By Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga
Nothing escapes notice in Malawian society, which makes it surprising that people seem to get away with so much. People's awareness doesn’t translate into calling out misdeeds. At best, people shrug away misconduct so it becomes a subject of lunchtime banter or tavern palaver instead of indignation and action. One may blame the lack of political and legal resolve to enforce and apprehend criminal behavior, but I believe it’s the fault of society’s moral compass.
One needs only to look at the public reaction to Cashgate, a financial scandal in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, in late 2013, involving theft and corruption among high- and low-ranking government officials. Almost 1 percent of Malawi’s annual GDP, approximately $32 million, was stolen in only six months. People saw civil servants buying houses in new suburbs; government clerks and officials were found with large sums of money; an official of the Ministry of Finance was shot outside his home. But when Cashgate was exposed, Malawians feigned surprise and expressed moral indignation. They behaved as though they were hearing or noticing it for the first time, while they were, in fact, talking about it all along. The indignation people expressed in the wake of Cashgate was nothing but crocodile tears.
Is Malawian society so morally bankrupt that such things happen? This moral deficit is perhaps surprising given that 80 percent of the population identifies as Christian, over 15 percent as Muslim, and the rest belonging to other religions. By and large, Malawi is a morally and socially conservative society. So why does it have to take foreign governments to hurl the first verbal or written scolding for Malawians to join the chorus? More often than not Malawian society tends to express outrage only after the diplomatic corps (such as the EU, U.S., British, and German Ambassadors) raise alarm over such issues. It’s as if Malawian moral outrage has to be coaxed out by the fear of possible strain of relationships with, and the consequent withholding of aid by, the donor community.
Malawi has resources and heritage, both traditional and religious, to draw upon when making moral decisions. It's time Malawians did just that. The question of moral decision-making needs to become part of public discourse in order to build a better and more prosperous Malawi. The same people who talk about modest dress, sexual purity, and law and order should be able to talk about personal and social responsibility in matters of public office. People cannot continue to treat public officers’ immorality with indifference and excuse their behavior on the pretext of low pay. Society should hold them accountable. In May 2014, Joyce Banda lost the presidential election because Cashgate happened under her watch. It seemed the people finally found their voice, but was that enough?
The same audit report that exposed Cashgate suggests this isn't the first time the government has pilfered public coffers: The irregularities go as far back as the 1990s. The new millennium didn't bring a culture different from the one during the time of Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first president from 1966 until 1994. The same happened then under a different guise. Ministerial and local party leadership positions came with perks that made appointees rich overnight and gave them access to the largesse of the state and the elites. People amassed great wealth fraudulently and got away with it in the name of “their Kamuzu.” In turn, lower-ranking government officers abused telephones, electricity, and other privileges as part of their “entitlement” and revenge. Certain terms and expressions became part of the culture: Ndizaboma meant, “It belongs to government and is thus fair game.” Amadyela m’momo meant, “That’s how they make ends meet,” referring to the low pay in Malawi. Anagwira yotentha meant, “They hit the jackpot,” leading to “amadyela m’momo.” So when government officials—such as Victor Sithole, a government assistant accountant who was caught with hundreds of thousands of dollars in his car trunk—were caught carrying large amounts of cash and acquiring property above their pay grade, Malawian society saw nothing wrong with the activity. The culture of impunity prevailed.
Even more surprising is that the banking industry played along and has so far not been held accountable in the current prosecution. The money the officials were caught carrying could not be re-banked due to money laundering regulations, even though that very money was withdrawn from banks in contravention of these same regulations. The mansions that have aroused such outcry were built in plain sight, with none of the low-ranking government officials who built them taken to task or investigated until after Cashgate was exposed. The Fiscal Police Unit cannot claim they didn't know about the mansions, but some were built in Area 43, near the National Police Headquarters. The public knew what was going on but didn’t care because the wrongdoing was perpetrated by the government. Malawian society’s perception of the government is that it is an entity unto itself whose workings have nothing to do with the people—a perception that extends to the looted government coffers. In the people's minds, the government should be able to look after itself and its interests, and the looting serves the government right. The government’s interests are not understood to be the people’s interests.
Virtuous people expose their moral bankruptcy when they keep silent in the face of wrongdoing. As the Bible reminds us, “Whoever knows the right thing to do, yet fails to do it, is guilty of sin.” Unless Malawians begin to make moral decisions and express moral indignation appropriately and timely, scandals such as Cashgate will continue to be the order of the day. Such is the extent of Malawi’s moral deficit.
Rt. Rev. James Tengatenga, PhD is former bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Southern Malawi and is professor of global Anglicanism in the School of Theology at the University of The South, Tennessee.
[Photo courtesy of Chatham House]