The Sena railway line tender has exposed dysfunction in the Tonse Allianice administration on decision-making, with multiple decision reversals and competing power centres derailing a project critical to Malawi’s international trade.
For example, according to a cache of documents we have seen, which the Ministry of Transport submitted to the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB)as part of its investigations, the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority (PPDA) issued a ‘No Objection’, only to reverse it 10 days later, then issue another one two months later.
Competing power centres also came to light when President Lazarus Chakwera approved the procurement, only for the Secretary to the President and Cabinet (SPC) Zanga-Zanga Chikhosi to halt it and then nodded to it months later.
The project document show that the duration of the project is 18 months and was initially scheduled to be completed on March 22 2022. This means if all went according to plan, construction works should have commenced in February this year.
The confusion and red tape in the Tonse Alliance administration is coming against the background that Malawi needed this railway line connection yesterday, to reduce the cost of trade for Malawi.
Mozambique launched its reconstruction works of the Mutarara to Marka (Nsanje border) section of the railway line in May this year.
The 44-kilometre section, which was decommissioned in 1986 due to fighting in the area, will carry both freight and passenger services from the Port of Beira to Malawi.
The reconstruction of the 72-kilometre Marka-Bangula Railway Line project, which will be funded by government to the tune of about K70 billion, is divided into two parts. The first section covers a 26 kilometres—from Marka to Nsanje Boma, and the next 46 kilometres goes up to Bangula. This is part of the 201-kilometre project that takes the line to Limbe.
Modernisation of the railway line follows discussions President Lazarus Chakwera had with his Mozambican counterpart Felipe Nyusi in October last year to revamp the Sena line.
So, in September 2020, the ministry initiated the process of procuring a contractor for the reconstruction of Marka to Nsanje section, and in November 2020, after bid evaluation, Mota Engil Africa emerged successful from the submitted bids.
But that was the beginning of trouble as the ministry has been pushed from pillar to post, even after successfully complying with all the procedural requirements of the government’s prevailing circulars issued in July 2020.
On January 22, 2021, PPDA granted the Ministry of Transport and Public Works the first ‘No Objection’ with instructions that the Government Contracting Unit (GCU) and Ministry of Justice should also review and vet the draft the contract and that the award should be approved by the Secretary to the SPC.
But on February 8, 2021, PPDA withdrew the No Objection which it said was necessitated by “factors in relation to the reviewing process.”
On February 18 2021, PPDA asked Ministry of Transport to submit a progress report on all rail and road projects Mota-Engil was implementing. The ministry submitted the progress report on February 25 2021.
On April 15 2021, the ministry requested OPC for clearance and the GCU and Ministry of Justice to vet the draft contract before awarding.
Seven days later, SPC wrote the ministry advising it, again, to submit to GCU all the relevant documents relating to the contract.
However, GCU took almost three months to review the ministry’s submissions, and respond to its vetting request.
“GCU has noted some critical issues that need your clarification before approval is granted for the ministry to proceed with the award and signing of the contract,” reads the GCU letter to the ministry, dated July 2 2021 and signed Vincent Sikelo on behalf of Secretary for Government Contracts.
When contacted this week to explain why GCU took three months to review the contract and advise the ministry, Sikelo asked for a questionnaire, which he did not respond to despite his promise.
Similarly, when asked why PPDA withdrew its initial ‘No Objection’ only to issue another one two months later, the authority’s spokesperson Grace Thipa did not respond to our questionnaire, again, despite her promise.
The SPC did not respond to our phone calls, but Minister of Information Gospel Kazako in an interview yesterday said since the issue is with the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) “it is prudent for us not to comment or share our views on the matter.”
The blitz on this strategic project also got the attention of President Chakwera after Deputy Minister of Transport and Public Works Nancy Chaola Mdooko sent him a confidential memo dated June 8 2020.
Mdooko briefed the President on the state of affairs on the procurement process. In response, Chakwera gave a go-ahead to the ministry to proceed with the awarding of the contract.
In a memo, dated June 8 2021, reference number C/ADM/1/2, the Ministry of Transport notified the President that it had settled for Mota-Engil as a contractor for the first phase of the 201-kilometre railway project which starts from Marka to Limbe and the President gave approval.
Said Chakwera in his response dated June 16 2021: “This is noted with thanks. This portion of the railway needs to be done with speed.”
But the President’s directive appeared not to have moved the Secretary to the President and Cabinet (SPC) Zanga-Zanga Chikhosi, who on July 19 2021 directed the ministry to put on hold the process of awarding Mota-Engil the contract.
This is confirmed in a confidential memo reference C/ADM/2/1, dated the same day, from Principal Secretary for Ministry of Transport and Public Works Patrick Zimpita to SPC.
“As directed today, I am putting on hold the process to award Mota-Engil to rehabilitate and upgrade a 72-kilometre rail line from Marka to Bangula. I am attaching the government notice we wanted to put in the newspaper today to finalise the process as well as the criteria used by our Internal Procurement and Disposal Committee for evaluation as you requested.
“I am also attaching a memo from His Excellency the State President Dr. Lazarus MacCathy Chakwera on the issue just in case you did not see it. I will be waiting for your further guidance and directives,” reads the memo from Zimpita.
As if that was not enough, a hammer blow to the project was the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) order early this month, which stopped the ministry from dealing with the contract following alleged complaints the bureau received on the issue.
According to the complaint, among others, the evaluation team for the tender was allegedly receiving verbal instructions from unnamed politicians to award the contract to Mota-Engil.
It further alleged that the approval from the PPDA was also influenced with what was referred to as an “invincible hand”.
The ministry was advised to use the International Competitive Bidding method which offers a level-playing field for the contractors and enables government to get value for money, according to the ministry’s Principal Secretary Patrick Zimpita in a memo to the Minister of Transport and Public Works dated August 19 2020.
The Notice of Invitation for Tender Number MTPW/IPDC/DoRS/01/2020-2021 to design, upgrade and rehabilitate the railway line was advertised through The Nation and The Daily Times newspapers with deadline for submission of bids being October 27 2020, and was later extended to November 3 2020.
Twenty-one bidding documents were purchased at K15 000 complete set but only five submitted their documents and after a preliminary examination, two bidders were ‘substantially non responsive’ to the bidding documents’ requirements and were not considered for detailed evaluation.
The three remaining bidders included Mota-Engil, China Railway 20 Bureau Group Corporation and China Civil Engineering Construction and after the overall analysis, the evaluation committee recommended Mota-Engil Africa to be invited for contract negotiations.
According to the Bid Evaluation Report and Recommendation for Award of Contract, dated November 2020, the evaluation of the bids was conducted in accordance with the PPDA desk instructions and the committee was headed by Joseph Sheketeni Banda from the ministry’s Marine Department.
How Mota-Engil was recommended for selection
Mota-Engil was the lowest evaluated bidder at the proposed contract amount of K48.24 billion, including 16.5 percent valued added tax (VAT) and the company was supposed to complete the works in 18 months.
The company also met all other requirements in terms of equipment, personnel, financial resources, experience, historical financial performance and average annual volume of construction work over the past 10 years of at least K60 billion.
President Chakwera has expressed commitment to revamp railway transport, which he believes is a catalyst for economic growth.
Governance and public administration expert Jeff Kabondo said such delays to procure a contractor would affect the project delivery resulting in the economy losing out on the opportunity.
“If indeed there are competing interests by senior government officials then the current administration’s development agenda is seriously under threat. Such behaviour is bordering on impunity and abuse of office and must be investigated because it is a form of corruption,” he said.
Kabondo said the back-and-forth movements of decisions manifested in the process were a clear indication of a potential case of influence peddling and urged law enforcement agencies such as ACB to take an interest in the matter.
He said, as a project that would help to open up an import and export route, time was essential if government was serious about developing the economy and improving welfare of Malawians.
The Sena line was closed in the 1980s following civil war in Mozambique but the railway line between Bangula and Limbe in Malawi continued to operate, serving mainly the sugar sector, until it was damaged by floods at Chiromo in 1996.