Fighting Public Sector Culture of Corruption in Malawi Enablement Requires a Punishing Watchdog

Malawi Vice President Saulos Chilima arrested on corruption charges

Recent revelations that Malawi lost MK6 trillion between 2012 and 2021 in public funds mismanagement is a testament to the scale of the public sector corruption problem. The Auditor General’s report that MDAs collectively failed to account for MK116.8 billion in the financial year 2020/21, at a time when we are witnessing an inglorious whitewashing of the USD 14 million “Giftgate” debacle and spectacularly failing to punish current and former public officers for, much less recover, the USD 308 million of tax-payers’ money they bequeathed to themselves in the twin “Cashgate” and “Tractorgate” affairs, thanks to a watchdog that is neither deterring nor punishing the practice, is troublingly disquieting.

It has also recently been revealed that in the past three years, 7,304 Listed Public Officers (LPOs) violated the Assets Declaration Law that compels them to declare their assets. Not a single officer has been punished despite the law prescribing punitive punishments (immediate dismissal and disqualification from holding a public office for a period of three years).

To understand the wider impact of our efforts to fight public-sector corruption and a troubling tide of impunity (or its pretense), we must understand the Attorney General Thabo Chakaka-Nyirenda’s recent revelation that the country loses about 10% of GDP (annually) to corruption and the research finding that an increase in corruption by one point on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (highly clean) lowers productivity by 4% of GDP and decreases net annual capital inflows by 0.5% of GDP. Nor should we underestimate the threat a public sector corruption-ravaged economy poses to the proper functioning of economic markets, trust in government and the rule of law.

Malawi, in spite of having a comprehensive anti-corruption legislation and an anti-corruption agency with technical, operative, budgetary and decision-making autonomy, has not made a dent on corruption levels in two decades. If anything, more public officials are openly engaging in corruption and flaunting their ill-gotten prosperity.

It needs no special gift to see that public sector corruption is not eliminated by creating “laws” and “agencies” alone, but by aggressive enforcement actions (imposed and executed sanctions) that effectively deter and lead to the rejection of the practice. It is the lack of punitive measures for various corruption infractions by public officials and controlling officers that is fueling systemic public sector corruption and frustrating efforts to punish and fight the vice.

We know that the mandate to act on punishable corrupt conduct exposed by the Auditor General lies with Parliament, but Parliament has done nothing beyond summoning and asking controlling officers to “act on the findings and recommendations.” Even in cases where the findings and recommendations are detailed enough to provide names of public officers suspected to have cost taxpayers billions, no punitive actions are taken against public officers (or the controlling officers who ignore PAC’s orders).

It is, in any case, unrealistic to expect a public service sector that has over the years experienced a serious “erosion of public service ethos and integrity” and where a culture of corruption, corruption enabling, impunity and wastefulness has become so entrenched to sanction such impropriety itself. The recent President’s pardoning of corruption convicts is evidence enough about the futility of the self-policing argument.

Public sector corruption can be fought through the MPSR which holds public corruption as a misconduct or violation of the special duty a public servant has towards its Employer, not to unduly favor oneself or a third party for a benefit. But, it requires the creation of a punishing watchdog with, again, technical, operative, budgetary and decision-making autonomy, mandated to deal decisively with proven financial misconduct (irregular and unsupported expenditures) by public officers exposed by audit or a complaints mechanism. It also requires bright-lining penalties and effective enforcement actions for their violation. Hence the need for a more aggressive and independent punitive action vehicle (PAV) with powers to act on administrative complaints against public servants and expeditiously punish those responsible while referring to ACB criminal complaints for investigation and prosecution.

Finally, the corruption that is eating up the fabric of the public sector (and bedeviled us neck-deep) can only be rooted out by having a stable depoliticized workforce, meritocratic recruitment in public service (both are strongly associated with high performance and low levels of indulgence in corrupt behaviors), making corrupt behavior extremely unappealing by ruthlessly punishing corrupt behavior (with no perpetrators going unpunished) and permanently closing opportunities for corruption.

Unless aggressive enforcement action is taken against public sector corruption, it will remain a serious chokehold on developing a culture of accountable governance and responsible stewardship of public funds. No doubt, Accountability Capture 2. will be a most difficult condition to cure!