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Govt dithers over radar acquisition

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BY STAFF WRITER

THE scandal-riddled process to acquire a modern air traffic control system, commonly known as the radar, has taken yet another twist after it emerged this week the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) allegedly directed the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz) to consider tender bids exclusively from Chinese and Russian companies.

The Zimbabwe Independent has been serialising developments in the radar tender process.

Valued at US$33 million, the tender is for the financing, supply and installation of an airspace management system to facilitate air traffic into and out of airports.

Zimbabwe is operating with an antiquated air traffic control system, considered to be a time bomb as it exposes planes to accidents.

Spanish company Indra Sistemas (Indra) was initially awarded the tender in 2016, but the deal was set aside after a competing Italian firm, Selex ES, won a Supreme Court case challenging the decision on the basis that the tender did not go through procedures specified by law.

Indra then failed a critical security vetting by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and the Air Force of Zimbabwe.

However, Indra was again awarded the tender after Caaz, in conjunction with the Transport ministry officials, lobbied for a waiver of tender procedures.

The Independent now understands that the OPC, along with the Joint Operations Command (Joc), passed an adverse judgment on the deal and instructed Caaz to consider bids exclusively from Chinese and Russian companies, countries which the government considers friendly.

Official sources this week said the OPC and Joc — which consists of military, police and intelligence chiefs — made the decision to instruct Caaz because of espionage fears.

Indra’s cause was not helped by the fact that it hails from Spain, which is a key member of the European Union, which imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe following the post-2000 land redistribution exercise.

“Basically, the idea was to avoid a repeat of what had happened under EU sanctions whereby spare parts could no longer be procured from the then systems provider, Thales Group of United Kingdom, resulting in the current dark skies prevailing in the Zimbabwean airspace,” a source said on Wednesday.

“Securocrats are also worried by the fact that being an ally of Britain and America, Spain was not the best partner for such an important task as it could be easily used for espionage purposes.”

The sources indicated that the decision was made at an inter-ministerial committee meeting held on December 12, 2019 — just over a year after the tender had been awarded to Indra for the second time — at the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development offices in Harare.

The meeting was chaired by the late transport minister, Joel Biggie Matiza, and included the late retired Air Chief Marshal Perrance Shiri and Higher Education minister Amon Murwira.

“Caaz then proceeded to produce an Expression of Interest (EOI) with guidance from the Procurement Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Praz) inviting Chinese and Russian companies to make bids. It then submitted the EOI to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development, which in turn transmitted it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for onward submission to the respective embassies so that it could facilitate the bidding process,” a senior official said.

Documents seen by the Independent indicate that the expression of interest process ended on July 31, 2020 and the restricted bidding was done “as directed by the Zimbabwean government”.

Three bids were received from China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) of China, Joint Venture of Beijing CSSCA Technology working with Nanjing Les Information Technology of China as well as JSC Azimut of Russia.

The three companies were issued with the detailed equipment specifications on September 1, 2020.

The tendering process was closed on October 27, 2020 and CHEC emerged as the sole bidder since the others dropped out.

“Only CHEC submitted a technical proposal responding to the tender which was found compliant in meeting the tender specifications by the technical evaluation committee. It was not immediately clear why the other two bidders did not complete the process despite being availed with bidding documents on September 1, 2020,” an official said.

A member of Caaz technical evaluation committee said: “The level of scrutiny on CHEC technical proposal was very detailed and thorough. The systems they proposed were scrutinised for everything from licencing by the China’s Civil Aviation Administration to compliance with ISO 9001:2015 international certification standards and they were all found to be on point.”

The Special Procurement Oversight Committee (SPOC), a committee which scrutinises procurement contracts for adherence to set regulations, then held a virtual meeting on December 3, 2020, to discuss the tender.

Minutes of the meeting seen by the Independent this week indicate that the SPOC members agreed that the restricted bid was advertised through Russian and Chinese embassies in Harare “in order to avoid payment challenges due to sanctions”.

Documents show that Caaz did a due diligence to ascertain the equanimity of costs by benchmarking the CHEC’s bid with prices quoted by other suppliers for similar requirements in 2014 and also against Caaz budget.

“The SPOC reviewed the Accounting Officer’s submission in terms of Section 54 (10) of the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act (PPDPA) Chapter (22:23) found the CHEC bid was to be compliant and SPOC, through a resolution number 0529 made on the day of the meeting, did not make any objections and resolved to award CHEC the tender for the supply and installation of air traffic control and communication systems,” a report produced by the SPOC reads.

Documents reveal that contract negotiations then followed. At some point, the negotiations almost collapsed after Caaz requested the Chinese company secure a guarantee from a Zimbabwean bank or a foreign bank through correspondence with a local bank while the state-owned Chinese giant was proposing to get a guarantee from the Bank of China or China’s Bank of Communications.

Eventually, Caaz had its way with the guarantee provided by a Chinese bank.

The contract negotiations between CHEC and Caaz were concluded on March 18, 2021 and the contract was approved by the Caaz legal committee of the board on April 16, 2021, according to documents in our possession.

The Caaz board of directors then passed a resolution on May 17, 2021, approving the contract, which was kept under wraps.

Investigations by the Independent this week revealed that CHEC, which is an overseas subsidiary of the government-owned China Communications Construction Company Ltd (CCCC), was last year blacklisted by the United States government for its involvement in the South China Sea conflict.

CHEC, which explores foreign markets on behalf of CCCC, is one of 24 Chinese multinational companies that were blacklisted by the US.

According to the US Commerce Department, the companies have been targeted “for their role in helping the Chinese military construct and militarise the internationally condemned artificial islands in the South China Sea”.

The rivalry between the US and China has been visible at global level as demonstrated by the high profile tariff wars, South China Sea squabbles, and more recently, for the handling of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. The US-China geo-economic frictions have largely been of low intensity but high impact on Zimbabwe.

CCCC and its subsidiaries were blacklisted by the World Bank in 2017 over contracts related to road and bridge construction which the multinational financier described as “fraudulent practices”.

This was after it had won a World-Bank-funded road construction tender in the Philippines.

Transport minister Felix Mhona could not be reached for comment as his mobile phone went unanswered several times. He did not respond to messages via SMS and WhatsApp.

Caaz officials were not available for comment.

Praz chairperson Vimbai Nyemba said: “I was not made aware of this tender because this becomes an operational issue that will require the Praz chief executive office, but since you have raised it, I will have to follow up on the matter.”

Praz CEO Clever Ruswa’s phone also went unanswered.