Barking up wrong tree while watching Chakwera pile new ruble on the old
People are right to be cynical. Malawi—being the crime scene of the mafia-like criminal enterprise called government—has seen more than its fair share of dubious contracts; those that either blatantly violate public procurement laws or are awarded through collusion between bidders and some well-placed public officials.
Indeed, Malawians have seen people with briefcase companies becoming billionaires overnight by simply securing a contract with ministries, departments and agencies through the backdoor even when everyone knows that the winning bid demonstrated neither the financial wherewithal nor the technical capacity to deliver on budget, on time and per specifications.
Such questionable contracts have wasted billions at Escom, the water boards and other public offices.
It is these backdoor contracts that bred Cashgate, are responsible for substandard works, for the inferior goods being delivered to Malawians and on the whole, largely the reason 30 percent of the national budget is pilfered into personal bank accounts through fraud and corruption, according to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions.
It is one of the major reasons we lack even the most basic of drugs in public hospitals, why we have mini-wells called potholes just months after contractors have handed over road projects; it explains why some suppliers get paid in full without ever delivering the agreed goods and services.
This is why it is exciting to see individual Malawians taking a keen interest in tenders, the subsequent contract awards and the quality of the output.
The problem I have, however, is that the focus is usually on the companies that have won the tenders instead of the people trusted to process the bids in line with the country’s legal and regulatory framework governing public procurement.
For example, the moment some folks learn that this company has won a tender worth billions of kwacha, they are up in arms questioning why that company has been given the contract and why so much money is going to that firm.
Usually, we do not bother to know whether those goods and services were budgeted for, how much was allocated for them and whether the tenders were in the MDA’s procurement plan.
We do not care to check what procurement method was used, whether the tenders were advertised and don’t interrogate the evaluation process, the role the Internal Procurement Committee played and how the controlling officer conducted himself or herself during the process.
After a controlling officer writes the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets (PPDA) Authority for a ‘No Objection’, what is the process that guides this body from issuing a ‘No Objection’?
Can a single person just wake up one morning, issue a ‘No Objection’ and that decision stands? There is no process, such as a committee or a team of experts at PPDA reviewing paper work from the procuring entity and then recommend whether the MDA should proceed to award or not?
Remember, no company bids for a job with the purpose of losing to competition. They are in it to win and a firm will do all it can—by hook or crook—to win that deal.
As a country we know this reality that is why we put in place procurement laws, regulations and systems to lay out the ground rules so that the playing field is leveled and ensure that there is order in how public procurements are conducted.
It is why government hires professionals to enforce the procurement laws, regulations and adhere to systems. When laws are broken, regulations and systems are ignored, it is not the bidding companies that broke them; these bidders do not work for the institutions set up specifically to enforce procurement rules.
When a tender file has not been submitted to the Anti-Corruption Bureau for scrutiny and clearance before an offer letter goes to a company, it is not the bidder’s fault. It all boils down to our legal and regulatory architecture and, most importantly, the people that taxpayers pay to implement them to the letter and spirit.
If the laws, regulations and systems have loopholes that bidders and dirty officials exploit, then review and tighten them. If the people hired to safeguard the rules bend them or just ignore them then either fire them, get them arrested or both.
These are what we the citizens should be demanding of our government. Because no matter how much you fume at companies for winning several tenders, it will be merely wasted oxygen. Every company has a right to participate in a tender and if the people you pay to protect the integrity of the procurement process say they won fair and square, why throw stones at the companies simply because they won based on your public servants’ evaluations? My point is that we are barking up the wrong tree.
And at the rate we are going, no one will be winning any tenders in this country and thus no goods and services will be delivered to the people.
Instead, Malawians should be pinning President Lazarus Chakwera on why he is not clearing the ruble in the public service he said is responsible for all this procurement mess, for the fraud, corruption and shocking inefficiency across the public service. Instead of taking on Chakwera for bringing more ruble to clean the ruble he says he found and thus sitting on a heap of old and new rubble, we are busy taking it out on companies that, by the way, do not award themselves tenders.