On the night of Friday September 13, 2013, Paul Mphwiyo, Budget Director in Malawi’s Ministry of Finance, was shot. Armed men were lying in ambush just outside the gate to his home, and fired at the 37-year-old as he drove in. Mphwiyo’s family rushed him to the Area 43 MASM Clinic. It was 11:30 p.m. I happened to be at the clinic at the same time with a family member who was hospitalised. I witnessed first-hand the harrowing 30-minute frenzy during which nurses and a doctor battled to save Mphwiyo’s life.
Mphwiyo staggered into the clinic, choking, leaving a trail of blood behind him. The nurses put a call through to Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba, formerly personal physician to the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the country’s first president. Dr. Ntaba got there in less than ten minutes. He managed to assuage Mphwiyo’s bleeding and stabilise his breathing. 30 minutes later, an ambulance transported Mphwiyo to the emergency department at Kamuzu Central Hospital. The following day he was flown for specialised treatment to South Africa, where he is reportedly in stable condition.
Malawi’s president, Dr. Joyce Banda, announced at a public function the following afternoon that she knew who had shot Mphwiyo, and why. Accounts of the incident, purportedly written by insiders at the Ministry of Finance, began appearing online, claiming that Mphwiyo had been shot as a result of a multi-million Malawian kwacha (MWK) deal gone bad. “Flash: A senior Malawi treasury official has been shot,” tweeted journalist Mabvuto Banda. “Family says he has been receiving death threats since he cancelled dubious payment.”
President Banda left soon after for the United States, for engagements in Texas and the UN General Assembly in New York, but in Malawi the focus remained on Capital Hill, the seat of government. People began making connections between the Mphwiyo attack and an incident involving Patrick Sithole, an accounts assistant in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. On September 11, 2013, two days before the attack, Sithole was reported by Malawi News Agency (MANA) and The Daily Times to have been found in possession of more than 120 million MWK (350,000 US dollars) cash and a brand new Toyota Fortuner.
The Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) had carried the Sithole story on September 11′s 8pm news bulletin, but it didn’t appear in subsequent rebroadcasts. The story also disappeared from the MANA website. For two days there was no follow-up, apart from expressions of shock on social media. Then came the shooting of Paul Mphwiyo, which, in the weeks that followed, unleashed a string of stories about Capital Hill civil servants found with massive quantities of cash in their cars and houses.
In the days following the Mphwiyo shooting, reports of further looting and arrests came fast and furious, among them the case of Frank Mwanza, an assistant accountant in the Office of the President and Cabinet who made payments of over 1 billion MWK (2.7 million US dollars) to a company that had no contract with the government, but is said to be connected to a prominent cabinet minister and loyalist of President Banda’s People’s Party. The same reports linked Mwanza and a principal secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet to an additional 120 million MWK (350,000 US dollars) found in the car trunk of the owner of the company in question.
Since she took over as president following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012, Dr. Joyce Banda Banda has become an international star, attracting global leaders to Malawi including Hillary Clinton, Christine LaGarde, Helen Clark, Mary Robinson, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. She has openly praised international donors, whom she credits with turning the country around.
On October 3, 2013, heads of several international donor agencies summoned Vice President Khumbo Kachale, Chief Secretary to the Government, Hawa Ndilowe, and Inspector General of Police, Lot Dzonzi, expressing “worry” over the reports of the plunder of public funds. “As the civil servants are busy looting government coffers in millions, their CEO is busy meeting different donors in the USA seeking more money to support her porous government system,” wrote Economist and business entrepreneur Henry Kachaje on his Facebook page. ”Either the donors are stupid or they have [so] much money that they don’t give a damn how [it] is wasted or found in car boots and houses of civil servants.”
Parliament ordered an audit of the Treasury, and activists and opposition politicians called on President Banda and the Minister of Finance to resign. The president, still in the United States at the time, posted on her Facebook page on October 4: ”…we have security personnel and the financial intelligence officers working round the clock to investigate any aspects of financial irregularities. I am personally ensuring that they have enough resources and staff to close all loopholes of corruption and money laundering.”
Chief Secretary Hawa Ndilowe echoed her boss’s sentiments in a press conference held the following day. ”To all those public servants who are stealing, we are determined to ensure that you are arrested and punished,” said Ndilowe. ”A forensic audit is being arranged to analyse data from a few years back.”
Ndilowe has been quoted as saying that the plundering of government coffers dates back to 2005. A June 2013 Daily Times report corroborates this: in the eight years (2004-2012) he was in office, the personal wealth of Banda’s predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, increased from a self-declared 150 million MWK (1.5 million US dollars in 2004 terms), to 61 billion (175 million US dollars). Blogger and media scholar Jimmy Kainja traces the roots of the crisis to even earlier—the administration (1994-2004) of former president Bakili Muluzi, who “poked fun at his…deputy for not ‘developing’ his home district.”
By October 5, 2013, news reports were estimating the total amount stolen to be about 1.2 billion MWK (5 million US dollars), though the actual figure was rumoured to be upward of 4 billion MWK. Headlines in that weekend’s newspapers screamed: “Capital Hill Loot” (Malawi News), “Capital Hill Plunder” (Weekend Nation), “Looting Continues” (Sunday Times), “Capital Cash-Gate” (Nation on Sunday).
After returning from the United States on October 9, President Banda faced members of the press in the most eagerly anticipated press conference of her presidency. She made an about-face on her earlier assertion that she knew who shot Mphwiyo, and accused the media of targeting her because of her gender. The press demanded to know if she planned to fire line ministers and senior government officials in ministries and departments connected to the plundering, including the Office of the President and Cabinet.
On Thursday October 10, demonstrators in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, delivered a petition to the president demanding her resignation and the dismissal of the Minister of Finance. By the end of that day State House had issued a press statement announcing the dissolution of the entire cabinet.
Whether that move is reason for optimism is left to be seen. “It took the near fatal shooting [of the] Budget Director in [the] Finance ministry for the scandal to come out,” wrote Jimmy Kainja. “The Capital Hill plunder is not just a case of rotten government acting with total impunity; it is also a symptom of a rotten nation.”
As I drove out of the Area 43 MASM clinic around 1 a.m. on September 14, I could not have imagined how serious the repercussions of the scene I’d just witnessed would be. President Joyce Banda is facing the toughest crisis of her 18-month-old presidency. Malawians have been wondering why the new optimism sweeping across Africa seems to have bypassed the country. Now they are questioning how the country’s leadership can inspire hope when the government machinery itself appears devoid of that quality. The significance of the elections to be held in May 2014 just took on a new meaning.