In 2014 when Peter Mutharika became president, I was asked if I would like to become the Director of the Anti-corruption Bureau (ACB). I turned the offer down. I was not interested, I said.
The Chinese have a farewell that says, “May you live in interesting times”. In my mind, the only “interesting times” in the Malawian politico-legal scene that can match the three years I spent working as a Prosecutor with the ACB are the present times. Interesting in a frightening way to most public service lawyers.
Let me elaborate.
While with the Malawi Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in 2006, the then Director of the bureau was suspended by order of the president only hours after he arrested the former head of state, Bakili Muluzi on corruption charges (Just when I was getting ready to get down and dirty to fearlessly prosecute him in an anticipated case of the decade for Malawi!). That must certainly qualify as being interesting. The ‘independent’ director of the bureau decided to exercise his independence and upon being convinced that there was evidence of corruption made a move that potentially was to score positive political points insofar as the administration’s drive to fight corruption was concerned. His reward? A suspension. Some observers asserted that there was sense in the suspension. After all, there was a budget session pending in parliament at the time and the Director’s move could only make an opposition bent on frustrating the administration even more determined in their sabotage attempts. It’s all a matter of timing- I heard many say, and the director’s timing was wrong. In other words, there was sense in sacrificing the pursuit of enforcing the law at the altar of political expediency.
Since when did the law and due court process become subject to prevailing party politics? Perhaps in the short term the president’s politics would have taken a hit. If so, then it certainly would have been a minor hit, one that could easily be overcome. Compare such a hit with acquiring the distinction of being the president that suspended a professional for doing his job. Now, that is a savage blow that no amount of window-dressing can cure. It’s obstruction of justice. It’s a tarnished legacy.
Today, 14 years after that arrest, the prosecution of Bakili Muluzi remains in limbo, and Bingu’s legacy remains tarnished on this point.
To look at the political damage of miss-timing the arrest of a former president as more damaging than that of the administration interfering with the activities of an independent legal body is to appraise the situation with myopic vision.
Democratic politics can be in no greater danger than when politicians begin to meddle dance on the very heart of legal process.
Let the budget session in parliament be sabotaged by the opposition because the law is taking its course on an important suspect in the country’s greatest corruption investigation. Let the passing of the budget be delayed because a theft suspect- no matter how elevated and lofty their position- is arrested and brought to book. If one’s political adversaries can use that as a pawn in the political game, surely it is only a matter of time before the people judge them and stop them in their tracks! But to succumb to the pressure? Surely one should be proud to stand firm on the law and the law alone? If asked why the director arrested the former head of state at such a time, surely the authorities would provide the simple answer: because he had legal basis for such action. Full stop. If asked why the administration could only stand and look on, surely the answer was simply that that was the only right thing that the administration could do since the director in question is not a politician but a professional. Full stop.
Now, in recent times, we seem to have come full circle.
Now, I may sound like a broken record here because I will have to go into territory I have covered over and over again in this column, but the reason is as simple as it is an old one.
It is the governance framework, stupid!
In a rotten governance framework like the one Malawi finds itself in, the two most common types of potential obstacles for the director of ACB are political interference and bribery. Political interference is when politicians or staff from the legislative or executive branch meddle in the performance of the ACB’s work. Despite efforts to isolate the judiciary from politics, offices like ACB Director and Attorney General often face significant pressure to perform their duties in favour of powerful political or business entities rather than in accordance with the law. A malleable legal officer can be used by those in power to provide protection for and lend legitimacy to fraudulent acts. We saw that in the Peter Mutharika administration with disgusting regularity.
Now that former Ombudsman Martha Chizuma has moved from being ombudsman to being ACB Director, in the same framework, she will be the one with the inevitably undesirable task of trying to cling on to the coattails of one’s professionalism when one is always fearing for the job, sometimes one’s very life (let’s not forget Issa Njauju), and the many other pressures on how you do your work. It is a thankless role. And yet, with Martha Chizuma in it, I join the masses in the country who have renewed hope in the organisation. Madam Ombudsman, your integrity was already severely tested as Ombudsman. I Can assure you that will be tested even more in this role, yet I have faith that you are very equal to that challenge.
Many might have looked at Ryneck Matemba, the previous director of the Anti-corruption Bureau and castigated him for failing to do his job. In the past, we have had different personalities heading the ACB. We have had judges, police officers and accountants- all of them personalities of unimpeachable character. Was the ACB better because of that? The answer is NO. I believe, however, that with you at the helm, the time has finally come to change this undesirable record.
In our rotten governance framework professionals inevitably become pawns and scapegoats in our society’s political games.
Madam Martha Chizuma, Congratulations and best wishes as you take on the thankless role of working against the grain.