It has not escaped my attention that for mentioning her biological part in public on a placard, meant to register concerns over gender-based violence, a woman has been arrested. I could join the bandwagon and offer an opinion of this very strange occurrence, but I have so many national concerns on my mind that I will leave other people to talk about that particular issue. Suffice it to say that there’s no better demonstration of backwardness than for a people who want to be modern and developed, somehow failing to get the broader point of the demonstration and getting fixated on one placard.
I was horrified, however, when I saw the hordes of supporters that went to support George Chaponda at his court appearance for the Maizegate scandal, and for me, this is a more important subject matter than the foolishness and ignorance of our police service!
You will recall that last week I discussed the changes we need to make as a nation before elections can actually be the channel for a better Malawi. I pointed out the need to first change the political framework through the constitution. I am glad that there are movements in the country that are embracing this vision.
There is a second pillar of building a developed nation that need to be addressed just as urgently as our political framework. This is the corrupt mind-set that seems to be hardwired in our DNA. Afro-pessimists must reflect gleefully on the steady stream of corruption scandals fixating the post-dictatorship Malawian media. After all, this is Africa, they say knowingly, and we are merely following the continental way of doing things.
But, before we resign ourselves to the inevitable folly of human beings being seduced by the lure of easy money, let us think about the notion of “corruption” a bit more.
There is something revealing in the trials of public officials who have gained financially through the offices they have held that reflects a wider ethos in our society. If you think about the supportive crowds that George Chaponda and Bakili Muluzi get at their corruption trials, and the fact that we are happy to continue to uplift Joyce Banda as a model of honour and praise Peter Mutharika even as he evidently fails to root out corrupt ministers from his cabinet, you then begin to realise that the Malawian public has a very dysfunctional appreciation of the concept of corruption.
You see, what this tells us is that any leader who ascends to the presidency, no matter how corrupt, will still have ready supporters yelling at the top of their voices that he or she is the best thing to ever happen to Malawi.
I always end up flabbergasted by these demonstrations of support, because what is at stake is a clear matter of guilt or innocence, with no mitigating grey areas.
Well, perhaps it is not that clear. As a matter of fact, if corruption is to be dealt with effectively it cannot be understood by a simple recourse to human nature. It will have to be analyzed in its historical context.
Some years ago Nigerian political theorist Peter Ekeh applied his mind to the question of “corruption” in Africa. Recall that the excess of “petrodollars” in the 1970s was translated into easily available International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to many African leaders. Multinationals seeking preferential trade and investment opportunities made possible by these loans, also offered many African leaders informal financial and material “incentives,” making public office a lucrative business proposition, and along the way propping up some of the most authoritarian regimes on the continent.
By the 1980s, as the repayments of loans became an issue and structural adjustment policies became the panacea, conditions such as “transparency” were applied to future lines of credit and investment. “Corruption”—the very practices that were used to good effect by multinational agencies and companies—became the bane of existence for many leaders seeking to quench their thirst at the now-dripping taps that once gushed credit.
In a seminal article, Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa (1975), Nigerian Professor Peter Ekeh showed that the effect of indirect colonial rule in Africa had created a set of loyalties and obligations different to those common in modern European societies.
As an African, one felt an obligation, Ekeh argued, to the “rural,” or to the ethnic community, since it was there that you had not only things you were entitled to but also obligations for which you had to account. This legacy, Ekeh argued, continues in the postcolonial period, where the realm of “civil society” is seen as something from which one extracts maximum benefit, but towards which one feels minimum obligation or accountability.
Political theorist John Rawls then argued that modern liberal societies aspire to a notion of “justice as fairness.”
It is this notion that makes corruption illegal in our society, because it implies someone has gained through a process in which we did not all have an equal opportunity to compete. A tender process in which some benefit from an influence that others do not have on the decision-makers would not be seen as just because it is not fairly administered or contested.
It seems to me that in this regard then, many Malawians have never experienced any level playing fields, nor do they see them as being level today. This is the legacy bequeathed to us by our colonial and dictatorial past. As a result, people who come into public office think that corruption is fairness: why stick to the rules when the rules of the game have never been in your favour?
Thinking that it is acceptable to use any means necessary to get a good deal is a jetlagged ethic bequeathed to us by the colonialism and MCP’s dictatorial oppression.
That the “leaders” who are implicated in corrupt practices often feel self-righteous about what they have done, and in fact talk about their convictions as a travesty of justice akin to the dictatorial era, and have supporters who think they have done nothing wrong and consider the legal process unfair, is indicative of this way of thinking about the law.
Malawi needs address this mind-set and reconcile the two distinct and often-conflicting notions of justice: popular justice and legal justice.
Until as a nation we realise that it is legal justice that must be the popular form of justice and stop using partisan reasoning to support clearly corrupt leaders, we will continue to have national leadership whose main intention in public office is to loot and plunder.
Why should they be afraid of being caught in corruption scandals when they know that no matter how corrupt they get, they will always be supported because they belong to the party you support?