Josephine Chinele

Malawi | Punished for not being corrupt

Not every civil servant in Malawi is corrupt- many just want to do their job and be paid. But rot within Malawi’s state systems makes honesty very difficult. How ‘the cartels’ protect their grip on power.

As a van with ‘Central Medical Stores’ written on its side in bold text arrives at the health centre in Nsanje, the southernmost district in Malawi, residents quickly surround it. They are surprised, because actual deliveries of health supplies to the area are a rarity. But disappointment quickly replaces excitement- it’s only condoms and gloves, and their long wait for essential medication continues.

Nsanje is the second poorest district in the country, and its health facilities regularly experience acute medicine shortages. Patients are instead routinely given prescriptions and sent to buy what they need from private pharmacies, including even common staples such as paracetamol. Meanwhile Malawi receives substantial donor funding, in part to ensure that basic medicines are available to the public for free.

Here we are, receiving condoms when we need drugs

When questioned about this, most health functionaries blame unspecified shortages. But Mathias Chilumba, who represents a grouping of 256 villages in the district, suspects that the cause might be a little less mysterious. 'Processes at central level […] are prone to corruption’, he says. ‘Here we are, receiving condoms when we need drugs.’ In recent years the government has frequently spoken of ending corruption. ‘If they are serious, then why aren’t they empowering district councils to procure drugs directly from pharmacies with our (community) involvement?’ asks Chilumba.

He receives around 25 reports each day from people returning home with a prescription instead of medicines, he says, and it infuriates him. ‘These people can’t even afford to buy a packet of salt or sugar. Where would they get money to buy medicine?’ Chilumba longs for the day when he can tell top government officials that they are hypocrites. ‘Stop corruption- this is killing our poor people!’ he says, angrily.

If you want to be clean, make sure you are also very careful

According to Transparency International, Malawi is actually moving backwards in its fight against corruption. The southern African state has dropped seven points on the index since 2012, putting it below Panama and Ivory Coast. Political events such as changes of government don’t seem to make a difference. ‘There is a deep feeling that when a particular party is in power or position of privilege, it’s their time to make money’, notes Michael Kaiyatsa, the executive director for the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), a Malawian NGO.

Not every civil servant in Malawi is corrupt- many just want to do their job and be paid. But rot within Malawi’s state systems makes honesty very difficult. One public servant, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, described the feeling. ‘When you want to do what’s right, you become an island. You are unpopular and the corrupt system fights back. If you want to be clean, make sure you are also very careful.’ Another government worker, also speaking on condition of anonymity, tells a similar story. ‘I have faced victimisation because I refused to play ball for the government. The worst was when influential politicians forced me to pay for work they never did. I refused and this led me into trouble.’


Civil servants who invite the anger of their bosses can expect a range of consequences. 'These people can victimise you. They mobilise people you serve, or your juniors, to show that you are incompetent. If they can’t fire you due to industrial labour issues, they send you to “Guantanamo”’, explains one source. Guantanamo is a byword for internal exile. This informal punishment awaits those accused of crimes ranging from associating with people who are enemies of the ruling party, to refusing to ‘play ball’ and engage in corruption. Those who are sent to “Guantanamo” are given a duty station with no work attached. ‘The officers have a desk, chair and maybe in rare cases a newspaper but are not assigned anything to do’, one civil servant explains. ‘But they get all their entitlement benefits including a full salary.’

The most difficult is receiving calls from ‘above’ to authorise payments

With a person’s career so easily put on ice, many do end up “playing ball”,’ explain officers. ‘The most difficult is receiving calls from ‘above’ to authorise payments to certain individuals,’ sighs one. ‘You can’t question such directives; you just comply to keep your job, and the peace.’

The civil servants I spoke to expressed despair, describing the system as being ‘too rotten’. The corruption scandals being exposed are just the tip of the iceberg, they say, and while a few cases end up in court each year, those involving senior officials and public figures are hardly ever adequately prosecuted. ‘If you want corruption to be dealt with, it has to be done from top to bottom,’ summarises one.


The ACB director’s body was found half buried in Lilongwe

Guantanamo is a minor threat, however, compared with what might happen. In 2015 Issa Njauju’s corpse was found half buried in Lilongwe, with his vehicle burnt to ashes at a different location. At the time of his death he was the Director of Corporate Affairs at the government’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), the only institution in Malawi that has powers of arrest for charges relating to corruption. At a press conference a few months later, Police Commissioner Richard Luhanga did not rule out a connection between the murder and Njauju’s anti-corruption work.

In 2020, after the swearing-in of President Lazarus Chakwera, his predecessor Peter Mutharika’s bodyguard and head of security Norman Chisale was arrested for Njauju’s murder, as well as on a host of corruption charges. In March last year, prosecutors obtained a court order allowing them to seize some of Chisale’s wealth. This included 78 luxury vehicles, two bank accounts and twelve properties. According to a source close to the investigation, two properties in Russia, three in South Africa and a mall in Zambia are also linked to Chisale, whose official salary during his time working for the president was approximately US$1,500/month. He is still free on bail, and his case is still pending before the high court.

The forces of corruption claimed another victim in February this year, when the body of Alinafe Bolongwe was found in his bathroom, badly beaten and suffocated with a piece of rope. Bonongwe, the Malawi Revenue Authority Station Officer for Dedza, on the Mozambique border, was described in a public statement by his employers as being well-known for ‘tirelessly waging war against corruption and smuggling’. President Chakwera, who campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, also issued a statement commending Bonongwe for standing up to “lawless and corrupt cartels”, despite receiving death threats. As of May 2022, five suspects have been arrested on charges related to the murder.

The ‘Malawian Don’ over-invoiced the state for food rations

Remarkably, just three months after President Chakwera’s forceful statement on the Bonongwe case, his own Vice-President, Inspector General of Police, and Chief of Staff were all named by Malawi’s Platform of Investigative Journalism as being on a list of people under investigation by the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA) in relation to inflated contracts between top Malawian government officials and a UK-based businessman, Zuneth Sattar, nicknamed the ‘Malawian Don’.

Sattar is alleged to have issued fraudulent invoices to the state of Malawi for items including armoured personnel carriers, water cannons and food rations. This sort of corruption, which is often hard to identify while incredibly lucrative to its participants, costs state coffers vast sums each year across the world as governments end up overpaying for goods that they could get more cheaply elsewhere. According to the PIJ, the NCA’s investigation is also looking at other Malawi government staff including cabinet ministers, senior members of the military and high-level police officials in connection with Sattar’s inflated contracts.

‘I am just as frustrated as you’, says the president

Malawi’s law enforcement authorities have seemed uninterested in playing a part in the investigation. When Zuneth Sattar visited the country in March this year unimpeded, President Chakwera responded to criticism by saying that he was ‘just as frustrated as you (…) to hear that the British suspect was not arrested or questioned’ during this visit. The National Intelligence Service issued a statement stating that it had not been informed that (Sattar) was a wanted man, while the Malawi Police explained that Sattar was not on their radar and that they should have been alerted by the Anti-Corruption Bureau. The ACB, meanwhile, issued its own statement complaining that it had only heard of the Sattar visit two hours after he had departed.

Corruption fights back

One person who presumably would have loved to talk to the businessman is the ACB’s director Martha Chizuma, who was already investigating Sattar and his Malawi contacts before the UK police picked interest in the case. Chizuma, long known as a courageous defender of public services in her previous role as Malawi’s Ombudsman, and seemingly undaunted by the murder of previous ACB executive Issa Njauju, had zealously set about investigating allegations of high-level plundering of public resources since her appointment in April 2021. But ever since she started to cooperate with UK law enforcement in the Sattar case late last year, an operation that saw Sattar arrested in London while homes and offices were raided in both the UK and Malawi, Chizuma has found herself the subject of a sustained campaign of victimisation. It began in January 2022, when a recording was leaked. On the tape, Chizuma can apparently be heard divulging information on high profile corruption cases, and saying that systemic corruption is derailing justice and that she fears that her investigations might result in her losing the support of State House. After the embarrassing disclosure she was given a warning by President Chakwera who, while affirming that he was still with her in the fight against corruption, said her statements were ‘painful’ and could amount to ‘misconduct.’

Since then Chizuma has been repeatedly attacked on social media and in the press, as well as in protests and complaints by political lobbying groups. In February 2022 she was taken to court by a group called the Forum for National Development, which calls itself in its Facebook description a group of “like-minded citizens, organisations and institutions desiring to better Malawi through patriotism”. She was sued for breaking her oath of secrecy as a public official. The case was thrown out in March by the Blantyre Magistrate’s court for a failure to follow proper procedures.

Then in April Bon Kalindo, a celebrity known for making disruptive political statements, also started to campaign against Chizuma, accusing her of violating her oath of secrecy. Kalindo issued an ultimatum to the president, demanding he fire Chizuma in seven days and threatening national demonstrations if his demand was not met. This did not go down well with the public, however, with many voices across the media spectrum accusing Kalindo of acting as a puppet for corrupt politicians. Some even alleged that President Chakwera himself was tacitly supporting the attacks.

A lobby group ‘splashed money’ to fight Chizuma

Attacks on Chizuma still continue. In May 2022, a group calling itself ‘Concerned Citizens’ and also purportedly upset about her violation of the Oath of Office, held a three-night-vigil near the Parliament building in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, where they demanded Chizuma’s resignation. Defenders of Chizuma have since alleged that the group, which is apparently ‘splashing money’ to its followers, is receiving funding from Zuneth Sattar. ‘Some scared money launderer is bankrolling this grouping,’ someone calling himself ‘Mtete’ said in a comment on the Nyasatimes website.

When I briefly spoke to Martha Chizuma recently, she sounded sanguine. ‘To some extent I saw all this coming, because I have a pretty clear idea of who I am and my stance on issues of corruption. I also was fully aware that corruption is pretty endemic so this was bound to happen.’

Criminal cases have outlived the suspects who have died

Languishing in the courts

Though the ACB can investigate officials suspected of corruption, it depends on the justice system to see them prosecuted. The courts, however, have proved unenthusiastic partners. Only one former government minister is presently serving a jail term for corruption. A top official from the same party was initially convicted but later freed on appeal. One businessman who was also convicted is out on bail pending his appeal, while another must be pleased to see his trial currently languishing on an endlessly-delayed docket.

Even a case of corruption against former president Bakili Muluzi, initiated after he left office in 2004, has not made any tangible progress in sixteen years. (It has nevertheless burned through a mountain of public cash; at the last count it was estimated that the case had cost the state one billion Malawi Kwacha, or about one million US$, two-thirds of the total sum Muluzi is charged with stealing.)

Similarly cases from 2013’s ‘Cashgate’, one of the biggest corruption scandals in Malawi’s history, in which public officials stole 32 million US$, are also still dragging on, even outliving some of the suspects. Court cases are also still pending against sixty people arrested last year for their roles in the mismanagement of K6.2 billion (US$6 million) in emergency COVID-19 funds. There is no news about their cases and they are back at work, according to Rodger Phiri, programs manager for the Malawi program of Follow the Money, an international NGO focused on collecting evidence of financial crimes. ‘It seems the arrests were just a gimmick to silence the loud voices against corruption that time.’

There is very little that the government is doing to fight this

‘This contributes to the pile of frustrations that people have’, says University of Malawi (UNIMA) political scientist Professor Boniface Dulani. He blames some of the delays on staffing issues, pointing out that those who can afford a lawyer can count on being allowed out on bail while awaiting trial. ‘The wealthy know the justice system’s loopholes and they utilise it.’ Dulani feels that the government has to take responsibility. ‘There is very little that the government is doing to fight this’, he says.

Unenthusiastic and apathetic

The ACB is not the only Malawian entity tasked with fighting corruption. The National Audit Office (NAO) annually audits all publicly financed institutions, but is hampered by bureaucracy and slow process. Its reports are first tabled in Parliament, then referred to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which must hold hearings with the relevant head officers and then provide a report with recommendations to the government. By the time the Government finally responds to the PAC report, the issues it addresses are often long in the past and hard to prosecute.

Next to the NAO, the Office of the Director for Public Officers’ Declarations, or ODPOD, is to collect and verify asset declarations from those close to state coffers. But ODPOD hasn’t made much headway so far either. Asset declarations from the first 18,000 officers were only finally published in the Government Gazette in June 2022, eight years after its establishment in 2014. Asked why this first batch alone had to take so long, ODPOD spokesperson Tiyamike Phiri cited “human resource shortages” and “manual systems” as obstacles, but later conceded that “most heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are unenthusiastic and apathetic” when it comes to cooperating.

“This could be due to the fact that the law is silent on any disciplinary measures on (those) who display resistance”, she says, adding that some of those who did not declare have been recommended for dismissal by her office but that no action has been taken against them. It is an admission unlikely to hearten those civil servants who want to do their jobs, but fear being sent to ‘Guantanamo’.

No political will

Dr Mustapha Hussein, a public administration expert at the University of Malawi, concurs. ‘There is no political will to end corruption,’ he says, pointing out that there are already plenty of laws in place which should make the prosecution of corruption very straightforward. The Malawi Public Service Regulations already address not only corruption, but also negligence, incompetence and failure to perform duties, but, argues Dr Hussein, they are simply not being enforced. ‘Law enforcing and governance institutions should be empowered to protect whistle-blowers and well-meaning public servants whose lives are in danger’, he says.

Everybody now becomes scared

Charles Kajoloweka, a human rights activist and the director of Youth and Society, an NGO which campaigns for good governance, has personal experience of the consequences that people can face if they try to stand up for the law. In 2017 he and his NGO took a government minister to court over their role in an import deal which saw Malawi spend US$34 million in inflated contracts for maize at a time when the country was facing famine. The suit had asked the courts to pronounce that the minister should be fired on procedural grounds, but Kajoloweka lost and was left to pay the equivalent of US$21,000 towards the government’s costs. ‘This is why there are very few people willing to play an active role in the fight against corruption’, he says. ‘Corruption is sustained by a strong cartel. You are challenging power. You run projects that may see the government out of power. The government machinery wants to counter such forces.’

Fortunately, he says, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) which is a continental body charged with protecting human rights in Africa, has ordered the verdict suspended pending adjudication. While confident that the ACHPR will overturn the ruling, Kajoloweka notes nonetheless the symbolic power that this case holds for anyone considering fighting corruption in Malawi. ‘Imagine- if I’m supposed to pay that amount to the Malawi government for challenging corruption, what impact does this have on active citizenship?’ he asks. ‘When everybody in Malawi reads that Kajoloweka must pay? Everybody now becomes scared.’ According to Kajoloweka, even the donor community is scared to support anti-corruption initiatives. ‘Last month, I convened a meeting of civil society organisations around the Sattar corruption scandals. It took me and my team about three months to find the money to have a one day meeting.’

Regime change accusations

Donors themselves are scared, he says, because they don’t want to get on bad terms with the government, which ‘will say you are supporting regime change.’ Previous governments in Malawi have indeed attacked donors who supported civil society organisations for being ‘on a mission to destabilise' and ‘recolonise’ the country. According to Kajoloweka, this has had an adverse affect on the support from donors towards corruption-fighting NGO’s. On the other hand, he adds, those who are fighting ACB chief Martha Chizuma seem to have money in abundance. ‘That’s basically the cartels. And they are willing to invest money in (that fight).’ On 21 June 2022 Malawians were taken by surprise when President Chakwera announced a series of actions against those officials named in the British criminal case, and, separately, in an ACB report he had urgently requested. In a televised address the President suspended the powers of Vice President Chilima, fired his Inspector General of Police and suspended his Chief of Staff along with another official. His actions, which he stated were based on the ACB report, were ‘necessary to protect public trust in those offices’, he said.

The presidential address turned into an attack on Chizuma

However, the presidential address then took a turn, shifting into an attack on the quality and so-called ‘selective justice’ of the ACB report. Citing the Bureau’s own statement that Sattar had been corrupting Government officials since 2008, the President called it ‘bizarre’ that the report only focused on the current government and that names from previous administrations were left out. As the address ended, Malawi's Twitterati began speculating that Martha Chizuma could soon find herself fired, too.

Footnote: In a comment, the United States embassy in Malawi said that it ‘supports the Government of Malawi's efforts to combat corruption.’ The European Union Ambassador to Malawi, Rune Skinnebach, said that the EU ‘is not in a position to finance single ad-hoc activities’, but that it does support ‘CSO projects on accountability.’ The British embassy was also asked to respond but did not do so before the deadline.

Josephine Chinele is a multi-award-winning investigative journalist who has worked for newspapers, radio and television platforms in Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa and as a fellow for the Los Angeles Times in the USA amid other international journalism fellowships.