Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Publicly-financed projects must be openly tendered

Gambia Port
When governments sign loans, they are doing so on behalf of the citizenry with the promise that the funds will be used prudently and efficiently.

To fulfill this promise,  there's a clause in standard multilateral loan agreements that in order to get value for money, the procurement of works and services must be openly tendered by inviting companies that meet the minimum qualification criteria.

As for bilateral loans, the field is limited to companies registered in the country providing the funding to compete among themselves.  For instance, if bilateral funding is from the UK, they could limit the competition only to British companies.

Competition, the saying goes, brings out the best in us and when companies compete on a level playing field, to provide goods and services to a client, the client always wins.  The absence of competition assures inferior product output or service at probably a higher cost to the client. Therefore, the government of the Gambia has always adopted the international procurement standards for the procurement of goods and services as standard best practice even when only local funds were involved.

Yaya Jammeh-led 1994 illegal coup d'etat changed the entire landscape and swept along with the legitimate government, all the best practices the putschists found in the civil service, including the principles of an open tender procedure for the sole purpose of having a clear way to the meager resources of one of the world's poorest countries.

Although the Tender Board was supposedly replaced by a Procurement Agency, it never functioned independent of the Office of the President of Yaya Jammeh.  In fact, Jammeh directed the tender process from his offices at State House, as amply demonstrated on a daily basis by the Commission of Inquiry into his illicit wealth.

We've been saying since President Barrow assumed office last January, for the country to reverse the downward spiral of the economy, we must, as a country, move towards an open society, not only in our politics but in the economic management sphere.  We must shed the Jammeh way of governance where it is more transactional that fuels corruption and stifle economic growth and development.

In this regard, we have encountered, in the past several weeks, some public procurement anomalies that may develop into an undesirable trend, if remained unchecked.  And based on information received, we may be on the verge of experiencing two more projects at NAWEC for the procurement of HFO using requirements that effectively eliminate other potential suppliers and the Gambia Ports Authority's Banjul Port Extension Project.

In the case of NAWEC's HFO procurement notice, requiring that suppliers have at least two (2) contracts within the last five (5) years with a value of at least $10,000,000 "that have been substantially completed and that are similar to the proposed goods and related services" looks and sounds like only one company i.e Mohammed Bazzi's Euro-Africa Group that had monopolized the supply of HFO for almost a decade will be the only qualified company to submit a proposal.  If this notice is allowed to stand, it will eliminate all local business enterprises from competing in a project that will be financed entirely by the Gambian people.

This is coming in the midst of the Commission of Inquiry where it is being revealed, practically on a daily basis, how the non-observance of standard procurement rules and the abuse of the procurement system have led to the bankrupting of Social Security and Housing Finance Corporation and many other State Owned Enterprises, including NAWEC.

As regards the Banjul Port Extension Project, we hope that legal advise from the AG Chambers was sought by GPA and the Ministry of Finance.   Based on public information, it is unclear how China Bridge & Road Construction or China Road and Bridge Corporation - if its one and the same - was selected over other Chinese companies since it is a bilaterally-funded project by the Export-Import Bank of China on concessional terms (2% interest) in the amount of approximately $177 million.  

In a recent newspaper interview, the Minister of Works, Transport and Infrastructure was quoted as saying that "we should pray for a President who comes regularly with sound EOs (Executive Orders) to expedite the development of this country."  Such a statement being uttered by a minister in the midst of the Commission of Inquiry that is highlighting the flagrant use (or misuse) of presidential power suggests a degree of insensitivity to the plight of the Gambian taxpayer.  The tone-deafness is equally perplexing.

We want to reassure the minister, if one is needed, that we will continue to make as much noise as possible to ensure that The Gambia is not plunged into another disastrous experiment in unchecked power of the executive.  It is no longer business as usual.

Even for projects financed bilaterally, domestic companies are encouraged to compete.  There is no indication that there were other Chinese firms involved in the selection process, in this case, that led to choosing China Bridge and Road.

It is in Gambia's interest to insist on competition among qualified firms for the award of such contracts - both in terms of pricing and quality of service.  An open and transparent procurement system must be encouraged and institutionalized, incorporating all the proven best practices associated with this form of committing public funds for the purpose of improving the lives of  all Gambians.

The new government of Adama Barrow cannot afford to maintain a totally discredited system that had bankrupted nearly all of our SOEs that finally led to the ouster of Yaya Jammeh from State House.