Mbabane – Eswatini Communication Commission (ESCCOM) Chief Executive Officer Mvilawemphi Dlamini and the Tender Committee’s alleged questionable dealings in the now annulled E200 million project had been laid bare and they are the root cause of the tender annulment.
Through its well-placed senior sources within ESCCOM, Independent News managed to intercept a recording of a meeting held on September 19, in which board members ‘grilled’ the CEO and the tender committee on how the now invalid tender was handled and what really led to its annulment.
It is after listening the meeting proceedings that Independent News understands that the public statement given by ESCCOM CEO that the tender was cancelled because the request for tender was increased beyond what was approved by the board of directors for procurement, was just a cover-up stunt. Outstandingly, the more attentive you listen to the recording, the more it become plausibly clear that there is more to this conspiracy act than meets the eye.
Furthermore, the recording paints a clear picture that the CEO and the Tender Committee were, to a certain degree involved in alleged questionable dealings during the tendering process, and their alleged shady acts were the genesis of the board’s subsequent decision to cancel the tender.
Ostensibly, there was a tug of war that played itself out during the now botched tendering process, where factions from within the tender committee allegedly wanted to see their preferred cronies (bidders) dipping their hands into the cookie jar. After a critical analysis of the presentation made by the CEO and members of the tender committee to the board it became clear that, from the onset, the tendering process was glaringly marred by what could be easily perceived as bid rigging (an orchestrated act of collusion, or between officials and firms) by some members of the tender committee in collaboration with tenderers, favoritism and unfair treatment of tenderers, undisclosed conflict of interest by some members of the professional team, negligence, leaking of information by some members of the executive to tenderers.
For the entire duration of the meeting, the CEO and the tender committee were given tough time by the Themba Khumalo led board to a point where it became obvious that they (CEO and the tender committee) were somewhat to blame for the cancellation of the tender. In some instances, the CEO and members of the tender committee failed to give satisfactory answers to the board when questioned on some areas where they obviously dropped the ball.
From the discussions of the board, Independent News learnt that the tender was cancelled after it emerged that the CEO was accused of meeting bidders and communicating with some board members about the proceedings of the tender process, some tender committee members allegedly shared information with bidders, unfair treatment of bidders (evaluation committee sought to disqualify one of the Joint Ventures (JVs) on the basis that it didn’t meet the shareholding criterion and that was quite alarming because there was another one which was not disqualified despite that it was also not meeting the same shareholding condition), it was not clear how and why the project cost escalated from the E193 million which was approved by the board to a whooping E250 million at the time the tender was about to be awarded without the knowledge of the board and an obvious conflict of interest which was not declared by some members of the team of professionals.
Unfair treatment of bidders and favoritism
Concerning the unfair treatment of bidders, it transpired during the meeting that the evaluation committee, at some point sought advice from the Construction Industry Council (CIC) which advised it to disqualify one of the Joint Ventures (JVs) on the basis that it didn’t qualify to enter for the tender because it was not meeting the shareholding criterion (60 per cent Swazi and 40 per cent foreign). Some members of the tender committee told the board that they found this quite alarming because there was another JV which was not disqualified despite that it was also not meeting the same shareholding. (The names of the bidders). There was no satisfactory response to why the evaluation committee employed a selective approach when disqualifying non-qualifying bidders.
What they could only say in justifying this anomaly, the ESCCOM management told the board that the issue of joint venture was not stipulated in the tender documents, its an issue that should have been dealt with by the professional team but it was not adequately handled. The chairman wanted to know why it was not raised as a red flag by the tender committee early in the stage before even an award was done? It became clear that it was not clearly specified who should participate in the tender.
CEO allegedly meet with bidders
From the recording of the meeting proceedings, Independent News learnt that the board was gravely concerned about allegations levelled against the CEO that he was seen meeting with bidders while the tendering process was ongoing. Responding to this allegation, the CEO flatly denied that he met some tenderers, something he said he was putting on record. “I had never met with anyone,” he told the meeting.
Evaluation scores changed in favour of preferred bidder
On another note, the board heard that there was rampant leakage of information by insiders and the bidders to such an extent that there was one bidder who wrote a letter to ESCCOM demanding to know their evaluation score even before the evaluation process was finished. According to ESCCOM management, they alleged that this happened because a member of the evaluation committee was leaked information to the bidders to the effect that their evaluation scores were being changed for the favour of a certain bidder. Pertaining the hottest potato on the lap of ESSCOM’s CEO and tender committee – of how the approved estimated project cost escalated from E193 million to E250 million, the CEO struggled to give satisfactory answers to the board on how this happened. Apparently, the CEO didn’t have the reason how and why the estimates changed, except for blaming it on the professional team, Manyatsi Nhleko Quantity Surveyors. The CEO said the Quantity Surveyors changed the Bill of Quantities (BoQs) without his knowledge, something which the chairperson struggled to believe. The board chairperson (Themba Khumalo) wanted to know how could a Quantity Surveyor change BoQs without the knowledge of the tender committee or the CEO?
CEO disputes project cost escalation to E250m
To respond to the chairman’s concern, the CEO said: “Essentially, the tender documents go without financial estimates or prices. The estimates from the QS is what we should have approved internally before finalizing the BoQ and its where the whole thing went wrong because we were still under the impression that the professional team was aware of what was approved, but somehow, they went with this particular BoQs which were way beyond the approved budget. We have no sight of the amount they estimated on the tender.”
The chairman wanted a clear clarification from the CEO: “When you came for the budget approval of the project, you had the BoQs done?” And the CEO agreed that the pricing was done.
The chairman interjected: “What happened then? How can someone external revise BoQs without the involvement of the project team from internal?”
“That is what we are seeking to find out from the professionals. We were at no point engaged to say this has now gone up, because if there was change of redesigns, they should have come up and say we have redesigned such and such, and then we sign up, but that didn’t happen,” the CEO unsatisfactory responded.
Apportions blame on professionals
In a bid to exonerate himself and the tender committee from the mess, the CEO, in most of the time blamed it on the professional team, project mangers (Project Managers of Choice and quantity suveyors (Manyatsi Nhleko), saying they did not take the project seriously because there were in most instances sending novices to work on the project. The CEO went on to tell the board that he had expected the management of these companies to send people who had a two-year experience, something which he said did not happen. However, he also failed tell the board, why he did not raised that red flag immediately after noticing it and all what he could say was that he was yet to meet the executive management of the two companies to discuss the issue of the amateurish personnel.
Undisclosed conflict of interest by PM, and QS
Meanwhile, there was another grave concern that the project managers (Project Managers of Choice) and the quantity surveyors (Manyatsi-Nhleko Quatity Suveyors were sister companies (have same directors), which in itself constitute a conflict of interest. The board wanted to know if the conflict was disclosed or not. Interestingly, it transpired that the two did not disclose the conflict, something which was also found as to be strange. The board had a strong view that ESCCOM should have detected this earlier because project managers and quantity surveyors are the ones that determine the project cost, hence when they are in bed, they can easily agree to manipulate the costing of the project.
ESCCOM board chairperson responds
Regarding the leakage of information, ESCCOM Chairperson Themba Khumalo said he and the board are not aware of any evidence supporting these allegations. “However, ESCCOM has a confidentiality policy which guides staff and management in regards to leakage of information; any reported incidences of such nature with evidence to that effect shall be fully investigated and appropriate disciplinary measures taken accordingly,” he said. Responding to the issue of conflict of interest, Khumalo said they “have since learned that the Project Manager and the Quantity Surveyor have the same directors.” He said Project Managers of Choice Ngwenya Manyatsi QS, are working together in a number of other current projects other than the ESCCOM one. Khumalo added that such projects that he have been made aware of include: the Kellogs, Biotechnology Park and Mbabane Government Hospital expansion projects amongst others. “Construction consultants have advised that it is not illegal to have such an arrangement, but effective management of a project is still necessary to ensure that a professional engagement between Project Manager and Quantity Surveyor is upheld.
It is in our opinion that an experienced consultant is a necessity to guide the company during the execution of a project of such magnitude,” he said. Asked what does the nullification of the tender entails, because ESSCOM management is blaming the professional team for messing up the project; what will happen to them (professionals), are they going to be disqualified and recruitment of new ones be conducted? He responded: “The tender for the project will be re-issued in the next few weeks, the gaps that had been identified in the previous (nullified) tender were closed with controls being enhanced. All tender stakeholders will be held accountable to their contractual terms and conditions.”
Efforts to get a comment from the professionals blamed for messing up the tendering process hit a snag. Mcebo Maziya, Project Managers of Choice General Manager did not respond to a questionnaire sent to him three weeks ago. He told Independent News that he would have to seek a go ahead to respond from the client, ESCCOM, and he had not responded by the time of compiling this report.