How commission agents have used the media and turned the procurement process in Uganda into a circus
It is now highly probable that the US$ 2 billion tendering process for the 600MW hydro electricity dam at Karuma will be declared a `mis-procurement’. If this happens, I can bet that it will take the next seven years of wrangling before another contractor is named to build Karuma.
Recent media reports suggest that President Yoweri Museveni ordered the wiretapping of the room where the tenders were being discussed between ministry of Energy and ministry of Finance officials. Other press reports claim the police have done a “thorough” investigation and produced a report that suggests these officials were absent on private business during the period when the tenders were under review. Many more stories of these heroic efforts by government to ensure a clean and transparent procurement process will appear in the media. The thing about our media is how much we do not learn from past experiences.
To a person visiting Uganda for the first time and following these media reports, our country seems to have a vigilant government that is out there to guard the public good and ensure that our citizens get a good deal. For a journalist like me who has covered public tenders for over 15 years, these stories are most likely make-believe tales that demonstrate attempts to corrupt the tendering process. The first cause of suspicion is the fact that newspapers that shout loudest about how Museveni and the police aid and abate corruption in our country are the ones – clearly inadvertently – reporting his heroic efforts and those of the police to strangle this monster of corruption in the dam deal.
Media organisations in Uganda lack institutional memory. Our newspaper industry does not retain staff for many years. So the reporters and editors who reported on the last procurement deal have moved on. Consequently, our journalists and editors have not yet developed an “eagle eye’s” view of our political system. So they tend to cover every procurement deal as an event rather than as part of a wider pattern.
Often, the companies that bid for big tenders in Uganda are international. They come believing, rightly or wrongly, that to get a deal, you need political influence. But international firms lack social ties with our political and bureaucratic class to navigate the webs of wheeler-dealing that gets one a contract. So they hire local handlers to do the work for them. These local intermediaries earn a commission upon the international firm getting a contract. And they are people who have (or are perceived to have) close connections with the powers that be.
Because of the interconnectedness of the Ugandan political system, anyone of the commission agents knows who his opposite numbers are. Perhaps they get good information on the bribing that is taking place. But some of the time, actually most of the time, it is gossip, slander, idle talk and rumours. If one company wins the tender, the commission agent of the rival company, whose pay depends on his company getting the deal, will leverage the institutions of accountability like the IGG, PPDA, media, Parliament, State House or intelligence services to claim that the rival bribed their way to success. He will become the anonymous whistle blower or even convince the company he is representing to lodge an official complaint.
Initially the institutions that ensure accountability in our country may intervene with the genuine motive of resolving the scandal. The problem, however, is that immediately they do so, the commission agents of the different competing firms join the fray to influence the outcome. Each now will seek to influence MPs, PPDA, the IGG investigators or the media to get to a favourable rating or coverage. In pursuit of this objective they will use facts, lies, bribes and all sorts of tricks to get their way.
Their primary objective will be to discredit the initial award in order to cause a mis-procurement. For then, their company gets another chance at the deal, and them, another probability at a commission. The real corruption begins when they are trying to torpedo an award. For then they can ask the company they are representing for money to buy off investigators from the office of the IGG, PPDA, police and intelligence officers, MPs and the media. Often, they may not even pay any bribes – for example to journalists – since we are always hungry for the next scandal.
It is in this context that if you understand the political economy of procurement in Uganda, you realise that the very efforts that are seemingly aimed at fighting graft are the very instruments thieves and crooks use to promote the cause of corruption. There are always hidden motives beneath the manifest ones that shape the struggle to cause a mis-procurement. The bidding firms are promised by their commission agents a favourable outcome if the initial allocation is cancelled. So they play along.
I was a young journalist when four international companies competed to win a tender to offer pre-shipment inspection services. The battle between Cotecna (Switzerland), Bivac (France), ITS (Britain) and SGS (France) was protracted, bloody and expensive. It paralysed the entire government, compromised the institutional integrity of the state, caused a burglary in the ministry of Finance and ended in no deal after four years of manoeuvres and counter manoeuvres. I covered the attempt to award a tender to issue a National ID and the struggle between Contec Global (from Britain), Information Technologies (from South Africa) and Super Com (from Israel) was fought in parliament, State House and the media and ended with no national ID.
The list of these contests is endless. The lesson, however, is that Ugandan editors and reporters have not learnt the lesson from these contests i.e. that we are often used – perhaps inadvertently – to promote causes we know little about. In the process, we help, not only in undermining the ability of the state to perform its functions, but actually to accentuate corruption.
If the government declares Karuma a mis-procurement, it will be another seven years before another contractor is given a contract. During this time, the costs of the dam as a result of corruption and inflation will escalate. A seeming effort to fight corruption is actually the fuel that propels this monster in our country.