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Malawi’s VP was arrested for corruption. There’s more to the story.

Malawians have seen tensions between their presidents and VPs before. They may be somewhat cynical about government attempts to fight corruption.

A screenshot of Malawi's vice president, Saulos Klaus Chilima, gesturing after being granted bail in Lilongwe, Malawi, on Friday. (Video obtained by Reuters)

Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau arrested Vice President Saulos Chilima on Friday. The director general’s statement accused Chilima of receiving money and gifts related to government-awarded contracts to two companies tied to Zuneth Sattar, a Malawi-born British businessman under investigation for alleged corruption in both the United Kingdom and Malawi.

In a national address in late June, President Lazarus Chakwera stripped Chilima of his vice-presidential duties pending investigation of the allegations about Sattar-linked government contracts. During the same address, Chakwera fired the police inspector general and suspended a number of public officials named in the report.

Chakwera dissolved his cabinet in early 2022 after Minister of Lands Kezzie Msukwa was arrested in connection with the Sattar investigation but refused to resign his post.

The arrest of Malawi’s vice president last week is a major move against high-level corruption in Malawian politics. But Malawians are not new to corruption, and the scandal that has led to the sidelining of the vice president also says something about challenges in Malawi politics more broadly.

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Corruption isn’t new in Malawi

The Sattar investigation isn’t in the same league as the web of corruption scandals across Latin America connected to the Odebrecht construction company, for instance. Yet Malawi isn’t new to high-level corruption — or corruption scandals plaguing political leaders.

In late 2013, President Joyce Banda dissolved her cabinet following the revelations of the Cashgate scandal, which involved government accountants making fraudulent payments and hiding piles of cash in their homes and cars.

Scandals can be critical challenges to presidents, research shows. The Cashgate scandal plagued Banda in her bid to keep the presidency in the 2014 elections, and scholars point to Cashgate as a major factor in her defeat.

Malawi’s presidents and vice presidents have a history of tensions

Malawi’s executive branch has experienced tensions between presidents and their vice presidents for much of the period since the reintroduction of multiparty competition in 1994. Here’s a rundown of Malawian presidents since 1994 showing dissatisfaction with their vice presidents in the most open ways possible: trying to fire them, or not inviting them to run in the next election.

President Bakili Muluzi (1994-2004) chose not to anoint his vice president, Justin Malewezi, as his successor when Muluzi’s bid for an unconstitutional third term failed. Malewezi then left Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) party, resigned his vice president office and started a new party to contest for the presidency in 2004. Malewezi lost to Muluzi’s handpicked but lesser-known successor candidate, Bingu wa Mutharika.

When Africans speak out, are their governments listening?

Bingu wa Mutharika (2004-2012) followed Muluzi’s example in sidelining his first vice president, Cassim Chilumpha. He also tried to sack Chilumpha in 2006, but a ruling by Malawi’s High Court ruled kept Chilumpha in office.

In 2009, after Mutharika left the UDF party and created his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), he chose Banda to accompany him on the ticket for his reelection bid. After their tremendous win at the polls, Mutharika booted Banda from the DPP before his unexpected death in office in 2012 — his goal was to pave a path for his brother, Peter Mutharika, to be his successor.

During Banda’s brief presidency (2012-2014), she also showed some dissatisfaction with her vice president, Khumbo Kachali, whom she did not ask to run alongside her in 2014. She lost the 2014 election to Peter Mutharika (2014-2020), who tapped a political outsider to be his vice: Saulos Chilima.

Yes, even though Chakwera is only serving his first term as president, this is Chilima’s second term as vice president. In 2014, Chilima came to office on the winning DPP ticket. After alleging government corruption ahead of the 2019 elections, however, he left the ruling DPP and ran against Mutharika as a flag bearer for the upstart UTM party.

Chilima lost the 2019 election but joined his UTM party in a coalition with Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party (MCP) following the historic court ruling that nullified that election. Together with seven other parties, MCP and UTM created a pre-electoral coalition known as the Tonse Alliance, which won the 2020 rerun election with Chakwera as president and Chilima as his vice president.

Africans find it hard to learn what their governments are up to. It’s no surprise many suspect corruption.

Corruption scandals can signal weakening political coalitions

The current scandal highlights tension in Malawi’s Tonse Alliance. But research on corruption scandals by political scientist Manuel Balán highlights the importance of looking beyond the scandal to pinpoint what may have triggered it. According to Balán’s logic, we might imagine there is a latent level of corruption occurring, and thus scandals are less about an increase in corruption and instead a sign of political competition among the ruling elite.

Before allegations arose about Chilima’s connection to the Sattar investigation in June, Chilima accused Chakwera of “moving the goal posts” regarding the presidential succession plan.

Consistent with Balán’s argument and findings, the current Malawian corruption scandal may be a symptom of a broader malady in the Tonse Alliance. Is the alliance unstable? Multiple news reports corroborate this interpretation.

Malawians want accountability

Malawian scholars Joseph Chunga and Raphael Nedi found in their analysis of Afrobarometer data that nearly two-thirds of Malawians report that corruption seems to be increasing — and also think the government is doing a poor job of fighting corruption. Importantly, they also find strong support among Malawians for accountability: 83 percent of Malawians support the idea that the president should immediately fire any minister charged with corruption.

The Sattar investigation has led Chakwera to fire some public officials and limit Chilima’s duties. But Chakwera doesn’t have the power to sack the vice president.

Chilima posted bail on Friday and was released. He and his lawyers did not enter a plea when the Chief Resident Magistrate’s Court read out the charges against him. As of yet, no court date has been set for Chilima. The Sattar investigation in which Chilima is enmeshed is ongoing, and more revelations about other public officials, civil servants and businesspeople may emerge. But the track record for accountability in Malawi isn’t strong.

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