FINANCE Minister Dr Bwalya Ng’andu says the Zambia Public Procurement Authority (ZPPA) has been given the mandate to be publishing, on a quarterly basis, reference prices of various goods and possibly services that the government procures from time to time. He says this will help with price benchmarking so that the government is not overcharged on services that it procures.

Dr Bwalya NG’ANDU: “We have made a provision for what we call price benchmarking and quarterly pricing indexes. The Zambia Public Procurement Authority (ZPPA) will on a quarterly basis publish reference prices of various goods and possibly services that the government procures from time to time. And that will form the benchmark for pricing. The reason here is that I am sure you know when the government is procuring, somehow the government procures at a higher cost than everybody else so clearly something is not quite right. Now, it will take about 12 months for the authority to come up with the mechanism for driving this information. In the meantime, we will be using a concept of price reasonableness analysis. That way, we will take out the wastage that are associated with overpricing of goods and services that the government procures.”

It is our considered opinion that the minister is not addressing the real challenge in the procurement sector. In our view, 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.

These are the issues Honourable Ng’andu should be raising. 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. Why does our procurement system need middlemen to facilitate the purchase of such basic goods?

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. What people do not understand is that even if these companies doubled their bid offers and the controlling officer see that as the ‘best’ evaluated bid, 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. Selling expensive goods to the government is encouraged by bad procurement laws in Zambia.

Price benchmarking may sound like a good idea, but the minister must ask himself why the lowest bidders don’t win contracts in this country. The answer is because such bids leave very little spoils to share between the middleman and the procurement wolves. So the solution that the minister is proposing will not heal corruption in the procurement sector. 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 this procurement, 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.

We are not suggesting that the lowest bidder will be the best bidder, we are saying our evaluation for bids must move from bottom up. 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 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.

In our current scenario, these companies don’t struggle to get government contracts because the system does it for them. 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.