By The Weekend Nation-Lucky Mkandawire
The Anti-Corruption Bureau’s (ACB) restriction order on fuel supply contracts by the National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma) has exposed the watchdog’s indecisiveness having endorsed the deals exactly three months earlier.
Communication Weekend Nation has analysed indicates before suspending the oil contracts to pave the way for investigations, ACB had alongside three other public entities already vetted Nocma’s request seeking a ‘no objection’ to award the contracts.
The other government institutions that cleared Nocma’s request are the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority (PPDA), Government Contracting Unit (GCU) and the Ministry of Justice. They found the contracts to be in order except for one bidder, according to letters we have seen.
In its letter dated March 12, 2021 and addressed to the director general of PPDA, the bureau said it granted the ‘no objection’ to the contracts in accordance with Section 37(11) of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act.
“I refer to your letter Ref No. PPDA/03/361 dated 2 March, 2021 received by ACB on 5 March, 2021 relating to the above captioned matter, and wish to inform you that we have vetted the request from Nocma seeking a ‘no objection’ to award fuel supply contracts,” reads part of the ACB letter signed by the acting chief corruption prevention officer Susan Mtuwa Phiri.
However, ACB withheld the ‘no objection’ for the fourth bidder known as IPG that was also supposed to supply the products from Beira due to “unsatisfactory premiums” the supplier offered.
But when contacted on the sudden change of decision, ACB director general Martha Chizuma in an interview Thursday played down its earlier position justifying that despite granting a ‘no objection’ the bureau could still institute investigations on the process.
“Usually when the bureau grants such ‘no objection’, it clearly states that it reserves the right to still investigate the procurement in the event new information comes to light that needs further scrutinisation. So the issues raised by the complainants deserve the bureau’s attention,” she stated. Chizuma did not indicate what new information ACB had received to necessitate cancellation of the contracts.
However, Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives (Cdedi) has described ACB’s sudden change of decision as a “worrisome development” which questions the credibility of people at the bureau and the interests they advance.
Cdedi executive director Sylvester Namiwa said in an interview yesterday the case should serve as a wakeup call to people entrusted to make decisions in statutory and constitutional bodies to always follow the law governing their institutions to avoid “such embarrassing moments”.
He said: “ACB’s credibility is heavily bruised by the sudden change in decision. This is a clear case of shifting goal posts, smacks of double standards and puts to question our resolve to fight and win the fight against corruption.
“We can safely say the rescission of their earlier decision is as a result of public outcry and not basing on the principle and the spirit of the law.”
But procurement specialist Phillip Kamangira welcomed ACB’s decision to freeze the contracts after granting a ‘no objection’.
“Good procurement is impartial and consistent, and should offer all interested suppliers, purchasers and consultants an equal opportunity to compete.
“Therefore, procurement entities must adopt practices that promote fair competition and allow adequate time in the tendering procedure for participating as well as avoid unnecessary burden. These factors may have driven the newly-appointed ACB director to freeze the contract,” he said.
But he observed what had occurred offers a lesson for the need to observe integrity and ethical behaviour.
“The principle is that public servants should not place themselves in positions in which they have or could have conflict of interest or compromise the fair exercise of their public or official functions,” said Kamangira.
Nocma deputy chief executive officer Hellen Buluma declined to comment on the matter yesterday when contacted.
There was no immediate comment from PPDA and GCU but Ministry of Justice spokesperson Pirirani Masanjala said they needed to appreciate particulars of what ACB had done before commenting on the matter.
The ACB suspended the controversy-riddled fuel supply contracts on
Wednesday this week to institute investigations into various alleged anomalies in the process.
The intervention came against a background of a bitter fight between the boards of directors of Malawi Energy Regulation Authority and management of Nocma.
The approved contracts for the supply and delivery of approximately
234 820 metric tonnes (MT) of refined petroleum products (motor gasoline and automobile gasoil) were between Nocma and Lake Oil Limited, Nocma and Dalbit International Limited and Nocma and Camel Oil (T) Limited.
The three successful bidders were expected to deliver the products from Beira in Mozambique and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (Lake Oil and Dalbit) and Nacala in Mozambique for Camel Oil.