The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission was right to cancel the biometric voter registration kit tender. But the whole saga has badly dented the reputation of the organisation, exposing it as one amenable to manipulation by politically-connect vendors.
Indeed, it was the independence and professionalism of the IEBC that was at test here. And it failed miserably.
The biggest scandal in the whole thing was that the leadership of the IEBC was contemplating awarding the tender to one of the entities at a price higher than the budget allocated for the procurement by a massive Sh1 billion.
Procurement is basically about delivering value for money. It is also about reducing costs without compromising quality.
If you can’t live within the budget, you declare the whole thing as unresponsive and terminate the procurement altogether. The IEBC only needed to go by the rules. The controversy was time-wasting and completely unnecessary.
By any standards, this was a very big and complex procurement project. Because of the huge margins involved, such large technology-intensive projects will always attract stiff competition.
Meddling by politicians and power-brokers is common because such huge projects open huge opportunities for large kick-backs.
Indeed, the trend in Africa is that tenders such as those involving procuring new generation electronic identity cards for the whole country, introduction of new generation passports, or a tender where a country is procuring e-driving licences, will always elicit allegations of corruption in the Press and Parliament.
Right now, a big controversy is playing in the Ugandan Press and Parliament about procurement of e-driving licences. The original Anglo Leasing scandal was about a technology-intensive project involving procurement of new generation passports.
The Ministry of Immigration has not been able to move an inch with plans for new generation identity cards.
If you want to manage such a complex procurement, the only way to insulate the process from meddling by the politically-connected is to handle the procurement process tightly by making sure evaluation and tender award committees are staffed by people of the highest of integrity.
It is an open secret that in the biometric voter registration tender case, members of these key committees were completely compromised.
How else does one explain the fact that long before the award, confidential tender committee minutes and documents used during evaluation were floating all over the place, selectively leaked to the press by vendors especially during very critical stages?
Clearly, the whole situation had polarised the management and board of the commission into two antagonistic camps. The environment was pervaded by mutual suspicion and distrust.
It became almost impossible for either side to make a decision without being accused by the opposite group of siding with one of the vendors.
The idea of involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct due diligence on one of the winning bidders only served to polarise the IEBC top management further.
As an independent procurement entity, was the IEBC legally, really obliged to adopt the advice they received from the ministry? That became a major sticking point.
And, was it wise to prematurely bring in the Public Procurement Oversight Authority (PPOA) in the mix at such an early stage? That may be debatable.
But the fact of the matter is that PPOA’s involvement served to complicate the search for a consensus. The best practice is that tender processes are conducted confidentially until an award has been made.
What are the lessons learnt? We have come a long way in terms of reforming our public procurement systems. There was a time when all large purchases would be done by the Central Tender Board at the Treasury.
We did not have a body to regulate procurement. What we need now is to introduce tough sanctions to tender committees that break the law.