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How Corruption Derails Development in Malawi

Promises of good governance haven’t stopped officials from raiding the public purse in one of the world’s poorest countries.

By , a freelance journalist based in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Human rights activists address protesters in Lilongwe on Jan. 16, 2020, during a protest to denounce alleged attempts to bribe judges.
Human rights activists address protesters in Lilongwe on Jan. 16, 2020, during a protest to denounce alleged attempts to bribe judges. AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP via Getty Images

When the Malawi Electoral Commission announced on May 27, 2019 that incumbent Malawian President Peter Mutharika had won the country’s presidential election, thousands of people took to the streets. Human rights groups disputed the outcome, which was characterized by several irregularities, including the use of the popular correction fluid, Tipp-Ex.

But the demonstrations were not just about the election. Most of the people who took part in the protests did so because of ever-worsening economic conditions, said Sylvester Namiwa, executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives, a local nongovernmental organization that advocates for good governance. Most protesters were optimistic that a change in leadership would transform the country.

When the Malawi Electoral Commission announced on May 27, 2019 that incumbent Malawian President Peter Mutharika had won the country’s presidential election, thousands of people took to the streets. Human rights groups disputed the outcome, which was characterized by several irregularities, including the use of the popular correction fluid, Tipp-Ex.

But the demonstrations were not just about the election. Most of the people who took part in the protests did so because of ever-worsening economic conditions, said Sylvester Namiwa, executive director of the Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives, a local nongovernmental organization that advocates for good governance. Most protesters were optimistic that a change in leadership would transform the country.

Malawi was a one-party dictatorship from 1964 to 1993, where lack of respect for human rights meant people could be arrested without trial. However, the past 27 years of democratic rule in Malawi have been characterized by rampant corruption under all the leaders who have ruled the country since the adoption of multiparty politics.

In 2013, 16 Malawian companies received illicit payments from the government totaling approximately $32 million for goods and services that were not delivered.

“When Malawians voted for a democratic system of government in the 1993 referendum, they wanted to have a country that could be governed by the rule of law. They didn’t want to be subjected to the worsening levels of poverty,” Namiwa argued.

Malawi has been losing billions of dollars in public funds to private individuals who, in the end, invest it into their private enterprises. These funds could have otherwise funded the country’s development agenda—which, in line with U.N. sustainable development goals, commits to giving every Malawian basic necessities like food, good shelter, and access to quality education and health care. It’s not happening; the corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked Malawi 129th out of 180 countries in public sector corruption in 2020, scoring 30 out of 100 points on the global Corruption Perceptions Index.

A May 2017 Economic Development Document for Malawi by the World Bank shows a gross national income of $320 per capita in 2016—one of the lowest in the world—and a per capita income growth of little more than 1.5 percent between 1995 and 2014, below the average of 2.8 percent for non-resource-rich African economies. According to the report, Malawi continues to lag behind when compared to its peers that are geographically and demographically similar and were at a similar stage of development in 1995.

The country has consequently witnessed high rates of migration, with the International Organization for Migration estimating that in 2014 alone, 106,115 members of its productive workforce left the country for places like South Africa in search of work and economic opportunities; another study by Afrobarometer in 2019 found that around half of the country’s productive population would have preferred to work outside the country.

An analysis of government accounts’ audit reports reveals that from 1995 to 2020, government funds have been lost after payment for government contracts were not carried out. In 2013, between April and September, 16 Malawian companies received illicit payments from the government totaling approximately $32 million for goods and services that were not delivered.

Humphrey Mvula, a renowned Malawian social commentator, said this has been a trend in the management of public funds since the country’s transition to democracy. He argued it occurs because there is no separation of powers between the government and the governing political party.

“The challenge we have is that once a party wins an election, it becomes synonymous with government, and as a result, they appoint people that are loyal to the party into important government positions, and it becomes difficult to discipline such politically connected public servants,” Mvula said.

Governing parties usually appoint their loyalists to strategic positions like director of Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, making it impossible for them to pursue corruption cases involving fellow ruling party loyalists. Additionally, Mvula noted the absence of a clear policy where parties disclose the individuals who fund their political campaigns, creating room for corruption.

“Electoral campaigns are usually funded by business magnates that in the end become conduits for the siphoning of public funds,” Mvula said.


Recent events show just how deep-rooted corruption is in Malawian political circles. For instance, the recent decision by Malawi’s Public Appointments Committee to reject the appointment of current ombudswoman Martha Chizuma as the head of the country’s Anti-Corruption Bureau has exposed how politicians on both the ruling and opposition benches of parliament are afraid of having a person with professional integrity at the helm of the country’s top corruption-fighting body.

Although Malawi’s parliament has defended its rejection of the ombudswoman, the decision raises serious questions on whether elected leaders are prepared to be held accountable for the misuse of public funds.

In the southern Malawi district of Neno, which has a total population of 158,000 people but is the most socially and economically underdeveloped district in the country despite being allocated huge sums of development funds, people have been left wondering where the development funds go. Citizens believe rampant corruption has denied them a right to meaningful socioeconomic development. Although the district has a robust health care system that is supported by some international health charities, Neno is the only district in the country that does not have a paved road to its largest town and administrative center despite plans for the road appearing in national budgets since 2011.

Funds that were meant for public projects are disappearing into private pockets as many parts of rural Malawi are denied development because politicians are more concerned with personal gain.

Sadly, funds that were meant for public projects are disappearing into private pockets as many parts of rural Malawi are being denied development because politicians are more concerned with personal gain.

The result of this plunder of public funds is many rural women and children continue to die of treatable ailments either because they go to health facilities that are underequipped or die in transit to referral hospitals trying to access specialized health care because of bad infrastructure. Meanwhile, as politicians and politically connected individuals continue to plunder public funds, citizens are being denied socioeconomic development, including a right to quality health care during a pandemic, which is a gross human rights violation by the state.


Corruption and theft of public funds is endemic in Malawi. Between 2009 and 2014, the country lost around $723 million to fraud and corruption. Recently, Malawi’s High Court gave a preservation order for property amounting to $2.1 million owned by Norman Chisale, a bodyguard to Mutharika. This news came amid revelations that some controlling officers in the country’s COVID-19 response misused $7.9 million in COVID-19 funds.

A recent report from Chizuma on how COVID-19 funds were used paints a clear picture of how Malawians have been denied their right to development. The audit, which followed an earlier report on the implementation of the country’s COVID-19 response, established that some departments were assigning a large number of officers for tasks that could have been done by a few individuals and some goods were being procured without following proper procurement procedures.

“Our investigations established that some people were getting daily subsistence allowances while they were eating in hotels on bills paid by the COVID-19 response fund. Some officers were getting allowances for days they never worked for,” Chizuma said while presenting the findings.

The audit report released by the country’s National Audit Office concluded all clusters in Malawi’s COVID-19 response massively abused funds. For instance, the report indicated the country’s minister of labor, Ken Kandodo, and the commissioner of labor used funds meant for the COVID-19 response for a trip to South Africa, where they accompanied the country’s president for an official state visit.

“Malawians are now tired with the way the president is handling affairs,” said Gift Trapence, deputy chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition. “They are no longer interested in his speeches. They are now looking for action. What is worrying is that we are talking about 6 billion Kwacha ($7.7 million) that was released in 2020, yet there is another 17 billion Kwacha ($21.9 million) that was released this year, and we are wondering if these funds were put into good use.”

Writing on Facebook, Malawian social influencer Onjezani Kenani, who led a successful private citizens COVID-19 fundraising campaign to equip some public health facilities with equipment when it was discovered the country’s hospitals did not have what was needed to treat COVID-19 patients, said Malawians are not shocked by how COVID-19 funds were abused. Instead, they are frustrated because barely 10 months ago, they voted for a new leadership because they were promised good governance and serious attempts to end corruption.

“The audit report, however, has shown that corruption is alive and well, and that there seems to be no serious effort to end it,” Kenani wrote. “There is a business-as-usual attitude with no respect to public resources. The promissory note we were given is worthless.”


Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera has since maintained his administration is committed to fighting corruption. In an April 18 televised presidential address on the COVID-19 funds audit report, Chakwera said his administration will pursue further investigations on how public funds have been abused in the country and will push for the successful prosecution of corruption cases that have been languishing in the country’s courts.

“The sad reality though is that there are many civil servants who are so eager to get rich that they are willing to defraud their own country,” Chakwera said.

Meanwhile, Chakwera has dismissed one of his cabinet ministers for abusing COVID-19 funds, and law enforcement agents have since started arresting some public officers who were involved in the alleged abuse of COVID-19 funds. But for many Malawians, this is not enough. They want all individuals who used or misused the COVID-19 funds prosecuted.

Although Chakwera’s speeches on fighting corruption might give hope that Malawi is just a stone’s throw away from ending corruption, several unfulfilled promises he has made in previous presidential speeches make him seem no different from previous Malawian presidents. The broader question is whether Malawi’s citizens will accept continued poverty as the political elite continues stealing from the public purse. Sooner or later, they will judge Chakwera on whether he has delivered.

Madalitso Wills Kateta is a freelance journalist based in Lilongwe, Malawi. He covers human rights, climate change, politics, and global development. Twitter: @Madatso_Kateta

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