President Joyce Banda is struggling to contain the largest corruption scandal in the history of Malawi.
Upon coming to power in April 2012, Malawians and international donors had high hopes for Joyce Banda’s administration. When Banda succeeded President Mutharika after his untimely death in office, she promised that her government would pursue good governance and a more consensual approach, in contrast to the increasingly authoritarian tone of the Mutharika regime.
However, Banda’s government has been hit by two controversies. The first relates to the president’s attempts to consolidate her position within the legislature. Although Banda succeeded Mutharika from the vice presidency, she had already left his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), forming her own political organization, the People’s Party (PP), in 2011.
Following Mutharika’s death a number of senior DPP leaders sought to prevent Banda from ascending to the presidency on the grounds that she had effectively left the government. A combination of donor and international pressure ensured a constitutional transfer of power, but this left Banda in a weak position within the legislature because her own party, having been formed since the last election, had no legislative representation. As a result, President Banda has been forced to construct a legislative alliance by persuading MPs from other parties to cross the floor and join the PP. This is a tried and tested political strategy in Malawi, and was central to President Mutharika’s attempts to consolidate his authority.
Under Section 65 of the Malawian constitution, MPs who cross the floor should resign their seats to contest a by-election. During the Mutharika era the failure of the Speaker to enforce this rule was a source of great controversy because it empowered the president to dominant the legislature. As a result, the failure of the Speaker to force MPs leaving their party to join the PP has raised eyebrows. In August 2012, the International Development Committee of the House of Commons in the UK noted this failure to enforce legislative rules with concern, and also commented “we have received written evidence which claims that President Banda may have strayed beyond her limit by firing certain senior officials.”
The second controversy has been described as the biggest financial scandal in Malawi’s history. It appears that government officials have been exploiting a loophole in a computer-based financial information system to misappropriate millions of pounds worth of government revenue. It is now estimated that somewhere around £150 million has gone missing, although it is not clear how much of this has occurred since Banda became president.
The scandal, known as “cashgate” came to light after the shooting of the Budget Director of the Finance Ministry and anti-corruption crusader Paul Mphwiyo, in September 2013. Days before, $330,000 had been found in the boot of a car belonging to a junior civil servant. The revelations have angered donors, who immediately withheld $150million. This represented a major challenge to the Banda government because around 40% of the annual budget is donor funded.
The scandal led to widespread criticism of the government. According to the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Lilongwe, the president was “part and parcel” of the fraud. In bid to restore the image of her government, President Banda sacked her entire cabinet on 10 October 2013. She has also taken other popular decisions, such as getting rid of the presidential jet and luxury fleet of cars. However, the president’s decision to rehire many of the same ministers just weeks later, and evidence that the plane was sold to an arms firm with government contracts that subsequently allowed the president to use the plane for free, has once again called into question her judgment. Matters were not helped by an apparent attempt by the president’s spokesperson, Steve Nhlane, to keep the public in the dark over the arrangement. When asked who was responsible for supping the jet free of charge, Nhlane responded “You do not have to know them. Besides, they have told us not to disclose their identities. That is what friends are meant for, for helping each other.”