Newspaper article International New York Times

Lethal Malfeasance in Malawi

Newspaper article International New York Times

Lethal Malfeasance in Malawi

Article excerpt

Unlike past corruption, this was direct theft from government accounts.

Who is responsible when the trunks of government officials' cars are stuffed with bank notes while public hospitals are short on life- saving supplies?

In Malawi, a landlocked southern African state where more than half the population lives on a dollar a day, blame has fallen on the reformer: President Joyce Banda. Malawi is reeling from a $50 million corruption scandal that has seen Ms. Banda's budget director shot in the face (he survived) and her justice minister charged with attempted murder (he's out on bail).

Cashgate, as the affair is called, is dwarfed in size by the corruption of earlier administrations: Government investigators believe $500 million in donor money was lost to graft during the eight-year reign of Ms. Banda's predecessor. But the scam stands out for its brazenness and its violence.

It also stands out for the president's willingness to jail her own officials for their alleged involvement: Sixty-eight people have been arrested since the looting was discovered in September, Ms. Banda said in an interview with a group of foreign journalists, myself among them, at her official residence on Dec. 13.

The president is eager to convince Malawians that she is uniquely placed to battle her country's ills. But more than a year and a half into her tenure it looks like the system she talks of reforming may be her downfall.

Ms. Banda became president in April 2012 after the incumbent, Bingu wa Mutharika, died of a heart attack. In the eyes of Western governments, she was a dream successor: focused on health and development, untainted by corruption.

The daughter of a musician in the Malawi police band, Ms. Banda started a private girls' school and a charitable foundation before entering government as minister for gender and community services in 2004 and then serving as foreign minister. Mr. Mutharika used to rage against "imperialists" and persecute gays, and Malawi's G.D.P. dropped by nearly 15 percent during his second term. But Ms. Banda, who was elected vice president in 2009, talked of bringing down maternal mortality and improving education. She was embraced by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Then came Cashgate. A coterie of officials, senior bureaucrats and businessmen allegedly stole from the public treasury using a computerized system that allowed them to erase all record of the theft. Unlike past corruption, which typically involved over- invoicing and kickbacks, this was direct theft from government accounts. Soon Malawi's treasury felt a chill: Donor states started withholding aid, which makes up 40 percent of the country's budget.

Nothing seizes attention like a senior official with a bullet wound. But in Malawi political graft is just one facet of a broken administration: Corruption is both a product and a driver of poor governance; the looser the system, the easier it is to steal from it. …

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