The “Cashgate” scandal has had far-reaching consequences for the southern African nation of Malawi and its people. Western donors suspended budgetary aid—circa $150 million annually—upon learning that civil servants and senior cabinet ministers in former President Joyce Banda’s administration had manipulated the government’s financial management system to embezzle more than $45 million over an eighteen-month period. As a precondition to the resumption of aid, the donors required that the government not only implement financial management reforms but also fully prosecute the perpetrators and recover the stolen assets. The donors’ position solidified when audits of Malawian government ledgers from 2009 to 2014 could not account for $356 million.
This essay examines whether Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) has the institutional capacity to achieve the prosecutorial benchmarks set by Western donors. Despite the obstacles inherent in an overstretched and underfunded criminal justice system, the ACB has made some progress, with fifteen convictions on theft and money laundering charges, and $1.4 million in cash and property recovered. Yet, as this essay observes, the quest to secure convictions and recover assets in the more complex cases of senior officials will become quixotic unless the government provides the ACB with sufficient independence, authority, and resources. Lacking ACB operational success, donors seem disinclined to resume direct budgetary support to Malawi. And as Western countries retract, China moves in, extending its influence.