The Society Wedding of the Year

What do you do for money, honey?

Bingu wa Mutharika, the President of Malawi, has just remarried, a few years after the death of his first wife, Ethel. The Times is reporting that it was quite a bash. Bingu arrived in true P. Diddy style, emerging from a white Chrysler flown in from South Africa for the occasion wearing a white tuxedo with white gloves, having driven over two roads specially built to take the bride and groom to Civo Stadium for their restrained and tasteful nuptials. The bridal party arrived in a fleet of new Mercedes’, and the whole wedding is alleged to have cost about GBP 2 million, part of which paid for a twenty-eight tier wedding cake.

Apart from the identity of the joker who convinced Bingu that he looked good in his white tux, the big question here is where the money came from. If these were state funds, it is a perfect example of the kind of spending that the fungibility article from the Lancet raised fears of, and which I discussed last week. Is aid money facilitating this kind of opulence? Two things need to be true before we can conclude this. Firstly, it must be the case that the President used state funds for his wedding. This isn’t clear. The Times article offers the following, neither part of which is particularly convincing:

Senior officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have claimed that the president used public funds for the celebrations, an accusation that the government denies…

The Malawian government’s information minister rejected claims that public money had been used to pay for the wedding. “The [£2m] cost of the wedding has been met by the president himself and friends who wish him well,” he said.

The second issue is whether, even if state funds were used, aid money made any difference. It’s quite possible that the same wedding would have taken place, with the same cost, but with developmental spending suffering even more. If this is the counter-factual, then aid money isn’t facilitating bad spending but mitigating the damage it causes.

With regards to the first issue, as I said in the comments section of Matt’s post on fungibility, audit is where we should be focusing: a comprehensive audit should give us a very good idea of whether or not this money came from Government coffers or Bingu’s personal wealth, together with those of his supporters, some of whom are so fervent I have witnessed them running after his Presidential vehicle waving huge framed posters of him as he disappears from view. I’m going to discuss audit in a bit more depth later this week, but to their credit, the Times does mention the findings of a recent audit of Malawi’s Government expenditure in its article:

A report by the country’s auditor general [showed] that more than £800,000 of public funds had been spent on goods and services between 2003-05 which could not be accounted for.

The drawback? Despite the article being written by a Malawian (Mabvuto Banda, judging by the name, is at least of Malawian heritage), the article fails to point out that the audit reports it refers to relate to a previous Government, that of Bakili Muluzi. Members of this Government have already been investigated and indicted on corruption charges, and further arrests and investigations are always possible.

6 thoughts on “The Society Wedding of the Year

  1. Andy S

    April 21, 2010 at 12:47pm

    Although there may be no solid evidence in this case, it was found by the EU observer mission that state funds had been used for his re-election campaign: the convoy of Land Cruisers, the four Hummers, the legions of dancers etc. All this while his opponents seemed to be restricted to a couple of battered trucks around Blantyre.

    In terms of aid, DFID privately acknowledged that some of their “civic and voter education” funding had been diverted to help purchase the 5 million+ Bingu t-shirts.

    So, no definitive proof of fire – just clouds of billowing smoke.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    April 21, 2010 at 12:58pm

    That’s just the point though. We can have as much smoke as we like, but evidence is needed before action can be taken. hence the importance of having a proper audit and properly independent auditor. In Malawi’s case, the AG (aud. General) used to be the AG (Acc. General), Rex Kampanje. I knew him quite well. Very nice guy. Let’s see how the audits that are produced under him, of a serving administration look.

  3. RJS

    April 21, 2010 at 1:56pm

    When the President of the US has a family event or one of his daughters or family members or friends flys with him, who pays for it? The U.S. taxpayer. The case of Malawi is just more tacky. This sort of thing happens in every country, even ours. I once had an Iraqi governor take a bunch of wheel chairs we had procured for an NGO for handicapped people, and then he passed them out during a campaign claiming they were from him and generating positive media stories. We found out after the fact. But that doesn’t seem to different to me than what incumbent politicians do in the US and elsewhere to get themselves relected or fly with their families to places like Europe and Asia for “fact finding missions” when the real reason is a taxpayer sponsored vacation.

  4. Nneoma

    April 21, 2010 at 4:14pm

    I am leaning towards agreeing with comment number 3. But for some reason, I am somewhat unfazed by the clouds of billowing smoke, etc. Either Nigerian-style opulence (among the private and public sector) has deadened my senses to such extravagance or truly, four million dollars on a wedding (with some stateside perks) sounds within the personal means of a Malawian president – horrid tuxedo suit and all.

  5. Mark M

    April 21, 2010 at 8:39pm

    Candidate for most unlikely headline in coming years? – ‘Independent Audit in Malawi shows current President used public funds for his wedding.’

    Ranil, I’m not sure I can see this one being determined conclusively (until a future president comes in from an opposition Party and another out of date audit can be quoted).

  6. Robin Cook

    April 22, 2010 at 11:08am

    Africans are steal slaves really. Everything African that has a touch of class, instead of being appreciated is scrutinized and condemned in the light of donor money. Even if the money was from government, what should stop the Malawian people from making their president’s wedding special?

    If donor money is to help Africa remain poor then indeed it is working. Look at Mabvuto Banda’s article in the Times; that is a shear representation of a poverty mindset inculcated by the donors. It helps poverty prosper Africa. Though he does not have facts, Mabvuto has innocently written something that would appeal to the donors. In writing that he knew he was going to incite a barrage of criticism from the donors against the president of Malawi.

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