Malawians have every reason to be furious at President Joyce Banda’s government for letting the genie out of the bottle.
After stonewalling queries into Cashgate and the shady sale of the presidential jet, the government finally wants to put the genie back in the bottle apparently afraid the scandals will play into the opposition’s hands. The country holds its general elections in two months.
When she assumed office in 2010, President Banda said Malawi would get rid of the presidential jet whose purchase infuriated the country’s main benefactor, Britain, which argued that poor Malawi had its priorities wrong.
Last year the jet, bought by Banda’s predecessor, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, was disposed of but details of the deal reached in July 2013 were not released. But Nation on Sunday revealed last month that proceeds from the sale did not hit Account Number One at the central bank as expected, raising fears that the money had been embezzled.
President Banda told reporters last week the money was used to buy medicines, farm inputs and military equipment. But Banda’s explanation had little impact on a skeptical public. To clear the air, Finance Minister Maxwell Mkwezalamba, Secretary to Government Hawa Ndilowe and Defense Minister Ken Kandodo met with members of the press on March 5.
Ndilowe acknowledged her office mislead the public when it said funds from the sale of the jet were deposited into an offshore account, the Daily Times reported.
Mkwezalamba, according to The Nation, said the jet was exchanged without using money. He said Malawi, which owed military equipment supplier Paramount Group $19 million, sold the jet to Bohnox Enterprises for $15 million, but later realized the company was part of Paramount.
The finance minister said cash flow problems prevented Malawi from paying for the equipment so with advise from the Attorney General, “it was agreed that Bohnox Entreprises clear the amount with Paramount” which Malawi now owes $4 million.
Government then reallocated funds in the budget for military spending to buy maize and medicines.
“There was no cover up at all,” Mkwezalamba said.
Francis Kasaila who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee of Parliament (BFCP) says the Constitution gives powers to parliament to direct how revenue is spent. But in this case it was the Executive that facilitated the transfer of money from Bohnox to Paramount, making the move unconstitutional, therefore illegal.
“There are so many unanswered questions in this transaction,” Kasaila told The Nation. “If they saw the need to spend extra money, they could have waited for parliament…to seek authorization. They lied to Malawians that we had received proceeds from the jet sale.”
But Mkwezalamba said government intended to explain what had happened to parliament during the mid-term budget review in June.
Taking the government at its word is not easy for many believe it did not volunteer this information.
Following the disposal of the jet last year, former ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) challenged the government to prove that Banda was not using the same plane “she swore to the Malawi nation and the world at large she would never fly in.
“There must be some underground deals with the buyer of the plane,” DPP Secretary General Jean Kalirani said in a statement.
“We know the plane was sold to a company called Bohnox Enterprises Limited” which is owned by Paramount, the same “the company which paid the UK PR firm (Bell Pottinger) which came to Malawi to clean up the President’s image in the face of the Cashgate scandal.”
Cashgate is another scandal that has rocked the Banda administration. It came to light last year that government paid millions of dollars for goods and services that were never delivered to some entities owned by senior members of the president’s party.
In an attempt to get to the bottom of the financial scandal, Britain financed a forensic audit and the report by a British firm which conducted the probe has just been released. The report however does not name names, a development that has angered many in the country. The government, whose position has been bolstered by the UK, has refused to expose the names, arguing that doing so would compromise court cases.
And President Banda, believing critics are baying for her blood, says the probe into $30 million looted under her watch must also investigate the $204 million lost in 2010 “when some of us were not there”.
Banda, a deputy to Mutharika who won another five-year term in 2009, assumed power in 2012 after Mutharika’s sudden death to finish his term. She was expelled from DPP over succession fights but remained Malawi’s Vice President.
As she seeks her own mandate, the two developments, Cashgate and the sale of the jet, have caused damage as her government is seen as not telling the truth about its dealings. Her promise to be a different kind of leader has been broken and the call by Civil Society and opposition for swift and decisive action on the scandals is getting louder but will Parliament act?
We know that the jet deal bypassed parliament and for that reason the people of Malawi. If MPs are convinced that the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, was breached then it must act. Parliament must censure or take an even bigger step in impeaching the president. It does not necessarily mean the president has to leave office but Parliament, which represents the people, would officially have put on record its strong disapproval of the president’s conduct.