By Louis Nkhata
When fused together the words “petty” and “corruption” literally mean “insignificant fraud; and, this literal meaning has continually defeated the manner in which we ought to have been fighting this cancer of corruption in Malawi. It seems, as a country, we have forgotten that “petty” has the surname “corruption”, and when done over a period of time petty corruption costs us a big deal.
Since petty corruption means trivial, invisible, insignificant and negligible, efforts to curb the vice have been abysmal. The dishonesty and illegal behaviours by people in positions of authority is becoming quite frightening and is not only crippling the public sector but also non-governmental organisations as well as the civil society. Such words as alteration, falsification, doctoring, manipulation, deceit, graft, extortion, fraud and abuse, just to mention but a few, are synonymous in these sectors as far as corruption is concerned.
Petty corruption, technically defined as every abuse of entrusted power by public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens, who often are trying to access basic goods or services. In 2009, Transparency International indicated that Malawi registered high levels of petty corruption in places like public health facilities, institutions of learning, immigration offices, Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS), Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA), Malawi Police Services (MPS), the Judiciary, in Malawi’s Statutory Corporations, thatis, ESCOM, ADMARC, NOCMA, Water Boards and other agencies. According to the international watchdog, certain individuals have taken it as a habit to insinuate corrupt practices even when the odds are against the evil.
Sadly, petty corruption leads to grand corruption which is the abuse of high-level power that benefits the few at the expense of the many, and causes serious and widespread harm to individuals and society, so posited Transparency International in 2011. The danger with grand corruption is that it often goes unpunished as most of those that perpetrate it are considered big fishes and untouchables.
And, Malawi seems to have grown roots as far as grand corruption is concerned. Deep and strong ones for that matter. Since the ushering in of multipartyism in Malawi, the country has lived to witness cases of grand corruption in the names of Field York exercise book-gate, Cashgate, Maize-gate, Jet-gate, Tractor-gate, Cement-gate, Liquor-gate, and most recently the Chingeni Tollgate K10 million fraud.
But, before we examine the impact of petty corruption which we seem to be casting a blind eye upon, let us look at the Malawian legal and policy frameworks on the same.
Is Malawi’s legal, policy framework silent on petty corruption?
Malawi is a signatory to the United Nations’ Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). Furthermore, Malawi has an operational Corrupt Practices Act (CPA) (Cap 7:04 of laws of Malawi). The policy framework recognizes that petty corruption manifests itself through bribery, extortion, abuse of discretion, abuse of office, conflict of interest and embezzlement, theft and fraud as per the Corrupt Practices Act (Cap 7:04). Therefore the legal framework laid a basis for the recognition of petty corruption.
Other laws include Penal Code (Cap 7:01 of the Malawi Laws), The Public Financial Management Act (Cap 37:02 of the Laws of Malawi) Public Audit Act (Cap 37:01), Declaration of Assets, Liabilities, and Business Interest Act (Cap 1:04 of the Laws of Malawi), the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act (Cap 37:03 of the Laws of Malawi) and the Financial Crimes Act (Cap 7:07 of the Laws of Malawi). If all these had well-articulated plans and enough resources, Malawi could probably have moved tangible steps towards a corrupt free society.
Furthermore, Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III (MGDS III) and Agenda 2063 calls for participation of all and effective coordination of anti-corruption efforts; and calls for radical changes in mind-sets, attitudes and perception on corruption through capacity building and application of a systems thinking approach. And, in this case, systems thinking entails a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way that systems work over time and within the context of large systems. Most likely, it is questionable if the system works, the bone of contention being that we like maneuvering in borrowed clothes.
The National Anti-Corruption Strategy 2008 (NACS 2008, 2019-2024, and the National Integrity System (NIS) developed from the former brings in another strategic approach where almost all stakeholders are called to contribute as far as curbing corruption is concerned. However, one wonders how grassroots structures are adequately supported to nip petty corruption in the bud. There is a need for meaningful attention and direction here.
Petty and Grand Corruption deserve equal attention
Max Weber, a scholar, thought in 1978 that “Bureaucracy” was a means to overcome traditional patrimonial administration characterized by arbitrariness and corruption. But, as it has been proved recently, all indicators show that this school of thought has not yielded positive results in many developing countries including Malawi. The public service is still operating arbitrarily and remains very corrupt.
Day in, day out, the media is awash with petty corruption related news which is, unfortunately, treated as trivial and the “new normal” to many–including the doers and the perpetrators. That is why some have argued that there is a difference between “Katangale” and “Corruption” in that the former is “petty” and justified while the latter is grand and, therefore, unjustified.
The general perception is that petty corruption involves little amounts of money therefore it has to be treated with kids’ gloves. This is because the general feeling is petty corruption has very insignificant negative effects on the society in comparison to grand corruption. However, the opposite is true; this is because the accumulated financial and societal cost of petty corruption has a huge negative impact.
From here, we can magnify our lens on the negative effects of petty corruption. It is evident that the Government of Malawi and other agencies have lost a lot of revenue meant for social and economic development through petty corruption. As it were, petty corruption has been a recipe for the loss of trust in the public and private institutions. Malawi has continued to lose out in Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) over the same and we have seen donors pulling out their financial support in favour of NGOs which, to some extent, demonstrate fiscal prudence. In other words, petty corruption has brought about the tolerance of mediocrity against meritocracy.
Despite the fact that petty corruption has a record of negatively impacting on sustainable economic growth and good governance especially on the rule of law, the efforts towards curbing the vice remains blurred. Going through National Anti-Corruption Strategy II, one might choose to agree or disagree that types of corruption have not been elaborated and given their probable strategy. It is like one size of strategy fits all types of corruption. This is concretized by the approach taken by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), where it has been noted that resources are channelled towards curbing grand corruption for, most of the time, obvious political reasons. The electronic and print media outlets of information have shown that the focus is indeed on grand corruption. The point, however, is that ACB should focus on all types of corruption if Malawi wants to bring the vice to a complete halt.
The National Anti-Corruption Strategy which mentions “promoting a culture of integrity” in public institutions should not mislead the citizenry that the ACB is not doing something on petty corruption. Therefore, ACB should always endeavour to update the country with periodic reports as far as efforts of curbing petty corruption is concerned.
The danger with petty corruption is that it can be initiated by a person who seeks or solicits the bribe or by a person who offers and then pays the bribe. Therefore, blame can not only go to those who receive the spoils of corruption but also those who create the opportunity for an act of corruption to occur. Most Malawians attest that people working in some institution when knocked off from their daily schedule of work they come back with enough cash to buy a moderate Japanese vehicle. Therefore, it is very wrong to underestimate the negative effects of petty corruption as its accumulated negative effects cannot be underestimated.
Petty corruption mainly thrives in an environment where service delivery institutions have complex and cumbersome procedures. For instance it has never been easy for people in Malawi to acquire a driving license, passports and other equally relevant documents through straight-forward means; on the other hand, one always has to palm-oil the responsible officer “to make it quick.”
When it comes to equal employment opportunity, both private and public institutions have been red-flagged. Abuse of discretion, abuse of office, conflict of interest and extortion are written in black and white leading to poorly performing institutions as favoritism, clientelism and nepotism are mirrored everywhere in both private and public institutions. Almost every grown-up Malawian has seen public resources, like vehicles and other equipment, being used for personal purposes.
“Opportunity Theory” is of the view that opportunities rather than motives or systematic factors precipitate corruption. Most of those desperate for services or goods become vulnerable. Carpet interviews, for women and the youth whose opportunity of equality is limited, has been a normal practice amidst us. In an effort to curb corruption, one might conclude that petty corruption has been sidelined because it hurts the poor, not the rich because they are able to access private services elsewhere. The opposite is a fact for in most instances the poor and the vulnerable totally rely on public services. The irony is that research entails that most poor people spend most of their income to entice public servants.
As such, if we are serious on protecting women, the youth and vulnerable people, let us deal with petty corruption. Tongue-wagging is not an option anymore. We should stay far from the attitude where we create an environment that masquerades a situation seen to be doing something when there is nothing at all. Petty corruption is the root of all corruption activities taking place in Malawi and it has eaten up our own nature of differentiating between what is good and bad.
Shockingly, instead of taking the proactive role in curbing petty corruption, the institutions given the responsibility are in most cases reactive. In short, this practice destroys the same productive citizens desirable for posterity. For instance, Malawians remain skeptical if their Government and other institutions have the institutional and structural mechanisms for protecting interns, women and others vulnerable in the public and private sector. Top managers top the list of extortion and members of NGOs who eat chickens provided by the locals as a token of appreciation.
The question that arises is that how can we curb petty corruption country wide when institutions to curb corruption are only located in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba of the 28 districts? The fact is that petty corruption cannot be curbed by a remote control kind of approach. There is need for more resources and concerted efforts towards mind-set change and attitude targeting the entire Malawian community at large.
What makes it worse is that even in the corridors of institutions charged to curb corruption there exists a high prevalence of petty corruption. In the same institutions, it is said that “if one tries to be out of the corruption circles then there is likelihood that he/she falls-out of the organization culture. Simply you become an out-lier and as a result you are given all sorts of bad names by their colleagues whose mission for working is to amass the spoils of petty corruption.
X-Raying the future of petty corruption in Malawi
On March 21, 2022 the media reported that the number of cases related to corruption have doubled from 642 in 2019/2020 to 1217 in 2021 which, according to the ACB, shows about 50 percent increase.Many corruption or governance indices and measures continue to show that corruption remains a serious impediment to Malawi’s social and economic development. The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) by Transparency International (TI) measures perceptions of corruption on a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 means very corrupt and 100 very clean. Unfortunately, Malawi scores below 40. For instance, Malawi’s CPI scored 31 between 2015-2017 and scored 32 in 2018.
Governance and Corruption Survey conducted by the ACB shows that most Malawians perceive corruption in the country to be worsening. Between 2010 and 2013, the report showed that the proportion of Malawians that said corruption increased rose from 83% to 96%. A Corruption Perception Survey of April 2019 showed that 97% of Malawians feel that corruption in the country is a problem, 92% of whom said it is a very serious problem and that it spans across all sectors of society.
The research conducted shows that Malawi is on the verge of falling because of high levels of most unrecognized petty corruption mainly overridden by grand corruption. Corruption, whether grand or petty, is an evil in itself, thus there is no justification whatsoever for practicing it.
In summary, it is imperative for us as citizens to hold duty bearers accountable, fill institutional gaps, build the capacity of law enforcement agencies, allocate and disburse adequate resources for anti-corruption efforts, instill integrity in citizenry, generate political will towards fighting corruption and motivate public servants by improving remuneration.
*Louis Nkhata is a Master of Political Science student at the University of Malawi (Unima) and Karonga Diocese Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) coordinator writing in personal capacity.