“The President is concerned that, maybe, the procurement procedures and laws we have are making it possible for people to almost practice legal corruption. 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, the President is saying: ‘yes, we concede, maybe, there is a moral issue here,” Chief Government Spokesperson told us last week.
“Government cannot be losing money because suppliers are colluding with procurement officials. 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.”
It surprises us when the Minister says junior procurement officers lack oversight from someone senior in government. Which junior procurement officer is she referring to? What position are they going to create, which will be more powerful than the President?
Maybe, we should ask it this way: is the Minister and her President telling us that President Edgar Lungu and the Minister of Local Government had no idea that Zambia was going to spend US $42 million on 42 fire trucks? If they didn’t know for real, then we have a proper banana republic! But if they knew, what oversight role did they play? They allowed it because they had an interest! You can’t blame junior procurement officers for that.
You can create the position of Procurement General or whatever the title, it will not stop the “legal corruption” that the Minister was referring to. We have constitutional offices in this country where office bearers cannot be fired by the Head of State. Are they respected? What have they done to stop the “legal corruption?” Nothing! What about the so-called Integrity Committees constituted under the Anti-Corruption Commission in all public institutions? What have they done to stop the legal corruption? Nothing!
The truth of the matter is that politicians in Zambia are in charge of procurement. They are the controlling officers and manufacturers as well as beneficiaries of legal corruption. Procurement officers are nobodies. They simply get orders and do as instructed.
What we know is that the only amount of money that procurement officers can spend on goods or services without subjecting it to tender is K50,000, which still has to be approved by the Director or the Permanent Secretary. There has never been a problem under that threshold. The problem comes in when the money involved is big and the tender committee is constituted to evaluate the bids. Suddenly, corruption creeps in as sub-committees start sitting secretly to correct bid documents for preferred companies.
What does that tell? It shows that the politicians have stepped in to influence the awarding of the contracts to their paymasters. Procurement officers have no powers to unilaterally approve any purchase. A Permanent Secretary has overriding authority to decide and approve any procurement transaction, no matter how little the amount involved is.
Look at road contracts, for example. Who looks at the bills of quantities and approves before the contract is awarded? It’s the engineers who in some cases collude with the contractors and the politicians! But when the contractor chews the money and does a shoddy job; bridge is washed away, the engineers stand at a distance, while the ministers join the public in blaming and insulting the procurement officers. Is that fair?
We also know that the President can actually call a Permanent Secretary directly and issue an instruction on who should be awarded a contract. Mr Chishimba Kambwili told the nation soon after his dismissal that this is exactly what President Edgar Lungu did on the Digital Migration tender.
“We picked a group of 12 technocrats from ZNBC, from our Ministry, from Ministry of Transport and Communications and we camped them at Ibis Gardens to come up with a tender document, which was going to be advertised. When I left for South Africa to go and visit Multichoice, the President called the one who was acting permanent secretary, his substantive position is director of planning, Mr Kaluba. He called him and directed him that ‘stop whatever you are doing at Ibis Gardens and single-source Star Times. When I came back from South Africa with my PS, the PS came to my office with the acting PS and said ‘sir, there was an instruction from the President, I want the acting PS to brief you.’ Then he told me, ‘I was called by the President and he told me to stop working on the tender document and single-source Star Times’,” Kambwili revealed.
This is how bad the situation is. Even ministers have such powers. They instruct procurement officers to give a contract to a specific company and if the bid documents have mistakes, they are ordered to correct them. Those who work in procurement know what we are talking about. That’s where the corruption starts.
Even when a contract has been awarded transparently, the winner still has to go back to the politicians to pay a colossal token of appreciation. That is why the Zambia Institute of Purchasing and Supply (ZIPS) is saying there is 30 per cent more corruption going on after the contracts have already been signed. If the token of appreciation is too little, then you will never win a government contract again.
So, what does the businessman do? They build that token of appreciation in the bid documents so that their profit is not affected. There is no businessman who loses money without finding a way of recouping it.
It is the politicians who decide whether to single-source a contract, to shortlist or to open the tender. The Zambia Public Procurement Authority (ZPPA) has no capacity to stop what the politicians decide. They are just a rubberstamp. They probably even help the tendering institution in sealing the loopholes that may attract queries from the Auditor General’s office. We asked the ZPPA about the grounds for the single-sourcing of toll plaza construction, to-date they have not explained it!
Let’s face the real problem here. It’s all about political will. Our “good governance” award-winning President cannot fight corruption because he is a product of corruption. His Presidency is sponsored by corruption and he is a participant in the corruption cartel. Chapwa!