FIGHTING A COMMON ENEMY
   
Thisday Newspaper, Wednesday, 29 August 2012 06:50

Abimbola Akosile writes about government's attempts to involve citizens in the struggle against corruption in public procurement processes

They came in droves, united in curiosity. The spacious hall for the event in Benin City, Edo State, was filled to the brim, with spillovers outside.

Men, women, boys, girls, the aged and even a wailing baby; they all came to hear about a process which allegedly has a major bearing on their lives and livelihoods. They came to hear and see how the long-running issue of corruption could be tackled, even at their levels.
The occasion was the fourth phase national sensitization on the Public Procurement Act (PPA), which was organized by the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) for the South-south zone of the country.

The one-day event, facilitated by the Niger Delta Budget Monitoring Group (NDEBUMOG) led by Mr. George-Hill Anthony, was attended by government officials, Ministry workers, academicians, professionals and artisans, National Youth Service Corp members, civil society organizations (CSOs), undergraduates, Secondary School students and the media.
The one-day event focused on the Public Procurement Act 2007, which was signed into law by the administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, to ensure transparency in public procurement processes and curb official corruption in the country.

The Act

The Public Procurement Act regulates the procurement of goods and services in the public sector in Nigeria. It was enacted with the objective to ensure that public funds are used economically, effectively, transparently, and without discrimination.
The Act applies to all categories of public sector procurement, ranging from major infrastructure projects to routine departmental purchase. It harmonises existing government policies and practices by regulating, setting standards and provides the legal and institutional framework and professional capacity for enthronement of transparency, accountability, value for money and efficiency in the procurement of works, goods and services in the country.
To ensure adherence, the Public Procurement Act established the Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP) popularly known as the 'Due Process Office' responsible for monitoring and oversight after procurement. Hence it is expected that BPP will put in place, a mechanism to restore openness, budgetary discipline, optimal cost and efficient project implementation.
The Act beefed up the powers and responsibilities of BPP. Unlike the Due Process Office which reported directly to the President, BPP no longer forms part of the Presidency instead it reports to the National Council on Public Procurement (NCPP), a committee which is headed by the Minister of Finance.
Its statutory members also include the Attorney General of the Federation and the Economic Adviser of the President amongst others. The BPP has also been given the implicit authority to vet contracts signed by the state and local governments.
These were out of bounds for the old Due Process Office which had no power to scrutinize contracts awarded by state governors or local government council chairmen. The BPP is also charged with ensuring the proper disposal of government property at fair value through open competitive tendering.

Compliance Level

A recent report published recently by Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC) titled' Implementing the Nigerian Procurement Law: Compliance with the Public Procurement Act, 2007'has found that the level of implementation and compliance with the provisions of the PPA by the procuring entities, bidders and contractors, the Bureau of Public Procurement and other relevant agencies evaluated was poor.
Civil society observers, Federal Ministries and extra ministerial departments otherwise called, procuring entities or MDAs, contractors, suppliers, and bidders provided information for the evaluation.
The report revealed a rating of 35 per cent compliance for procuring entities, compared to a rating of 8 per cent compliance for bidders and contractors. It found that the poor compliance of contractors may be the reason they do not take effective advantage of the complaint/appeals mechanism provided in the Act.
The poor compliance rating of contractors was in the area of financial capability, professional and technical qualification, equipment and infrastructure, payment of due taxes and pension contributions, amongst others.
Also, PPDC disclosed that the rating of bidders by civil society actors had a significant 31 per cent indeterminate answer. The reason noted for this was the non-access to records and information relating to the bid examination and evaluation processes.
"The PPA 2007 provides that every procuring entity invite at least one representative of a civil society organisation working in the area of good governance and accountability in addition to a representative of a professional body with expertise in the area of the goods, works or service being procured to observe the procurement process, and that every citizen is entitled to information and document relating to public procurement, once a winning bid is selected.
"Despite these provisions, and from the rating above, it can be observed that access to information relating to  bid examination and evaluation process is very limited and in some cases perhaps non-existent, which in turn limits the opportunity for citizens monitoring of public procurement at the federal level in Nigeria", PPDC, headed by Mr. Chibuzor Ekekwuo noted.

BPP Intervention

In a keynote address to flag off the sensitization workshop, the Director-General of the BPP, Mr. Emeka Ezeh, said the process of implementing the Public Procurement Act requires the dutiful commitment of all stakeholders.
To him, the citizens are "no doubt part of the key entities in the procurement chain and your pivotal roles on individual basis cannot be over emphasized. That is the reason why gatherings like this that provide the opportunity to educate public servants deserve commendation.

"This campaign, as you are aware, is to enlighten contractors, public servants, consultants, politicians, civil society, NGOs, professional associations and the general public on the provisions of the Act.

"It provides an opportunity for interaction with the stakeholders from this zone on how they can take maximum advantage of the law to compete effectively in national procurements. Once we establish a synergy, we would have left no stone unturned in ensuring that all hands are on deck in our bid to stamp out corruption through best Procurement practices.

"The BPP hopes to take Nigeria to a level where best practices in Public Procurement are implemented in the overall interest of national development. National development would come if corruption, which mainly takes place through shoddy procurement practices, is eliminated.

"It is the belief of the Bureau that if public contracting system is governed by the principles of integrity, transparency, competence and competitiveness as national ethos, a good ground would have been provided for the social, cultural, infrastructural and technological advancement of the country.

"It is expected that in the near future, corruption in public procurement would have completely given way to open, transparent, and competitive Federal procurement system that is integrity – driven, and upholds spending within the budget to ensure speedy implementation of projects in order to achieve value for money without sacrificing quality and standards", the DG added.

Media Synergy

Speaking on ways to interlock the media with the public procurement process, a senior journalist and Assistant Political Editor with The Guardian newspaper, Mr. Alabi Williams, said to scale up beyond the present level, the Media, civil society and the BPP Secretariat can continue to collaborate, to share ideas and information.
Because of the technical nature of the issues involved, Williams said a more scientific approach needs to be adopted. He urged stakeholders to encourage the media to show greater interest in procurements through trainings, special roundtable for editors, arranging competitions for independently investigated breaches of the procurement law and processes.
"Government should demystify its information system and guarantee access to public information for the Media and for the public. So far, there are still obstacles in the application of the FoI act because bureaucrats are not willing to operate transparently.
"There should be regular collaborative efforts with the media to mount pubic campaigns that would educate the public on what to look out for when they are recipients of contract awards in their communities. They should be educated on terms of such contracts and what to do when contractors abandon projects or perform below standards. The public must first have an idea of what the standards are.
"Media representation in the procurement bureaucracy at whatever level should not be traded for political gains. Rather, competence, independence of mind and capacity to deliver should be the criteria to be used in such appointments", Alabi added.

Walking the Talk

Elaborating on the Act, the Acting Executive Director of the Centre for Advanced Social Sciences (CASS), Dr. Sofiri Joab-Peterside, said it aims to reduce corruption amongst government’s administration of contracts and bids, by ensuring efficiency in resource management.
To him, "this is important because corruption was the order of the day as laws and financial regulations were routinely broken to the extent that government was not realizing policy targets."
According to Peterside, "Efforts have been and are still being made to ensure that political office holders and top bureaucrats at the state levels are purged of corruption in public procurement.

Peterside, in his presentation, also added that an improved public system would have a beneficial effect on the economic condition of the nation, because transparency in government procedures is necessary to usher in a great and dynamic economy to ensure a just and egalitarian society.
"Stakeholders must embark on awareness creation on the existence of this law among the public and policy makers and aggressive advocacy for BPP to jail any corrupt Nigerian or company. This will advance the war against corruption, promote issue based politics, and prevent the subversion of the legal system with financial laws and regulations respected.
"Community people and civil society actors must work to ensure compliance with the Act as that is the only way to establish a procurement culture that is based on competition, transparency, and value for money, as well as professionalism, in conduct of government business in Nigeria.

"CSOs and Communities must sustain engagement with the National Assembly with the aim to amend the Act to make it pro-people in areas of service delivery and value for money.
"The main challenge limiting the successful implementation of the Act is a general lack of awareness and ignorance about the existence of the Public Procurement Act (PPA) among the citizenry and policy makers", he added.
Given the present murky scenario in the subsidy fraud in the oil industry and isolated cases of official corruption at both national and state levels, the implementation of the PPA 2007 is crucial, and its domestication at the state level would help to curb corruption, which is hindering national development. That is a good starting point.
 

TAKING THE LEAD FOR THE DRAFTING OF CIVIL SOCIETY VERSION OF EDO STATE PUBLIC PROCUREMENT ACT

In 2011, NDEBUMOG led a team of experts, which drafted the civil society version of the Edo State Public Procurement Bill, now an Act of Parliament, following the signing of the Bill into Law by Governor Adams Oshiomhole in 2012. The assignment which was through Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Benin City, with support from Open Society Institute for West Africa (OSIWA), provided a huge opportunity for consolidation of the efforts of the civil society for procurement discipline and best practices in the region. As of today, the Edo State Public Procurement Act has some commendable clauses derived from the civil society version, developed by a team of experts led by NDEBUMOG. Such clauses include: Edo State Procurement Report to Citizens’; Need Analysis; Civil Society Monitoring and Observation of the Bidding Processes in Edo State with legal force, community inclusion, membership of the Board etc.

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