The Zimbabwe Independent has, since its establishment 24 years ago, been publishing investigative stories and breaking news articles that expose corruption in the country. In recent weeks, we carried a series of stories on the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) and Covid-19 procurement scandals.
However, in our efforts to investigate corrupt activities, like all journalists in Zimbabwe, we have faced many obstacles. Public information, which should otherwise be readily available, is difficult to access. Calls for public tenders are not publicised, while the awarding of such tenders is shrouded in secrecy. At times they are just on paper and rarely accessible to us online.
There is a veil of secrecy surrounding access to regulatory information, making it difficult to get data and records on government procurement deals. For instance, information to do with company shareholding and ownership, records from the land registry and local authorities is on paper. It is difficult and at times nearly impossible to access.
Public records are poorly computerised and many are stored manually, meaning trying to access such records is a manual process and records are often missing or misfiled. The process of accessing such records is tedious. Often we are forced to put requests for such information in writing and some are ignored or treated with suspicion.
According to director of Procurement and Supply Chain Practice Group at the United Nations Office for Project Services (Unops), Therese Ballard: “Public procurement is the buying of goods and services on behalf of a public authority, such as a government agency.”
Landela Investments, which is importing an additional 500 buses for Zupco, falls short of the definition of public procurement since it is not a government agency.
Accepted practices of public procurement, as per Unops, are publishing procurement policies, advance publication of procurement plans, advertisement of tender notices, disclosure of evaluation criteria, in solicitation documents, publication of contract awards and prices paid, establishing appropriate and timely complaint/protest/dispute mechanisms, implementing financial and conflict of interest disclosure, requirements for public procurement officials and supplier sanction lists.
ICT Enterprise Reporting lead at Unops Tushar Dighe says: “Fairness (in public procurement) can only be ensured by making information throughout the process open and available to all. Value can be enhanced by ensuring that the information has been made available to as wide a range of interested participants as possible and that unfair advantage in terms of access to information is curbed.”
Dighe advocates for a technologically-aided transparency process in public procurement through “the wide sharing of data by public bodies in open formats, which enable suppliers to provide the most competitive pricing based on higher volumes”.
Senior fellow in Public Procurement Law at the University of Nottingham and barrister with Littleton Chambers in London Peter Trepte points out that: “Opportunities for corruption in procurement raised between the government (the ‘principal’, as represented by the politicians), are well-studied.”
In the case of Landela, the situation is beyond norms anticipated by scholarly literature. It is a deliberate bastardisation of public procurement norms — the best explanation for this systematic corruption supported by an extractive network, which controls the levers of power. The matter cannot be solved by the accepted norms of transparency, as it is not a technical matter, but a political one that can be addressed by deep-rooted political reform.
Trepte acknowledges this: “Procurement regulation cannot address all forms of corruption. This is a much deeper cultural problem and goes beyond opportunistic corruption.”
In the case of entrenched or systemic corruption, such processes are either not adopted or are simply frustrated.
In South Africa, the right-to-know principles enshrined in its laws enhance transparency in public procurement. Zimbabwe would benefit from adopting such a benchmark, so that any stage of the tender process is made subject to judicial review.
Politics and economics of extraction leverage on absolute power to flagrantly violate norms, values and destroy legal hedges.
Transparency will only have a fighting chance when genuine political reforms are implemented and networks of economic and political extraction are either severely weakened or destroyed.