“Mauritius Telecom, Air Mauritius and others should also come under scrutiny”

Corruption & Public Procurements

Qs & As

* ‘No amount of regulations or guidelines will cleanse the rot that has set in.
The best practices already exist, but those who man the institutions should come with an integrity and honesty DNA’

 By LEX


We may have the necessary range of watchdog institutions yet corruption of our public procurement processes has ingrained itself to the extent that the rot seems unassailable. As it takes two to tango, large private sector firms are not averse, and some may go beyond the pale, to bribe and corrupt officials responsible for large contracts, while watchdog institutions are busy looking elsewhere. At the time of the FATF audit have we reached rock-bottom levels and how difficult will it be to reverse tracks? Lex opines below.


* The St Louis Gate case appears to have opened a Pandora’s Box: suspicions about huge sums of money given to corrupt the contract selection process of major government infrastructure projects have been confirmed. It appears that the Central Procurement Board, once untainted, has become a weak link in that nexus. And this has raised the question, as mentioned in M. Roy’s article in this paper, last Friday: Has the St Louis corruption and bribery case unveiled a much larger scam?

Not that large and corruption probably existed before here and there. But the St Louis scandal is illustrative and a slim part of a pattern of corruption that has plagued the country. During the first pandemic wave, contracts, running into millions of rupees, including those for defective ventilators, were being awarded to friends and cronies through the newly found mechanism that does not require tenders. The law was amended in 2020 to allow emergency procurement whereby a “public body may purchase goods, works, consultancy services or other services from a single supplier without competition in cases of extreme urgency”. What was so desperately urgent? Even if there was urgency, how come only a selected few close to the regime got the contracts?

Large chunks of public funds from MIC being awarded to a contractor to erect private buildings. Is that the purpose of the MIC? And what is ICAC doing in the meantime? Going against small fries or after politicians who are opposed to the present regime.

* The stated objective of the Central Procurement Board (CPB) is to “promote economy, efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and prevent any corrupt practice in public procurement and, thus, achieve best value for money in terms of price, quality and delivery according to specifications”. What’s the point of ‘having institutions to assure the transparency of tender procedures without the authorities putting in place the required safeguards and exercising the oversight necessary to ensure that everything is above board’?

Institutions do not operate by themselves. You cannot just press a button and the institution produces the required result. Institutions are manned by individuals. The manner of appointment of members of the institutions since 2014 show that a majority of those political nominees believe they should be subservient to the government of the day and some may also feel that since corruption exists at the top why can’t they too benefit from the system?

* What kind of safeguards and oversight mechanisms and/or institutions have to be put in place to exercise control over such institutions like the Central Procurement Board? Parliamentary committees like the one provided for by the law in the case of ICAC do not work…

A parliamentary committee is a good idea so long as it actually has the latitude to act in an independent manner. If we take the example of the parliamentary committee on ICAC, then it will be of no use having one if it is going to condone inefficiency and shortcomings.

* Even if Mauritius appears to be on the right path to be delisted from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which recognises ‘the link between corruption and money laundering, including how AML/CFT measures help combat corruption’, it’s very likely that the country will henceforth remain under vigilant monitoring of the FATF. Is that all the more reason why our procurement system should be periodically reviewed to come up to the level of international best practices as well as meet the requirements of international watch bodies?

No amount of regulations or guidelines will cleanse the rot that has set in. The best practices already exist, but those who man the institutions should come with an integrity and honesty DNA. What is also important is that those who govern us should set the example of good practices and demand same. You can have all kinds of monitoring mechanisms but without honest and clean people not much can be achieved.

As the OECD points out in its report on corruption, there must be international, mutual evaluation process and governments should take concrete action to promote integrity in the corporate sector, prevent corruption and investigate and prosecute cases of foreign bribery especially when bids are open transnationally.

* In the light of the above, would it be necessary ‘to review and audit all the public and CEB contracts involving the CPB, Burmeister & Wain Scandinavian Contractor A/S and the main protagonists of the Saint Louis Power Plant Redevelopment Project over the years to ascertain that all government contracts were rigorously based on international best practices’?

ICAC is investigating. Let us wait and see. In the meantime, will the government have the political will to cleanse the Augean stables? Can you imagine that some members of the Central Procurement Board have been there for several years! The Director of Audit was bypassed by some institutions when he made a request for some documents for audit purposes. In Parliament questions are disallowed on the award of contracts. Is that the way to exercise good governance?

* The African Development Bank allowed the ‘fast tracking’ of the St Louis Power Plant Redevelopment project ‘that needs to be commissioned within a very tight schedule’. We had similarly the emergency procurements of medicines, protective equipment, etc., in 2020 to fight the Covid-19 pandemic at a cost of more than Rs 1 billion from a number of suppliers. In both instances there have been allegations of wrongdoing and even corruption. Were the conditions as laid out in the Procurement Act for allowing emergency procurements rather than going through the normal public procurement process met in both cases?

The Public Procurement Act provides for measures on how procurement should be exercised. All these legal provisions boil down to ensuring that bidding and tendering are done in an open and transparent manner without any shady dealings behind the back of bidders.

* We understand that when it comes to emergency procurements, a Restricted Bidding exercise may be undertaken but only known and reliable suppliers are invited to submit bids. That condition was clearly not met in the case of medicines and other supplies in 2020. What’s your take on that?

That procedure was used admittedly to cope with a pressing problem but it would seem it had to do more with giving loads of public money to cronies. Who are those who obtained the contracts? Hotel owners. Jewellers. Hardware store owners. How did these people come to be aware of the procurement needs of the government?

* The CPB has the statutory duty to vet bidding documents prepared by a public body (ministry/parastatal) before Invitations for Bids are launched to ensure that the specifications/requirements contained in a Bidding Document are not restrictive or tailor-made. Do you feel that the CPB has its say all along public procurement of goods and services or do you think that the point from which it intervenes in the system of public procurement limits its role so that the best outcomes are not always achieved?

The temptation of easy money just leads some of those who deal with procurement to cast to the winds the values that should guide them in the discharge of their responsibilities. At the same time, it must be emphasized that the temptation is created by those big firms national or transnational that fight to the hilt to secure big contracts involving colossal amounts of money.

* In light of the recent arrests of public officials connected with the St Louis Redevelopment project and the earlier allegations levelled against some politicians directly or indirectly associated with this matter, what does this case inform us about the questionable nexuses that operate in the public procurement process in the country?

There has always been a suspicion that contracts are awarded in exchange for kickbacks. There has been an Omerta around such shady dealings. Now this phenomenon is hitting us badly in the face. If only the Integrity Commission had kept an eye on ostentatious living and the assets of some officials operating in the field of procurement, the country would have been spared of so much embarrassment.

* There is also the issue of corruption in public procurement and political party financing. The OECD has in a report made mention of political parties having been observed ‘diverting public funds, including through bribery in public procurement’. Does that strike a chord here?

Of course. Vinod Boolell in an article in the English section of l’express rightly quotes the relevant passage of the OECD report that reads: ‘Examples of corruption in public procurement also lead to the more general question of the rules applicable to political party financing. In various countries around the world political parties have been observed diverting public funds, including through bribery in public procurement, to ensure incomes. In some countries, corrupt administrations are the reflection of a much wider corruption problem. In fact, the debate on transparency in political party financing is related to the transversal issue of corruption in public markets.’

* What about the procurements of State-Owned Enterprises like Mauritius Telecom, Air Mauritius, etc.? Does the fact that they operate in a competitive environment obviate the need for some form of oversight and (should therefore escape) parliamentary scrutiny?

State-Owned Enterprises, the likes of Mauritius Telecom, Air Mauritius and others should also come under scrutiny. But again, it depends on the type of scrutiny that would be entertained. One may ask: why should there be opacity on their operations? Is it to condone corruption? Is it to allow those at the helm to amass money for political parties like what we were given to understand from the earlier Air Mauritius’ caisse noire?


* Published in print edition on 5 October 2021

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