Honourable Folks, the benefits of the president as stipulated in chapter 2:02 of the laws of Malawi include “duty-free importation of items for personal use”.
Was this open-cheque condition an oversight on the part of our MPs? No.
Part II of the same law puts a cap on what the vice-president can import duty-free. It specifies the importation of up to two personal motor vehicles duty-free every five years and duty-free importation of “other items for personal use”.
Likewise, Part III of the same law specifies what a former president can import duty-free. It says, on application to the minister responsible, a former president can import duty-free two personal vehicles every five years, foodstuff, personal clothing, books, magazines and periodicals and “any other necessities”.
It could be that, at the time of passing the law, MPs naively felt a president did not have to be told how to responsibly use the legal provision. Don’t the clergy sometimes tell us presidents are chosen by God and always have the welfare of their people and countries at heart?
So, how have the two past presidents used the provision?
Soon after Muluzi left the State House, the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) zeroed in on him, demanding duty for the many vehicles that he brought into the country and distributed to his loyalists and UDF officials.
The matter was brought to court, but I don’t remember how it was concluded, if it were pursued at all. Muluzi ensured the many cars he imported duty-free for UDF were registered in his name, probably so he could argue that they were for his personal use.
Of course, some of us had a very low opinion of a leader who exploited the opportunity to import items for personal use to evade tax on imports of vehicles for party use. He did not lead by example, did he?
Now, we have just learnt that Mutharika also used his privilege to bring into the country over 30 vehicles, including a tractor and probably the bus which he claimed was a donation to a lucky netball team he was sponsoring.
Did he need three dozen vehicles for personal use? The same President (Salaries and Benefits) Act provides for free transport for an incumbent president.
Even after stepping down, the Act allows a former president to import at least two vehicles duty-free every five years besides being provided with two other official vehicles, a saloon and a 10-seater four-wheel drive.
Mutharika, like Muluzi before him, simply abused the legal provision at our expense. Here was a leader who blamed the shortage of fuel in Malawi on our insatiable appetite for imported reconditioned vehicles yet he, himself, had three dozen imported vehicles he did not need in his backyard!
But no president sits in Parliament to pass bills. The law that gives the President the authority to import anything and in any quantities was passed by MPs, the so-called people’s representatives. The President simply assented to it later.
Just as was the case with the bad laws—including Section 46 of the Penal Code—which the JB administration repealed, our MPs passed a law to allow a president to import anything into the country, including unlimited number of vehicles, without any regard to the economy.
How can a poor country like Malawi, which depends on donors for over 30 percent of its public revenue, be so reckless as to allow a president to import any number of cars duty-free? In fact, the law is so open it allows the president to import virtually anything, and in any amount, duty-free, really?
Probably, this is the reason all along the head of State easily loses touch with the people. Even in times of austerity, they regard it a norm for the people to bite the lower lip and suffer deprivation while, they themselves, live in extravagance.
I doubt if the incumbent President, who is allowed by the law to import as many vehicles as she can afford duty-free, knows that we, the citizens, are required by the same laws to pay taxes that on an imported vehicle which almost match the buying price.
Reason: Government needs the money so collected for its operations which include allowing a President to bring into the country an unlimited number of cars he or she doesn’t need, of course!