No one knows what politicians own

By Richard Lee | November 03rd, 2011
No one knows what politicians own

Malawi's Declaration of Assets law is just a rubber stamp, which is there to hoodwink people because no one has access to the records and there is no enforcement mechanism.

Section 88 A (1) of the Constitution stipulates that the President and members of cabinet must disclose all their assets, liabilities and business interests – as well as those of their spouses or any assets that are held on their behalf – upon election or appointment . Such a declaration is supposed to be made in writing to the Speaker of the National Assembly within three months of their election or appointment.

And this obligation is extended to Members of Parliament by Section 213.

But despite these very clear constitutional provisions and the importance of government officials being publicly accountable to citizens, it has proven very difficult to implement practically binding principles that are observed by those in high office. Indeed, it has become a thorny issue among politicians in Malawi as nobody wants to give details of their (often) unexplained property or wealth.

To make matters worse, even when a senior public figure makes a declaration, it is extremely difficult for the media and any interested parties like the civil society to access the documents. If you read carefully, what the Malawian media publishes is just the fact that there has been a ‘declaration of assets’ not the actual contents of the declaration.

No wonder that one of the 20 demands in the petition that civil society organisations presented to the president was for him to explain his wealth, including how he built Ndata Palace. Needless to this demand has not been addressed.

But it should not require a petition and protests and the deaths of peaceful demonstrators to secure information about the assets of the president – or other senior politicians. It should be a matter of simply wandering along to the National Assembly and knocking on the door of the Speaker of Parliament and asking him for the information.

Indeed, the Speaker did announce in 2009 that the president, cabinet ministers and MPs had declared their assets, but unfortunately the story ends there. When the media presses the details in the declarations, his response is ‘the law does not allow me to give out details’.

This shows that nobody has the mandate to peep at these documents. Unsurprisingly, this leads to widespread doubts about whether leaders really declare their assets or not. It also totally undermines the whole point of declaring assets – to be more transparent and accountable and to help tackle corruption. With the current situation, the president, cabinet ministers and MPs know that as long as they have handed in a ‘declaration of assets’, no one can question them. On top of this, there is no prescribed penalty for failure to declare assets! Talk about a toothless regulation.

Interestingly, when Bingu wa Mutharika first came to power, he was relatively open. He declared that he had assets totalling a little over US$1 million – mainly comprising his farm in Zimbabwe. But that period of openness is long and truly past. No one has any idea of his assets now.

And this lack of transparency can lead to a sense of impunity and to allegations of corruption. Publicly declaring assets tackles these problems and gives citizens more faith in their elected – and appointed – representatives. But clearly, senior government figures in Malawi are not worried about that. Or rather – they are more worried about publicly declaring what they own. I wonder why? If it is legally accrued wealth – then why not declare it?

In other countries, the media might be able to use another route to get round the Speaker’s non-disclosure by using an access to information law. But regrettably, seven years after an access to information bill was drafted, it has still not been enacted into Law – leaving Malawian citizens in the dark on many critical issues.

October column on Malawi by Theresa Kasawala

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