Just too often, corporates step up to say lofty things about themselves, especially when there are questions around their conduct. This is predictable because capital mostly tends to rebel against institutions with the bad boy image. In public relations, it is called crisis management.
corruptionwatch WITH TAWANDA MAJONI
It is in this context that one must understand claims by Univern Enterprises that its deals with the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration (Zinara) have been above board. Univern and Zinara, by the way, have over the years hogged the limelight for questionable deals. One such deal was the awarding of a contract to Univern in 2013 for the supply of 40 graders worth $8 million without going to tender.
In the first instance, Zinara followed proper procedures for the supply of an initial 40 graders. Things started going wrong when Zinara simply went ahead and ordered a similar number of graders using specifications on the first tender that the State Procurement Board (SPB) had okayed and gave the tender to Univern.
Up to now, Univern insists that the second arrangement was “above board”. This is what Musekiwa Khumbula, a key Univern representative, said regarding the matter: “After delivering the (first batch of) graders…we received a purchase order from Zinara for a further 40 graders under the same specifications and prices. And we duly delivered the second batch of the graders. All this was above board”.
Khumbula read from the same script as another Univern director, Lawrence Neil Sher, is reading. In Sher’s words:
“The additional 40 were not tendered for, but they used the same SPB number Zinara/01/12 to order them. To us as Univern, if you add the number to a tender and you do not change the price and specifications, then the tender is transparent and valid. It was above board”.
What Khumbula and Sher say is, at the very least, mischievous interpretation of the laws regarding tendering.
Apparently, Univern chose not to be imprudent and start counting the teeth in a gift horse’s mouth once Zinara handed them the second contract. Univern is chasing profits and wouldn’t want to be questioning procedures when big money is beckoning. But to keep publicly pretending that the contract was above board is weird.
And here is why. In the first instance, the law is abundantly clear on how tenders must be handled. Section 30 of the State Procurement Board Act Chapter 22:14 specifies that all procurements above $500 000 must be handled through the SPB. Those that fall below that are the responsibility of accounting officers, with the exception of limited tenders.
Now, the contract for the supply of the second batch of graders was worth $8 million, which is way above $500 000.
That means it had to go through SPB. Of course, it didn’t. This is neither above board nor transparent as Univern would want us to believe. And it speaks very unflatteringly about the Public Private Partnership (PPP) between Zinara and Univern that the latter wrongly believes is one of the best in the world.
I am not reinventing logic here. I am just repeating what all the institutions that matter in this context have already said. The former SPB boss, Charles Kuwaza said the same thing when he appeared before parliament when questions started flying around over the relationship between Univern and Zinara. He admitted that the second contract must have gone to tender. That was an admission that the deal was not above board.
Similarly, the current SPB chairman, Buzwani Mothobi, agrees that there was an administrative violation of the tendering process when Zinara used specifications on the first tender to unilaterally award the second grader contract. He even pointed out that SPB had referred the matter to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (Zacc) and the police after its own investigation.
A whole statutory board like SPB wouldn’t start referring matters to Zacc and the police if things had been done above board. You instigate investigations when there is prima facie evidence that the law was broken. That the matter was never investigated is not the point here, for there were glaring and apparently complicit omissions on the part of the law enforcement agencies.
Again, we all know now that the SPB issued a condonation of the second grader contract so as to create space to have the tender righted. The principle of condonation is straight forward. An act of commission or omission is condoned because there were attending irregularities. But then, it becomes a contradiction to admit that what you did was irregular but insist under the same breath that it was above board.
Zinara wouldn’t have accepted the directive to condone the contract if it was above board. As already pointed out, Kuwaza acknowledged that the contract was erroneously awarded to Univern. It doesn’t end there. Moses Juma, who replaced former Zinara CEO, Frank Chitukutuku in an acting capacity, also told parliament in August 2014 that “there was an omission on our part” which amounted to “oversight”. It then becomes bizarre that Univern has up to now not seen the omission, considering the seemingly close relationship between the private company and Zinara.
While Univern sees nothing wrong with its PPP with Zinara, the minister with administrative oversight on the roads administration, Jorum Gumbo, thinks otherwise. In January 2016, he directly expressed government’s grave concerns “at the intricate contractual relationship that now exists between Zinara and Univern” to the roads authority’s management. It can’t be government’s business to get worried with contracts that are above board.
There is no doubt that the PPP matrix between Zinara and Univern has brought some positive value. There is clear evidence that the roads system is now run in a more efficient or less inefficient way. But there is humongous difference between improved efficiency (aka decreased inefficiency) and contractual relationships that are or aren’t above board. The Zinara-Univern second grader contract was obviously not above board. It doesn’t matter if the graders improved our roads or not. They did their work on dirty wheels.
Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit organisation promoting access to information on public and private sector governance, transparency and accountability issues, and can be contacted on email@example.com.