Talking Blues: Who is fooling who?

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” – Ephesians 5:11

If truth be told, the timing of the resurgence of controversy around the 2021-22 fuel importation contracts issued by the National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma) could not be worse.

Look here, with:

  1. a) unchecked youth unemployment,
  2. b) a public outcry because of the recent fuel price increase,
  3. c) a Malawi Kwacha erratically bobbing up and down as if it was stapled onto an unhinged seesaw,
  4. d) a ran away public debt we hear has been compounded by an alleged “cooking of books” by the former ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and
  5. e) an economy refusing to vacate the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and by so doing emboldening inflation,

President Lazarus Chakwera already has more than enough on his plate.

But since misfortunes never come single, when it was beginning to look like the Malawi Energy Revenue Authority (Mera) had done enough to placate the masses temporarily, it turns out that Nocma deemed it wise to engage the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and other stakeholders in a needless game of hide and seek.

The facts of the matter are that contrary to a Court Order, Nocma has sold the ACB and other stakeholders a dummy by shrewdly sealing fuel supply contracts that do not address stakeholders’ underlying concerns.

Mera, the Fuel Tankers Operators Association (FTOA) and Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) had faulted pricing and methodology selected for delivery.

In the original tender, suppliers had based their bids on DDU and Ex-Tank delivery methods. While DDU was not favoured by Mera and local haulage firms, Nocma did not seem keen on Ex-Tank.

When moved, the ACB weighed in. After investigations, it cleared Nocma of malfeasance in the procurement process, but it nevertheless gave a condition: if contracts were to be issued, the Ex-Tank method should apply.

In a letter to Nocma, the ACB said:

“Our understanding of the ruling by the Court was in the context of the fact that the whole ruling refers to two methods of fuel importation, i.e. DDU and Ex-Tank. In addition, your bid document by which this procurement process proceeded only mentioned the two Incoterms: DDU and Ex-Tank.

“Accordingly for us, if you could not proceed by way of DDU as per the Court ruling, the only other method to use was the Ex-tank method.

“Based on the above and our clarification this morning, we would like to clarify our Consent to Deal further that as per the Court order, you are to proceed with the fuel importation; however, in so importing, you cannot use DDU method.”

Just like a magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat, Nocma has introduced a new method: the DPU, to everyone’s chagrin. A couple of weeks ago, Nocma’s CEO Hellen Buluma announced that Nocma had awarded contracts using a different procurement system, not the controversial DDU but a method called “Delivered at Place Unloaded (DPU) plus the ACB approved Ex-Tank.

Now, Nocma’s original tender focussed only on DDU and Ex-Tank and hence the High Court Order and the ACB directive focussed only on these two.

When asked to confirm whether ACB gave Nocma the nod to use other incoterms of importing fuel than Ex-tank, ACB Director General Martha Chizuma referred The Daily Times to a letter she wrote, clarifying the matter to Nocma, on August 16 2021.

In the letter titled ‘Clarification in The Consent to Deal’, Chizuma advised Buluma that the only other method to use in the award of contracts was Ex-tank.

“As clarified during the meeting, our understanding of the ruling by the Court was in the context of the fact that the whole ruling refers to two methods of fuel importation, i.e. DDU and Ex-tank.

“In addition to this is the fact that your bid document, by which this procurement process proceeded, only mentioned the two incoterms, DDU and Ex-tank. Accordingly, for us, if you could not proceed by way of DDU as per court ruling, the only other method to use was the Ex-tank method,” Chizuma said.

As we speak, the Public Accounts Committee (Pac) of Parliament has weighed in. It says Nocma’s shenanigans smack of under-hand dealings.

With the Secretary to President and Cabinet – a post currently occupied by Mr Zangazanga Chikhosi – heading the Nocma board, it is difficult to say that President Chakwera, who expressed concern but could not lift a finger to relieve Malawians of the pain caused by the recent fuel price increase, has not been following these developments happening right under his nose.

If we are to go by:

  1. a) Mera’s original concerns – that the construct and supplies preferred by Nocma would adversely affect Malawians price-wise,
  2. b) Pac’s suspicions after Nocma’s rabbit out of a hat act, and
  3. c) the fact that ACB was duped into believing that in contention were only DDU vs Ex-Tank when Nocma was holding a joker called DPU,

Writing off corruption from these shenanigans would be premature.

Further, Nocma being a baby of the Office of President and Cabinet, suspicions of “under-hand” dealings therein can bring down a government and should hence warrant President Chakwera’s close attention.

Ironically, even as these shenanigans are unfolding under his very nose, President Lazarus Chakwera is innovating his way towards a corruption-free “Canaan”.

When he presided over the Assemblies of God Church’s ground-breaking ceremony for a planned five-storey headquarters, Chakwera urged faith bodies to lead the crusade against corruption by practising values of their faith at home, work and whenever seeking government services.

“Eureka!” sayeth Chakwera, “verily I say unto you, faith bodies must play a leading role in fighting corruption!”

He added that if every church-going Malawian refused to cut corners or take or pay bribes, Malawi would have the cleanest government on earth and live up to its aspiration to be a God-fearing country.

Now, if padding already exorbitant fuel prices with corruption did not have the potential to:

  • aggravate the knock-on effect fuel has on the cost of living of already squeezed Malawians struggling to breathe in a country where the ground has become very slippery,
  • worsen our already battered economic outlook, and
  • expose us all to political instability,

I would have laughed off Chakwera’s attempt to pass the buck. However, this is not a laughing matter.

Look here, does Chakwera want to tell us that Nocma is mired in suspicions of under-hand monkey business because whatever church or denomination its Board and Management patronize promotes corruption?

By the way, between Faith bodies and the President, who is better placed and expected to nip corruption in the bud when suspicions thereof are hovering permanently over the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC)?

All this makes me wonder: who is fooling who?

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