As Transparency International Zambia President Rueben Lifuka once observed, it is true that our fight against corruption is predicated on finding corrupt individuals while no interest is taken to seal the loopholes for corruption in order to prevent graft from occurring in the first place.
Zambia lacks realistic procurement laws or strong ethical guidelines for controlling officers, and as such, they do not see the value of being professional. They continue with their unscrupulous activities using embedded networks of corruption in the public service because the system is weak and porous.
In fact, in many cases government investigative wings waste lots of money pursuing individuals who end up being vindicated as subjects of political victimization. Meanwhile, the country continues to lose resources meant for developing public sector infrastructure.
It is important to note that in 2017 we were pointing fingers in the wrong direction. We accused companies that won controversial tenders of being headed by criminals and called them all sorts of names. Yes, they deserved to be called as citizens desired to call them, but we ignored the bigger picture – the real criminals are those in government who are responsible for awarding contracts.
It is our opinion that if we develop an impermeable procurement system in our government, no single private company would succeed to siphon public resources using corruptly awarded tenders. When analysing corruption in the procurement system, it is the giver who should be of greater concern and not so much the taker. Companies are registered to make profit, the bigger the profit margin the better for them. No wonder we see more and more foreign companies coming to Zambia to win lucrative contracts like installing traffic surveillance systems, when we have learned technocrats and engineers in our own government who can do the job.
In Zambia, when procurement departments require basic supplies like stationery or consumables like toiletries, they look for suppliers of goods and services to go and buy tissue for them in Shoprite. In that small transaction, the procurement officers will slot in an unbelievable markup to ensure that they get a cut from it. That is why procurement officers are among the most admired civil servants in government. They don’t get broke, if they do, it’s because a payment has delayed somewhere.
We should not throw the blame on the supplying companies in such transaction. The person we should take to task, as a nation, is the controlling officer. Why does our procurement system need middlemen to facilitate the purchase of such basic goods?
It is the same principle that we fail to apply even on bigger contracts. We are told that the President travelled to Saudi Arabia and negotiated the cheapest oil deal, but when actualising this deal (if it will ever materialise), we won’t hear of a government-to-government supply of oil. Middleman will be introduced to transact on behalf of government, and billions of kwacha will be lost into individuals’ pockets.
What is worse is that a poor country like Zambia has the luxury of embracing the tendering system that recognizes the ‘best’ evaluated bid and not the lowest evaluated bid. That is why the public is crying about the US$42 million paid to GrandView for the supply of 42 fire tenders; that is why the public is outraged with the US$273 million Star Times contract for Digital Migration and the US$1.2 billion deal with China Jiangxi for the construction of the Lusaka-Ndola dual carriageway.
What people do not understand is that even if these companies doubled their bid offers and the controlling officer (who is actually the President in some cases), see that as the ‘best’ evaluated bid (for whatever underhand reason), then they commit no crime in awarding the contract. Critics can call these companies all sorts of names, but in the absence of proof that there was corruption involved, it’s a dirty but legal game. They are simply playing looting roulette with the procurement system, because selling expensive goods to the government is encouraged by bad procurement laws in Zambia.
That is why the lowest bidders don’t win contracts in this country; such bids leave very little spoils to share between the middleman and the procurement wolves. In fact, lowest bids are considered a risk. So if you ask those who are in the business of supplying to our government, they will tell you that you must never be the lowest bidder. If you have an inside connection to facilitate the awarding of the contract, you just have to beat the price of one or two suppliers to avoid public outcry; stay in the middle and you are in business.
Surely, we must move away from that bidding system and embrace the lowest-evaluated bidding system because we are such a poor country. At least there must be a cap where we say, ‘if anyone bids above this price for fire trucks, they will not be considered’. We must be realistic and get rid of this luxury in the procurement system if we are serious about fighting corruption. If the lowest bidder has the capacity to deliver but has a few grey areas in the bid, the procurement team must be able to approach such a company and say we “we have identified you for this job, but work on this and that”. This will promote genuine competition among supply companies to serve the country better.
But the problem we have in Zambia is that big companies that sponsor political parties during election campaigns become too powerful and arrogant. They hold the Executive to ransom, as they demand to recoup their campaign spending – leading to State capture, especially if the President-elect is weak.
In our current scenario, these companies don’t struggle to get government contracts because the system does it for them. Sometimes Permanent Secretaries put together teams of procurement officers who prepare bid documents for friends of the President. They make sure that their paperwork is flawless and the figures sit on the right end of the evaluation scale.
We need these tenderpreneurs to be regulated; they should be subjected to transparent tender processes and awarded government contracts on merit. It has to start from the Head of State telling those businessmen who put him in power that they will not get government contracts on a silver plate. They will have to beat their rivals through competitive pricing. No Zambian would complain if that were the case.
But we have such a rotten procurement system where the Head of State demands for commission even before a contract is awarded. Under fuel procurement, no individual company can win a tender in Zambia without paying what they ironically call “Due Diligence” to State House. This is the reason why fuel prices will never go down, and we cannot entirely blame the suppliers. You find the President is the one who advises the supplier to put a markup on their tender price so that he gets his heavy kickback from the deal; then the minister adjusts the price further up before the permanent secretary and the rest of the procurement officers join in to secure their cuts.
All it takes to win a big government contract in our country is being in good standing with State House, that is why we have companies like “Chrimar Earth Moving Equipment” being selected to supply fuel. Next we will see a company called “Gulani Walwa Anakazi Awele Tavern” being awarded a tender to supply military equipment worth US$2 billion. Boma iyanganepo!