/ 28 January 2016

Editorial: Deal muddies the water

Flood damage a year ago left 200 000 homeless. Then-president Banda spent $145-million on patrol boats on Lake Malawi.
Flood damage a year ago left 200 000 homeless. Then-president Banda spent $145-million on patrol boats on Lake Malawi.

Whether Malawi needed interceptor boats to patrol Lake Malawi in 2013 against the threat of Tanzanian border violations is a moot point. There were tensions between the two states, but one can persuasively argue that there were more pressing obligations in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Perhaps of more concern to South Africans are the circumstances around former president Joyce Banda’s award of the $145-million contract for the boats and other military goods and services to the South African-based arms giant Paramount Group.

Why after Malawi’s May 2014 election did Peter Mutharika’s new government publicly attack the deal as “illegal, expensive and unsustainable” and try to wriggle out of it? And why, if the contract was so problematic, was it awarded in the first place?

Paramount has argued that it is normal for an incoming administration to review the policies and programmes of its predecessor. It has also strongly denied the charge of illegality, arguing that the deal followed procurement procedures and was approved by Malawi’s attorney general.

But in 2014, Malawi Information Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa appeared to imply to the Mail & Guardian that Banda had personally handed out the contract.

He complained that “government procedures and legislations do not allow the president to dispose of national assets or award contracts”.

At about the time of the contract award the Ichikowitz foundation confirmed British news reports that it had hired a London-based PR consultancy to burnish Banda’s image. It defended this on grounds that “Banda is a force for good in Malawi and is striving to improve the lives of all Malawians” – a claim the country’s electorate clearly did not buy.

The foundation also contended that there was no connection between Paramount’s business activities and the foundation’s charitable work.

No doubt. But one would be more comfortable if there had been a full arm’s distance between the Malawian head of state and the beneficiary of major state business.