Talking Blues: Is President Lazarus Chakwera still with us and for us?

Nothing for us without us is the charismatic maxim with which President Lazarus Chakwera dazzled the political scene after quitting his clerical frock. Today, that era feels like another lifetime.

Nothing for us without us has since, like a virus, mutated. During campaign time, it metamorphosed into the Chakwera Super Hi-5. Once voted into power, it has altered into nothing for you.

Where can I begin?

At the tail-end of Parliament of Malawi’s 49th Session: 3rd meeting, something odd happened. Friday, 9 July 2021, the original order paper was withdrawn, and a new one was released.

The change was the removal of Agenda Item No 3: Government Business. Bill No. 22 of 2021: Bank of Baroda (Construction of Residential Houses under the National Housing Project (Various Security Institutions) Loan (Authorization), which had been intended for a First Reading.

It also appeared on the list for Second Reading, Committee Stage, Report Stage, Third Reading.

So, going by the withdrawn Order Paper, the Bill could have exhausted due parliamentary process in a day. This Bill had only been gazetted on 7 July 2021, and here it was, two days later, sprinting for gold as if it was at the Olympics.

Since we are constantly borrowing and burrowing deeper into our man-made debt chasm, there was nothing strange with the borrowing. But the question is: who was the lender to be?

Bank of Baroda (BoB).

As per the bank’s website, BoB is an Indian state-owned International banking and financial services company with headquarters in Vadodara (earlier known as Baroda) in Gujarat, India.

According to Market Screener – a resource for investors – BoB offers the full range of banking services and operates a network of approximately 5,330 branches. So, for all intents and purposes, a bank that needs no introduction.

Back to our Bill, the money sought was ninety-eight million three hundred sixty thousand Euros (EUR 98,360,000).

What for?

  • To finance three thousand two hundred fifty-three (3,253) residential houses under the National Housing Project for various Security Institutions in Malawi.

Specifics?

  • Design of Pre-Engineered Building Structure (PEBS) and Civil Works in India and shipping to Malawi.

In short, an Indian company would:

(a) design the Pre-Engineered Building Structure.

(b) perform the civil works (foundations works and manufacturing of the PEB structure material), and

(c) transport the PEB structure material to Malawi;

where the prefabricated houses would be erected.

From what I have gathered, (a) + (b) + (c) was to cost about EUR65,000,000; i.e. two-thirds of the loan was to remain in India.

According to Pastor Martin Thom, the brains behind the near-mishap, discussions with the financier were concluded during the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, but “sabotage” was blocking implementation “by the new government”.

“My action looks like interference, but really this was to help the President who wants to see the project starting as soon as possible.”

Since Pastor Thom has been fired, President Chakwera does not seem to have bought the urgency yarn. Further, digging deeper shows that the person pushing the Bill is not a government operative at all.

It is a Blantyre-based, hitherto DPP-politically connected Indian whose family received multi-billion kwacha contracts with the MDF to supply food under the DPP.

This is the root of the problem.

The bank’s experience in South Africa is also problematic.

A simple internet search and due diligence reveal one possible factor as to why the former DPP government shied away from the loan.

According to an article written by Khadija Sharife (OCCRP) and Josy Joseph (The Hindu) on 27 February 2018 and published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) under the Global Anti-Corruption Consortium, a partnership between OCCRP and Transparency International, India’s Bank of Baroda (BoB) played a crucial role in South Africa’s Gupta scandal.

BoB’s Indian head office denied this.

However, the denial did not convince one Lord Hain, an anti-apartheid activist and House of Lords peer who pushed the British Government to probe the bank and its reported links to looted Gupta funds.

“They’re all up to their neck in this,” said Lord Hain. “They continued because, of course, the corporates concerned, including the banks, were making money out of it.”

In an article dated 22 November 2019 published by Business World India, BoB again denied allegations of corruption in South Africa operations.

Against this background, Pastor Thom thought it wise to get Malawi entangled with BoB. Why? President Chakwera has the answer.

Unlike other blunders which he can scapegoat others, e.g. Violet’s diplomatic appointment or the controversial Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill 2021, Pastor Martin Thom – his buddy and appointee – claims to have been bulldozing this scam-to-be on his behalf.

If indeed Chakwera is sincere in his distancing himself from the embattled “Mr” Martin Thom, then the reason Pastor Thom opted for shortcuts was that he knew that the Bill, due to the bank’s reputation and EUR65,000,000 remaining in India, would not get past the Cabinet.

Look here, who in his right mind would get a EUR 98,360,000 loan from the London Branch of an Indian Bank to finance the construction of houses in Malawi when two-thirds of the loan, i.e. EUR65,000,000, will create jobs in India when our own people are loitering jobless?

Who?

Even DPP saw that this was total stupidity and dropped it. Of course, with DPP, there is always the question of how much money would have gone into whose pocket. Disagreement over this is perhaps another reason the Bill did not make it to Parliament.

In fact, this bribery potential is a double-edged sword because one can also conclude that Pastor Thom’s alleged “one-man” operation was equally motivated by a strong wish to reduce the number of bribery recipients.

This then raises the question: Was the good special advisor alone? Was he in it with others? Who?

Whatever the answers, President Chakwera should learn that it is better to be alone than be in bad company. Further, if he can only maintain his old friends by doing sinful things, he definitely needs to rethink which old friends he should retain.

Let us say the BBC HARD Talk interviewer had known that Chakwera was planning to go to bed with BoB; what would have happened?

Firstly, Chakwera would have done an “Alfandika challenge”. No amount of handkerchiefs would have sufficed, and that would have been the least of his worries.

Secondly, the whole UK trip would have been a waste because if the Brits had a whiff that Malawi was happily wedding BoB, not a cent would have come our way. Given our significant dependence on Britain despite independence, that would have been a recipe for turmoil.

However, we cannot relax yet because all the ingredients that almost led us to disaster are still in place.

Indecisiveness, a self-serving and largely unsupervised cabinet supported by an inept SPC, advisors with dubious backgrounds and unclear roles, dodging alliance partners’ input on crucial decisions, crippling oversight institutions, e.g. ACB and NAO via under-funding, and of course Chakwera’s naivety or gullibility or incompetence, whichever you prefer; are still intact.

Since we all know where the problem lies and we are now tired of repeating the same advice; perhaps it is time we asked:

  • Who is President Chakwera trying to please?
  • His buddies or the voiceless masses?

Hence my question: is President Lazarus Chakwera still with us and for us?

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