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Northern Region Water Board contract mess

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As the saga regarding the Salima-Lilongwe Water Project rages on, it has emerged that the Northern Region Water Board (NRWB) might have flouted procurement procedures in the award of a $14 million contract to a facility management, civil engineering and construction company, Sawa Group.

Documents we have seen indicate that the contract was awarded at a total bid price of $10.1 million for the upgrading and extension of Mzimba Water Supply System which is under NRWB.

But, apparently, an arithmetic anomaly which was corrected after the contract had already been awarded pushed the contract price to $14 million, representing an increase of 40 percent.

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NRWB Procurement Specialist Patrick Sibale confirmed the development in an interview yesterday, but justified it, saying a bid evaluation report explained the anomaly which was endorsed by the project’s funder, the African Development Bank (AfDB).

We did not manage to speak to AfDB Resident Representative, Andrew Mwaba, as his phone was out of reach yesterday.

But in separate interviews Sunday, the chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, Joseph Chidanti Malunga and his Public Accounts Committee counterpart, Alekeni Menyani, called for an investigation into the matter.

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In his justification of the anomaly, Sibale argued that according to AfDB procurement procedures, there was nothing wrong with a different figure coming up after a contract had already been entered into.

Asked whether such an arrangement is in tandem with requirements by the Office of the Director of Public Procurement (ODPP), Sibale said the office has no say on a project of this nature.

“The ODPP does not issue a no-objection letter on a donor-funded project. But the Malawi government, being a stakeholder in this project, we had to write the ODPP and they said we should go ahead with the project,” said Sibale.

He added: “Donors have their own guidelines and we did not flout them in any way. There was no need to retender because a successful bidder had already been identified.”

Asked whether the water utility would still go ahead if the anomaly resulted in an additional amount of more than $20 million, Sibale said they would have gone for the second successful bidder.

Asked what he makes of the anomaly, Malunga said the whole contract has to be cancelled because there is a lot of suspicion that it is raising.

He also said his committee cannot rule out corruption in the project.

“In fact, I am in receipt of the documents and I can say as Parliament, we are being duped. This case was presented to us and we approved it, and now they are changing things. We cannot go on like this,” charged Malunga.

He also wondered why such a huge amount of money would be added on the winning bid “through the backdoor”.

“In such a scenario, if they were serious, they were supposed to come to us and present the matter so that we could offer our advice. These are funds which will have to be repaid,” Malunga said.

He also said his committee would be summoning NRWB officials so that they can explain how they conducted the contract process.

On his part, Menyani demanded that Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe should comment on the matter.

“He is the one who brings the loans to Parliament for approval and he must come out to say whether he is comfortable with the way the contract is being processed. To us, this is total mis-procurement.

“We will be holding an enquiry into the matter because this is taxpayers’ money and it has to be protected. We have a duty to ensure things are done properly,” said Menyani.

Our efforts to speak to Gondwe proved futile as his phone was out of reach.

Secretary to Treasury, Ben Botolo, said he was not privy to the NRWB matter because he is relatively new in office. He referred us to Director of Debt and Aid, Madalo Nyambose, whose phone went unanswered.

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