Bye bye boys

In the wake of the massive looting of government money known as cash-gate, Malawian President Joyce Banda came under pressure to act decisively. Civil Society leaders called on her not to shield any big wigs within her government and party and to fire any officials connected to the escalating corruption crisis.

In response, Banda did more than most people expected – by dissolving her entire cabinet. The questions on everyone’s lips were what would she do next? And what would her new cabinet look like?

October 17th, 2013

In the wake of the massive looting of government money known as cash-gate, Malawian President Joyce Banda came under pressure to act decisively. Civil Society leaders called on her not to shield any big wigs within her government and party and to fire any officials connected to the escalating corruption crisis.

In response, Banda did more than most people expected – by dissolving her entire cabinet. The questions on everyone’s lips were what would she do next? And what would her new cabinet look like?

Well, her new executive team has now been unveiled and contrary to the expectations of many commentators and the public, who called on her to opt for a leaner and completely overhauled cabinet, Banda’s reconstituted cabinet has all but five names from the previous one.

Indeed, most of the characters in the new cabinet also served – not only in Banda’s previous cabinet – but in the previous United Democratic Front and Democratic Progressive Party administrations.

So now Malawians are wondering whether the permanent axing of five ministers will make a real difference. Indeed, the question now on every Malawian’s lips is will this solve the country’s corruption crisis?

Certainly, the dropping of Ken Lipenga as Minister of Finance has been greeted with widespread approval. Since Lipenga took office under the previous administration of Bingu wa Mutharika, his reign has been blighted by a number of big scandals, which indicate – at the very least – an alarming level of incompetence and lack of seriousness.

During Bingu’s term, Lipenga’s ministry introduced foul taxes on almost all food items such as offal. This was done in order to accommodate the Zero Deficit Budget, following the suspension of aid by some key development partners. However, this ended up punishing poor Malawians – pushing them deeper into misery as they had to endure unprecedentedly high prices for basic goods and services.

It was at the peak of the ZDB fiasco – with Lipenga ‘firmly’ at the helm of finance ministry – that the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) failed to raise enough money to support the ZDB. At this point, the government connived with the tax collector to borrow money from commercial banks to hoodwink Malawians into believing that the ZDB was working.

When a member of parliament from Balaka blew the whistle in parliament about the scam – about the fact that the MRA was borrowing huge sums of money (and therefore building up more debt) to hoodwink Malawians into believing that all was well under the unpopular ZDB programme – Lipenga dismissed it as a lie.

When it was subsequently revealed to be true, Lipenga feigned ignorance.

Unsurprisingly, most Malawians called for his head over this national, financial scandal but Lipenga stuck to his guns – denying any responsibility and saying that everything happened behind his back. A commission of enquiry, which was instituted by President Banda when she came to power, exonerated him of any wrongdoing and he somehow managed to remain in charge of the nation’s financial affairs.

The simple fact is that Lipenga had to go over the MRA scandal. Even if the commission of enquiry was correct and he was not involved in anything underhand, he was clearly asleep at the tiller because surely an alert (or indeed simply awake) Minister of Finance would have been aware of borrowing on such a massive scale – and that is cause enough for being chopped.

However, he escaped censure but many felt the next big scandal was a matter of when – not if. And so it proved. Just a year down the line, Lipenga’s ministry is once again reeling following the massive plundering of taxpayers’ money – with some accounts clerks having allegedly pocketed billions of kwacha.

There was no way Lipenga – once again, whether he knew or not – could avoid the axe this time around. And his firing has been welcomed by many as ‘good riddance’.

However, interestingly some Malawians do not lay all the blame at his door, pointing out that he was appointed to the post without any financial training. Previously, Lipenga lectured in the English department of the University of Malawi before moving to journalism and then politics.

Therefore, many see the appointment of Dr Maxwell Mkwezalamba, a former World Bank economist, as an excellent step since they hope that he will now be able to bring some sanity – and dare we say it, honesty and professionalism – back to the country’s most important ministry.

The second major casualty of the re-shuffle is former Minister of Justice, Ralph Kasambara – and his sacking has also been widely welcomed. Since the shooting of Budget Director, Paul Phwiyo, the internet has been awash with rumours alleging that Kasambara was somehow connected to the possible suspects. His dismissal from office will help to pave the way for investigations that are not tainted by possible interference – and therefore discover if there is any truth at all to the rumours.

But President Banda cannot rest on her laurels. Axing some powerful cabinet ministers sends an important signal that she is committed to the fight against corruption and fraud. But the rot runs very deep and she will need to look at other officials, including high ranking bureaucrats. Indeed, the cash-gate scandal is so vast that much of Capital Hill needs a good shake-up.

 

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