Human rights activist Ben Chiza Mkandawire has asked the Malawi government to freeze the accounts of late Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika and proble his dealings with some local and international companies. Mkandawire has since urged government to put in adequate security in some state and private institutions to avoid the concealment of evidence of abuse of office and corruption during the thirty day mourning period of the demise of Mutharika.
The progression of democratic values and beliefs in Malawi since the attainment of multiparty politics in 1994 following thirty years of one party dictatorship is as sad as the country’s one-step-forward two-steps-backward economic performance. When President Bakili Muluzi took over government from aging iron fisted despot Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda in 1994, the country was reeling from international isolation and economic sanctions accruing from a string of human rights abuses, bad governance and reports of an unexplained acquisition of wealth reportedly exceeding US$445m in local investments such as the Press Trust, Kamuzu Academy – the Eton of Africa, Chayamba building, Chamwabvi and other estates, and multimillion mansion Nguluyanawambe as well as in other millions stashed away and laundered in London and the United States of America.
Graham Carr, the interim administrators of Banda’s estate, reported that as at 31 August 1999, the fallen dictator’s wealth was estimated at US$319.5m. The administrators also reported that Dr Banda might also have had interests in a South African mining firm. The Bakili Muluzi regime, riding on a popular wave of political wind of change that was sweeping Africa, and fighting to ascertain its relevance to the principles of multiparty democracy and “power to the people” ideology, took Banda’s estate under a microscopic investigation. In the end, Press Group Limited, which in the 1970’s had expanded rapidly, and by 1979 had interests in 17 subsidiary companies and 23 associated companies, was reverted to government after it had been rigorously debated on both in court and in parliament as to its true ownership. For decades, the company’s economic presence in Malawi had been inextricably linked with Banda and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) despite, President Banda himself establishing it and incorporating it as a charitable Trust under the Press Trust Deed in 1982. In 1995, the National Assembly passed the Press Trust Reconstruction Act, which redefined Press Trust’s charitable intentions. In January 1997, the Supreme Court of Malawi upheld the legitimacy of the Act that gave the company certainty of ownership.
After Banda’s death at Garden City Clinic in South Africa, in November 1997, at the age of 101, efforts to unknot the former president’s wealth drew a blank mostly because most financial institutions demanded Banda’s death certificate before they could release records. Unfortunately, the certificate could not be traced. The administrators raised the red flag fearing that the missing death certificate and the lack of co-operation from those who were supposed to be in the know would derail and delay the conclusion of court cases surrounding the distribution of the estate. Meanwhile, Graham Carr managed to trace two British financial institutions, NatWest Bank, which held £17,374.83 ($26,000) and Invesco Unit Trust who had £320,015.39 ($480,000) of Banda’s investments. A South African Institute of Security Studies research intern, Daniel Scher in 2005 opined that asset recovery attempts are complicated in most African countries because those who are implicated are usually powerful and hold influence. “Thus it is an unenviable task for any government, let alone one operating in an environment with few anti-corruption institutions and often with limited state capacity to recover looted assets,” he observed. Scher however, noted that there are potential rewards, in the form of the recovery of money into development-starved nations that make the exercise an attractive undertaking. Malawi is predominantly an agricultural nation, with about 90% of the population living in rural areas. The landlocked country ranks among the world’s least developed countries.
Agriculture accounts for 37% of GDP and 85% of export revenues with few exploitable mineral resources. The economy depends on donor support inflows from the Breton Woods institutions, IMF and World Bank, and other individual donor nations. The government faces strong challenges to spur exports, improve education and health facilities, fight environmental problems of deforestation and soil erosion, and to deal with the rapidly growing problem of HIV and AIDS. The country’s reliance on the export of agricultural commodities renders it particularly vulnerable to external shocks such as declining terms of trade and drought. High transport costs, which can comprise over 30% of its total import bill, constitute a serious impediment to economic development and trade. Progress towards reaching the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty has been limited. According to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report, about 74 per cent of the population still lives below the income poverty line of US$1.25 a day and 90 per cent below the US$2 a day threshold. The proportion of poor and ultra-poor is highest in rural areas of the southern and northern parts of the country In his first term of rule between 1994 and 1999, the Muluzi regime set out to put in place democratic institutions. The separation of powers between the executive body of government, the legislature and the judiciary, which was synonymous with the ruling MCP during Banda’s reign, was made distinct.
The government created the Anti-corruption Bureau (ACB), the office of the Ombudsman and the set up the office of the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) among other democratic institutions, all to provide checks and balance in the affairs of the state. Unfortunately, after the re-election into government of Muluzi and his United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1999, the character and party that had endeared themselves with the people begun to loose the plot. Politics of patronage slipped in as the president worked up ways to consolidate power and entrench himself as the country’s knight in shining armor. In Malawi’s Political Settlement in Crisis, Diana Cammack, a Research Associate of the Overseas Development Institute in London observed that without the accountability mechanisms of a well-developed democracy, neopatrimonial logic dominated Muluzi style of governance. Cammack who also leads the Local Governance & Leadership stream of the Africa Power and Politics programme wrote; “Initially Muluzi followed donor advice and relied on advisors who prioritised development, but within a few years he had surrounded himself with politicians who had an interest in short-term gains and aimed to use state resources, aid and the development process to stay in power and get rich. Corruption, starting at the top, extended to the grassroots, where public goods and rents were dispensed according to party affiliation. “Disregard for old regulations reached the point where public servants were afraid to implement them,” she explained pointing out that social and economic indicators plummeted as “Politics overwhelmed sound economic planning and execution, and construction and repair of infrastructure lagged far behind mounting needs”.
After a failed attempt to prolong his stay in power in 2003, Muluzi handpicked Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, an economist who had been sacked from the Common Market of East and Southern Africa (COMESA) as secretary general on allegations of abuse of office and financial mismanagement, to succeed him. Wanting to be his own self, Mutharika broke ranks with Muluzi and formed his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2005. To garner public sympathy, he set out on an anti corruption drive targeting Muluzi and his henchmen. Muluzi was accused of selling maize reserves, Malawi’s staple diet, in time of famine without turning over the proceeds into government coffers. It is widely suspected that the money wound up in foreign accounts belonging to the former president and his supporters. In 2006, Muluzi was arrested on fraud and corruption charges but he was later released on bail. Without giving reasons, President Mutharika suspended the anti-corruption bureau’s chief investigator Gustav Kaliwo while the Director of Public Prosecutions Ishmael Wadi dropped the charges. The Malawi president then demanded the resignation of the top prosecutor for withdrawing the charges. But Wadi said with the suspension of the ACB chief, the bureau had no powers to prosecute. ”I would like Mr Ishmael Wadi, the director of public prosecutions, to tender his resignation within the next 24 hours. In other words by noon tomorrow, Friday 11 August 2006, I would like to receive his resignation letter on my desk,” Mutharika told reporters during the opening of an agricultural fair. Mutharika said Wadi’s decision to drop the charges ”has done the country more harm than he realises”. ”This withdrawal has destroyed my credibility as president against corruption but also the credibility of this country globally,” he said.
Meanwhile, a cross-section of law students of the University of Malawi’s constituent college, Chancellor College, at a symposium on “The law and the recovery of benefits unjustly accruing to public functionaries: Solutions for Malawians” called on the Bureau to probe the former president to establish how he amassed wealth during his 10-year reign. But the ACB refused, saying nobody had made an official complaint against the former head of state despite Section 32 of the Corrupt Practices Act (CPA) stipulating that the ACB may investigate any public officer where there are reasonable grounds to believe that such public officer maintains a standard of living above that which is commensurate with his present or past official emoluments or other known sources of income. The symposium, which was attended by the then Attorney General Ralph Kasambara and Director of Public Prosecutions Ishmael Wadi before they fell out of grace with Mutharika, agreed that government would look at whether property found to have been amassed through corrupt means could be recovered. Muluzi was once more arrested on 26 February 2009 and initially charged with 86 counts of corruption and abuse of office. He is being accused of allegedly diverting US$11m of donor money into his personal account.
The said money, among others, came from the Republic of Taiwan, the Kingdom of Morocco and Libya. The case has, meanwhile, since lost steam. National asset looting has a significant element in foreign aid. Scher observes that with global strategic interests at play, donor governments overlook pillaging of aid and state coffers for continued support. He goes on to point at multinational companies, particularly those in the oil and construction industry, as front runners in providing bribes to grease the wheels of government contracts. “Contracts which themselves are often bloated as a reciprocal back-scratching.” Two other countries that attempted the asset recovery campaigns are Nigeria and Kenya. Nigeria achieved some success after its then president Olusegun Obasanjo managed to strike a deal with Sani Abacha’s family to return US$1 billion, an equivalent of almost 9 per cent of Nigeria’s 2004 national budget. According to an ISS Africa Security Review, the out-of-court settlement allowed the family to keep US100 million leaving the family with an overall asset value of US$300 million, a significant sum in a country with an annual per capita income of US$1, 000. The deal was arrived at after the government realized that the family was well financed to fund a legal battle that could end up eating more government money through lawyers’ fees than they would have recovered. In the Kenyan scenario, the campaign got stuck in a maze of investigations that exposed US$1 billion worth of stashed away assets in shares in London hotels and dealings with international banks in UK and Switzerland.
The campaign hit a blank when president Mwai Kibaki’s anti corruption drive lost steam against his predecessor Daniel Arap Moi following the resignation of anti corruption chief John Githongo whose life was under threat because of the investigations. The campaign also faced resistance from the country’s own judiciary. However, Scher feels that sustained and increasing pressure needs to be placed on corrupt leaders through assets recovery campaigns that would see both the money being reclaimed and justice being done. “Leaders need to be made aware that they will be accountable financially and legally, even if it is only at some point in future,” he says. Scher nevertheless observes that the major obstacles to assets recovery campaigns are state capacity, political will and funding constraints. Mutharika came into the light of Malawian politics when he contested for the state presidency in the general elections of 1999 under the banner of his now defunct United Party where he polled last with less than 1% of the total votes cast. By then he had just been sacked as COMESA secretary general for what the regional body termed as “glaring instances of mismanagement of the resources of COMESA”. A committee which recommended his removal observed that Mutharika used substantial funds of the institution on missions to Malawi (his home) and Zimbabwe where his wife resides on their farm. “COMESA funds these missions, which we have established are primarily private in nature” says a report made public after he got elected as Malawi’s president. In 2005 The Zimbabwean Standard newspaper reported that the Malawian president acquired Bineth Farm in Zimbabwe located some 20 km outside Kadoma along the Sanyati – Gokwe Road.
Apart from the farm, Mutharika has been known to own only one mini bus that was plying the streets of Lilongwe before he was president. He was not known to have owned a home but lodged with friends and sympathizers. When he ascended to the presidency, in 2004 Mutharika declared his total assets to be around one million US dollars (MK150m) in assets both in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Mutharika deposited the records with Parliament in August, 2004. After seven years at the helm of government, he was a proud owner of farms in Kasungu, Salima, Mitundu- Bunda, and the most famed glamorous Ndata Estate. This is apart from real estates in Lilongwe and Blantyre including one brought from Muluzi.
Emerging reports allege that the Malawi head of state also owned a hotel, a villa and a yatch in Portugal. Mutharika was also founder and chairman of the Bineth Trust and the Bingu Silvergrey Foundation. He is also the founder of the Malawi University of Science and Technology which is being constructed on his Ndata estate land. Following growing displeasure with his bad political and economic governance and abuse of human rights, civil rights activists last year asked the Speaker of the Malawi National Assembly to divulge the details of Mutharika’s current wealth. But the Speaker, refused, prompting the Malawi Law Society (MLS) and civil society organisations to accuse him of shielding the president, who they argue, should be accountable to Malawians who put him in office.
In a petition civil society organisations gave to government during the July 20 protests against Mutharika’s style of leadership, the organisations queried how Mutharika amassed his wealth, citing the construction of his Ndata mansion at his farm in Thyolo. The cost of the residence, said to have been constructed as a gift by Portuguese construction giant, Mota Engil, is a guarded secret but is speculated to be around US$3million. The mill has it that Portuguese, Chinese and Australian money are much behind Mutharika’s wealth. The 20 point petition demands that the president fully declare his assets and explain sources of funds to acquire his current wealth. “During his second terms of office, the current President appears to have amassed significant wealth that does not tally with his salary of approximately $12,000 per month. Within three years of being power in 2007, Mutharika purchased land in Thyolo [his home district] at an alleged price of about $42,000. He then proceeded to develop part of the land at an exorbitant cost which requires clear explanation to allay suspicion,” reads the petition in part
Section 88 of the Constitution requires the President and Members of Parliament to declare their assets within three months after an election. Section 88 (3) reads: ”The President and members of the Cabinet shall not hold any other public office and shall not perform remunerative work outside the duties of their office and shall, within three months from the date of election or appointment, as the case may be, fully disclose all of their assets, liabilities and business interests, and those of their spouses, held by them or on their behalf as at that date; and, unless Parliament otherwise prescribes by an Act of Parliament, such disclosure shall be made in a written document delivered to the Speaker of the National Assembly who shall immediately upon receipt deposit the document with such public office
as may be specified in the Standing Orders of Parliament.”
Chairperson of the NGOs group in the July 20 petitions, Voice Mhone, confirmed that the declaration of the president’s assets is one of their demands which is yet to be tackled in the dialogue with government. Chairperson of the Declaration of Assets Committee in Parliament, Nick Masebo, said his committee has no information on whether Mutharika declared his assets. But he said MPs did so during their swearing in ceremony. Said Masebo:”As a committee, we have not probably gone into having an activity trying to find out whether all eligible people have declared their assets. As for MPs, as far as I know, when we were sworn in we were given forms which we filled, declaring assets and I did it. The Speaker is the right person to tell if all eligible people to declare assets have done so.” Former Speaker of Parliament Sam Mpasu recently told the Sunday Times that the law on assets was weak as it does not require the declaration of assets when leaving office to measure if the wealth a person has matched his or her income. Last week, Mutharika died of cardiac arrest. But will Malawians be told how he acquired his vast wealth in a short period? Or like his predecessors, should the country continue to dance to the anti corruption slogan that is only lip service and does not pay dividends to the ordinary Malawian people?
News coming out from the media say he had millions of US dollars and Malawi Kwachas stashed in a room in his state residence. Despite having the Anti Corruption Bureau, the institution has lost public trust as it is seen as a tool by the ruling elite to intimidate and oppress political opposition members. Also as long as the accused have power and influence, justice for the masses is a far fetched dream.