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The need for public transport is easily noticeable all around Freetown and at lorry parks catering for provincial travel. The spectacle of passenger queues across Freetown and the struggles of those venturing out or into the cities have warranted government’s investment in revamping the country’s public transport system. But while the arrival of 100 new buses appeared to have given hope and relief to the struggling public, critics of the government have raised several issues with the buses and the process of their procurement.

Chief Executive Officer NPPA; BRIMA Bangura explains. “Under normal circumstances, such procurement would have attracted international competitive bidding, the bids would have been evaluated and a winner announced. Then a window would be given to allow for any appeals should a bidder feels aggrieved. When all of these steps would have been covered, the contract would then be awarded. However, under the circumstance, we had to give our acquiescence and it is within the law that we do so.”

An official in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MoFED) told me that “The buses were purchased with funds from China whose lending practice ensures that its selected state owned companies get the contracts arising from their financing. You cannot use Chinese money to give contracts to European/western companies for instance,” he said.

“Under this circumstance, we followed every step set out in the National Public Procurement framework”; said the Minister of Transport and Aviation – Leonard Balogun Koroma.

The Procurement Officer in the Ministry of Transport and Aviation (MTA), Unisa Dumbuya took me through the processes they had to follow. The contract was drafted and sent to the Law Officers, who vetted it and made recommendations. One of which was that, given the conditions of the financing that the Chinese State Owned Company – Poly Group – should be the contractor, the approval of the National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) should be sought for sole sourcing.

Before giving approval, NPPA asked a few pertinent questions:

Have the previous buses already paid for?  Was value for money achieved, in other words, was a profitable return on the investment achieved? How many of these buses are still functional and in road worthy condition?  What were the challenges encountered by SLRTC in providing a new make of buses into the transport sector?

With reference to those questions the Authority advised thus:

“We strongly encourage MTA that before proceeding with this purchase, it needs to review and use the lessons learnt from the purchase of the Ashok Leyland buses to guide in making the realistic determination of the viability of the proposed purchase.”

These piercing questions and strong recommendation by the NPPA clearly meant to prevent a recurrence of mistakes made in the previous investment in public transport. Unisa explained that in view of the NPPA’s response, answers were provided by the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation (SLRTC) who actually managed the last investment. “The draft contract was then resent to the Law Officers who now gave the go – ahead having satisfied that NPPA had been consulted and their queries had been fully answered”; explained the MTA Procurement Officer. Unisa went further to say that A Certificate of Approval was now sought from MoFED for the award of the contract which was granted on 8th May 2014.

Efficient Management of the fleet

Due consideration was also taken to ensure that this investment is properly managed. Before approving the contract, MoFED set the following conditions:

SLRTC must sign an on-lending agreement with MoFED for repayment of the amount; that SLRTC set up a Project Steering Committee including 2 members from MTA, 2 from MoFED, 2 from National Commission for Privatization (NCP), 2 from SLRTC Management and 1 from its Board.

According to Unisa, the responsibilities of the Steering Committee are:

To monitor and supervise the operation of the buses, authorize expenditure relating to operations, maintenance services and personnel cost and ensuring the repayment of the facility; establish an Escrow Account with double signatories of the Accountant General and SLRTC into which all revenue earned from the operations of the 100 buses shall be paid; to take action to enhance the efficiency of the SLRTC management given the not-so encouraging experience of the recent 40 buses.

Scope of the Contract, Warranty and General Specification

In addition to the efficient management of the investment, the contract was also watertight to ensure that there is value for money; the scope of the contract covers from manufacture to maintenance and repairs. “The scope of the contract shall be the manufacture, procurement for supply, delivery, installation, training on operation, use and repairs and maintenance of products.” The contract states further that “the contractor shall comply strictly with the terms of the special conditions and the technical annexes under the contract”.

On top of these business-minded considerations, a very comprehensive warranty was also provided. “The contractor hereby warrants the Goods against technical defect, faulty system design, inferior material, malfunction, and poor workmanship that can be attributed to the manufacturer’s liability for a period of one year.” The Contract further ensures that “during the warranty period, the contractor shall at its own expense, solve any quality problem caused by the defect of the manufacturer”.

A review of the general specification points to a conscientious determination to ensure that the SLRTC does not depend on the warranty, spares, capacity to repair; rather emphasis was made on the durability of the product. There were over twenty specific requirements including:

Model and make of buses to be Cummings or equivalent or better; Cummings engines to be Euro ii or Euro iii with minimum two years warranty to cover engines and one year to cover gear box; Diaphragm plate and fire extinguisher and clutch system to be hydraulic/air assisted; all chassis to be built using steel with cross members cold construction with reinforcement; multi laminated spring system with double acting shock absorbers.

Following the NPPA’s approval, the node from the Law Officers and the contract negotiations by the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, an inspection team travelled to China. Led by the Hon. Minister of Finance and Economic Development (Dr. Kailfala Marrah) including the Minister of Transport and Aviation (Leonard Balagun Koroma), Director of Debts – MoFED (Sahr Jusu), the Permanent Secretary – MTA, (Sahr Kpulum), The General Manager – SLRTC (Bockarie Lewis Kamara), these officials travelled to China to ascertain the products were being manufactured as per specification. Clearly, a lot of good thinking, patriotism and effort have been added to this investment of 100 new buses.

The government’s explanation relating to the cost that it included spares, mobile garages, equipment for the Sierra Leone Road Transport Corporation Workshop, a Technical Team and training; the publication of pictures showing components of the buses being assembled has completely dismissed the tantrums being peddled at the government’s commendable public transport initiative.

Unisa Dumbuya, Procurement Officer MTA said: “I am satisfied with the process because we worked within the procurement framework”.

In spite of this hard work and procurement compliance, those who appeared to have been rattled by the positive impact of this huge investment on the electorate have engaged on a campaign to discredit the venture.

“First they asked; where are the buses? We brought an unprecedented 100. Then they claim the buses are too expensive; that answered, now they say the buses are old. Well, you provide an answer to their question, they would change the question. We have to do our job for which we were elected. We cannot be distracted by people who see nothing good in whatever we do”; said the Minister of Transport and Aviation – Leonard Balogun Koroma.

But political analysts say the level of public scrutiny on governance and public financial management, government’s openness and the readiness of its officials to respond to public enquiry is a good indication of how far Sierra Leone has come in its democratic development. At the same time, other observers hold the view that while such public scrutiny is important, it’s also imperative that it is exercised in a civil and constructive manner without the tilt towards scoring cheap political capital.

Meanwhile, the Vice President, Hon. Victor Bockarie Foh has made a passionate appeal to the citizenry to handle the buses with care. These are your property, it’s your money, do not destroy them, do not tear the seats, drive them well, change the oil; the Vice President said. Already the public are looking forward to the use of the buses but the license and insurance paperwork are being completed.

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