Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya says President Edgar Lungu has conceded that there is a serious problem with the procurement system which is allowing inflated bids and thereby permitting “legal corruption” through the normal tender procedures.

And Siliya says government is contemplating revising the composition of the procurement laws so that a senior official, rather than a junior procurement officer can be entrusted with the responsibility of rejecting overpriced bids for government tenders.

In an exclusive interview with News Diggers, Siliya said President Lungu would be celebrating Zambia’s 55th Independence with a heavy heart when it comes to corruption because no matter how much government explains itself, the public still believes that the Head of State and his Ministers are corrupt and hiding corrupt practices.

She said the President has come to the realization that there is legal corruption going on, permitted by weak procurement processes which excluded senior government officials’ oversight.

“It is very clear that no matter what government tries to say about the perception of corruption, more and more citizens are beginning to believe that every story they hear about corruption is true…The fight against corruption in this country has been related to procurement. Government is a big spender and as a result, it procures a lot of projects; massive road projects, airports, up to a pen in a government office…Now, if as part of that procurement, a perception of corruption is being created, then government, especially the President, is extremely concerned because if we are going to procure a road and as part of procurement [and] people say it’s corruption, the President is asking that maybe there is something wrong,” Siliya said.

“That’s why the President is concerned that maybe there is another problem. Maybe the procedures and laws we have are making it possible for people to almost practice legal corruption. But people seem to be asking a moral question that ‘should really that be the price?’ But if you look at the procedures, the procedures were correct. So it’s very difficult for the Anti-Corruption to say somebody broke the law because Ministry of Local Government is going to say the procedures were followed and these were the bids. So clearly, we have laws and procurement procedures which are being followed but as far as the public is concerned, those laws and procedures are allowing for almost legal corruption and that is what is concerning the President that we probably need to re-look at this process because if we explain to the citizens that the rules were followed but then the citizens are saying ‘even if the rules were followed, we think something wrong happened’, there is a moral issue there. So the President is saying ‘yes we concede maybe there is a moral issue here’.”

She said the current procurement system made it possible for suppliers and procurement officers to collude in defrauding government.

“Maybe we need to go back and say ‘how do we change these laws so that they not allow for what citizens believe is morally wrong but is legally correct to be happening’ so that if a procurement head is in a ministry, if a pencil is supposed to cost K10, let it cost K10. Let not bids come in and one bid is K20, another bid is K18 because if the minimum price is K10 and the seller wants to make a profit then the pencil should just be at K12. But if a bid comes in and it’s K20 because those who are selling to government they collude and say ‘this is government let’s sell at an expensive price’. So instead of a pencil being K10, they will sell to government at K20, another one will say it’s K18 and government will buy and the laws will be followed because government will say ‘bring three quotations’ and because people know it’s government, they will collude. And when government buys, people will say it’s corruption. But what is missing are clear rules about what should be the benchmark pricing,” Siliya said.

“That’s what the President is saying must be addressed immediately because government cannot be losing money because suppliers are colluding with procurement officials. Sometimes, it’s just suppliers colluding…they will tell each other ‘we are just three of us who are going to supply to government and because it’s just three of us, you make your price this, me I will make it this…’ and this is what has concerned the President that we cannot have such going on. Then because there is a lot of what I term legal corruption, that’s why if someone goes and reports to ACC that ‘this minister did this or that director did this’, most of the time when they go to court, those cases fail because the rules are being followed. And in such cases the ACC doesn’t know what to do because when they look at the tender procures, they were followed.”

And Siliya said it was frustrating that the President and politicians were being unfairly blamed for inflated projects.

“So the President is saying ‘maybe both sides are right so let’s go back and look at the procedures’, who in government is accountable for procurement? If you talk about audit, it’s the Auditor General, if you talk about accounting, the Accountant General is responsible. But if you talk about procurement, who is responsible in government? We don’t have that position and the procurement people, the professionals are saying this is what the problem is. And they are saying that’s why when people look for someone to blame for corruption, they say the President, they say the ministers…when it comes to procurement, there is no senior position in government, someone who can set the rules and benchmarks that ‘this will cost what it should cost’ and that if somebody lies, they can be fired,” she explained.

“What is there now in ministries is just the head of procurement, a very junior position and as a result, procurement is almost free range.
That’s why even when the laws are followed, it is very difficult to convince the citizens because they have a seen a gap because there are no benchmarks and the first person to blame is the President. That’s why even when it’s something outside government like the 48 houses, people want to blame the President. This is because the people do not have a figurehead in government to blame when they are not happy with procurement. But the President is saying after 55 years of independence, let us get back to the drawing board about procurement so that we can have administrative systems that make it possible for benchmarks on pricing to be made so that in each ministry, in each government agency, there will be a benchmark so that if a pen costs K10 in the Ministry of Information, it should not cost K14 in the Ministry of Transport because the whole government will have benchmarks.”

And Siliya said President Lungu and the Finance Minister were currently reviewing a proposal to rectify this problem.

“So government has received recommendation from the procurement people and the President and the Ministry of Finance are studying these matters so that we can really be clear that going forward, we can harmonize government. There is no senior oversight within government and that is what the Procurement Institute of Zambia are telling government. So all of us are concerned, not just the opposition. But while the opposition have been making noise, us we have been engaging the Procurement Institute of Zambia to discuss what we can do and they have made a number of recommendations which the Minister of Finance and the President have been studying. We hope that the Minister of Finance will provide direction going forward so that we continue to have confidence in government procurement systems because it is these inadequacies that even make it difficult for 20 per cent monetary contract to be implemented and it’s making Zambians poor in the end. Inadequacies in procurement systems and administration is what keeps Zambians poor because bad procurement leads to legal corruption,” Siliya said.

Meanwhile, Siliya advised media practitioners to ask questions to the right people whenever there was a scandal.

“Lastly, I also think that the media should help because I have also seen from the media a lot of unsubstantiated accusations. As the media, you are not asking the right people in government because if you hear there is corruption at the Ministry of Information, coming to the minister is irrelevant because you need to go to the people who bought. The minister is a policy maker and supervisor in the ministry. The Permanent Secretary is the controlling officer in that he signs on the money to be spent but the minister is the one who gets the budget for the ministry approved at Parliament. But when it comes to spending the money, it is the PS under the direction of the accountant in the ministry. And when it comes to procurement, I told you there is a procurement head. For example, under Ministry of Information, we have ZNBC and ZAMCOM, so if money goes missing at ZNBC, why go to the minister when there is a Director General at the institution?” asked Siliya.

“So why do the public always believe that the politicians are the ones who buy something? I have never bought anything in my ministry but if there is any issue in my ministry, the focus is ‘it’s the minister’…So all of us as a country, we are suffering because when a country is being accused of corruption all the time, it’s not just politicians suffering. So this is for all of us to come together and say ‘what is wrong’. For example, we have procured fire tenders at USD$1 million and the minister comes to Parliament and says the tenders were procured at USD$1 million and these were the bids; one was $48 million, one was $42 million and the other was $39 million. But when the minister explains this, everybody says ‘it must be corruption’ so the President is concerned that there is a problem because the people who sat to procure, the Head of Procurement and the Tender Committee made a procurement and the minster is simply responding. But the public has no confidence in that explanation.”