In 2016, people from all levels of society have mentioned corruption as one of the main contributing factors to the poverty situation in which Malawi finds itself. Despite the tough talk on fighting corruption, the progress has not been adequate. Indeed, there have been convictions on the Cashgate saga. Unfortunately, beyond these cases, it is almost impossible to point out any major progress in the convictions of high-ranking political figures. The records in Malawi point to only two convictions of high-ranking politicians. Both cases happened during Bingu wa Mutharika’s administration.
The first conviction was that of the then minister of Education Yusuf Mwawa. The minister was sacked, tried and convicted on four counts of fraud and corruption. Mwawa corruptly and fraudulently used K170,000 (about $1,500) from the Ministry of Education to meet wedding expenses. He was sentenced to 12-year imprisonment term but the judge decided that he serve a maximum of five years in jail because the sentences ran concurrently.
In 2008, Samuel Mpasu (yes, the current President of National Labour Party) was convicted and sentenced to a six-year prison sentence over charges of corruption and abuse of office. The court found that Mpasu while serving a minister of Education during Bakili Muluzi’s term had receiving kickbacks and failed to use normal channels of awarding contracts when a contract was awarded to a British company, Fieldyork, to provide Malawi with notebooks and pencils.
Others have argued that it might have been these convictions that made people believe that Bingu was on a serious personal mission to eliminate corruption in Malawi. Together with his vision on food security and infrastructure development, Bingu surprised his political opponents by winning the 2009 elections with 66 percent of votes up from 35 percent that he got in 2004. This is the highest percentage a presidential candidate has ever had in multiparty democracy in Malawi. Muluzi got 47 percent in 1994 and 52 percent in 1999 while the current president was elected with a 36 percent share of the votes. It is my belief that the efforts that the current President makes to deal with corruption will determine his legacy in Malawi. Whether he will break free of this corruption or succumb to is an open question.
In addition to dealing with corruption, Malawi can break free from poverty by investing in two other areas: education and health. In Malawi, there are two educational and health systems. One for the poor and predominantly rural population (public system) and the other for the rich and politically connected (private). The contrasts in these two systems are stark and a source of structural inequalities of future wealth, health, opportunities and living standards. The public education and health systems are in a crisis.
The quality of education has suffered tremendously from lack of well-trained teachers, proper classrooms, libraries or laboratories. The result is that in the last few years, about 80 percent of those selected to public universities are those who went to private schools and only 20 percent are those who went to public schools.
Similarly, the healthcare system in Malawi is no better and suffers from the absence of doctors, nurses, medicines and equipment. Up to now, students who graduated from the Malawi College of Health Sciences over two years ago have not be posted and employed in the public system. Public health facilities at all levels are overburdened. Beds are scarce and sometimes patients are forced to purchase government-labelled medicines from private sources. Unless one is connected, basic tests or procedures are not done free of cost due to erratic power rationing and constant breakdowns of important machines.
It might be wishful thinking to assume that in 2017, those in authority will prioritise these three issues: corruption, education and health. However, it is common knowledge that for poverty to be reduced in Malawi, the economy must grow at rates much higher than the current estimates of 2.9 percent for 2016/17 financial year. Development in Malawi must come from improved productivity among other sources. One of the surest ways to accelerate and sustain the pace of development is to ensure that every Malawian can work and contribute to his or her economic wellbeing and hence the overall development of the country. An educated population that is healthy is an asset in the quest for the country to have a competitive edge and improve productivity in all economic sectors.
If the Malawian economy is to grow at rates that will reduce and eliminate all forms of poverty, then it will need to attract investment from within and abroad. An educated workforce will help in the industrialisation of the country. Manufacturing and value addition will ensure that Malawi’s diversified exports will increase and unnecessary imports will decrease. Money will flow into and within Malawi and stimulate domestic demand and produce more money for further circulation. This cannot happen if corruption is rampant and society has a larger share of poorly educated and unhealthy workforce. Is 2017 the turning point to end of the tag of “poverty-stricken small country” that Malawi has earned over the years? The choice is ours!