of corruption could not be explicitly detected.
But after that conclusion, Pioneer Investments was discovered to have dubiously claimed K466 million more from the Malawi Police Service.
State capture is a word mentioned by two political parties, although in the case of UTM Party, it is in relation to operations of Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc) which it says is mired in political interference, State capture and corruption, fraud, theft and incompetence.
The 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Malawi at position 120 out of 175, down from 112 in 2015.
Perhaps it is for this reason that MCP, UDF and UTM have emphasised on the need to free ACB from political interference and entrench its operational and financial independence.
“Zero-tolerance of corruption implies stamping out the extent to which public power is exercised for private gain as well as the capture of the State by elites and private interests,” MCP states.
However, the political parties have not outlined how they would deal with perceptions of selective prosecution of cases.
ACB and even the Judiciary have not mentioned lack of capacity of the courts to deal with corruption cases, but shortage of personnel such as investigators and prosecutors on the part of ACB as well as court space in the Judiciary.
From the look of things, the political parties have addressed these issues on the surface with UDF promising to increase budget of ACB alongside other governance bodies.
UTM, on the other hand, proposed a review of the Corrupt Practices Act for the provision of adequate protection and incentives to whistle-blowers.
But while lauding itself for making room for the Office of the Director of Public Officers Declarations to operate, DPP has made no mention of non-compliance by senior government officials including Cabinet ministers.
The 2013 Cashgate forensic audit found that most civil servants and government officials disguised their ill-gotten wealth in assets like houses, farms and vehicles but without such an institution to detect this, prosecution has not occurred.
But Chibwana notes that the political parties have selfish interests for not addressing the issue openly.
“State capture happens when political parties mount expensive campaigns that do not reflect the true economic reflections on the ground. We see political parties buying a lot of cars and mounting long convoys for campaign yet they do not explain sources of their funds,” he said.
Chibwana feared lack of enforcement of the Political Parties Act would land Malawians in a situation where unknown party financiers would influence government procurements in their favour. n