Gambia Covid-19 Related Funds: The Accountability Crack

Report by Frederic Tending

Emergency spending is often vulnerable to misuse and corruption. Therefore, budget execution controls to mitigate corruption risk in the Covid-19 pandemic spending require protecting the integrity of the procurement system, rigorous expenditure controls to prevent unauthorized spending, maintaining internal and external audits. In theory, The Gambia adopted specific governance measures of the Covid-19 related funds. But the practice reveals that the government abused of single sourcing procurement with distortions of facts that undermine principles of transparency and value for money.

On the 10th May 2020, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs published "The itemized expenditure list from the D500 million COVID-19 Health Emergency Fund." According to that document, "As of 1st May 2020, D160 million has been released to the Ministry of Health, which is the spending authority on all COVID-19 related matters." Although the Ministry of Finance said it "Will continue to publish all future allocations and expenditures periodically", this was the single and only itemized expenditure publication made by the government since then.

The government of The Gambia’s communication strategy is to repeatedly claim that the funds disbursed for the Covid-19 response have been managed properly and that all contracts have been published online and available to the public.

The investigations took advantage of a virtual meeting with IMF Ivoshasina Fizara Razafimahefa, Mission Chief for The Gambia, in September to ask Buah Saidy, who chaired the intergovernmental committee in charge of the Covid-19 funds, his comments on the perceived weak level of transparency on the funds.

“The authorities have published all COVID-19-related procurement contracts on the website of the Gambia Public Procurement Authority (GPPA), with details on the nature and amounts of the contracts as well as the owners of the beneficial companies, and strengthened internal audit at the Ministry of Health,” Buah Saidy told us. He described as “transparent, honest and accountable” in the handling of the national COVID 19 relief fund. According to Mr. Saidy, there is accountability with stakeholders like the Accountant General, Director General of Gambia Public Procurement Authority, Director General of Internal Audit Office, and the Director of Health".

Buah Saidy also told us that the National Audit Office (NAO) has completed the first phase of an ex-post audit of COVID-19 spending and it is now conducting the second phase of the audit, which will also include a validation of delivery for all contracts.

The fact remains that one year onto the Covid-19 response, the government of The Gambia has not yet published any comprehensive detailed information that would enable meaningful public oversight over the spending of the Covid-19 related funds. The only information publicly available is the 10th May 2020, "Itemized expenditure list from the D500 million COVID-19 Health Emergency Fund", a two-page statement with only a vague breakdown of how the funds were spent.

In short, The Gambia governments' COVID-19 fiscal policy response, taking into account three critical pillars - public access to relevant information, adequate oversight arrangements, and opportunities for citizen engagement - shows severe lack of public reporting on the implementation of policy initiatives.

We have therefore focused our research on verifying the details of the available pieces of information made public by the government on the spending of the Covid-19 related funds. They reveal a pattern of concealed information and sometimes misleading facts about the purported transparency claimed by the government of The Gambia.

The gist from the published single sourcing, totaling D95,911,898.68

Overall, the lion’s share of the COVID-19-related spending procured under the “Contract for the COVID-19 Food Aid” amounting to GMD 723.4 million (0.8 percent of GDP or 88 percent of COVID-related contracts), was procured through open tendering to Yusupha Jawara, Fatima Sabally, and George Madi.

Although these three individuals are mentioned as the beneficiaries of this huge contract, there is no information on the web portal of the GPPA identifying the names of the companies that provided for express the procurement and distribution in three days, (or 72 hours) of 230,000 bags of 50kg of 100% broken rice (in lots of 10,000 bags), 230,000 bags of 50kg sugar (in lots of 10,000 bags), and 148,000 10 liter drums of refined cooking oil (in lots of 5,000 drums).

The absence of such information makes it impossible to trace the nature (onshore or offshore companies) and the location (whether Gambia-based or abroad) of the business entities used by the suppliers to provide food items in this scale at a record period. It also makes it impossible to verify if the said suppliers have used registered entities on the GPPA official list of suppliers and contractors.

Excluding this large contract, 85 percent of COVID-related significantly smaller contracts were single sourced due to the urgent nature of these contracts, while the remainder 15 percent of contracts were procured through requests for quotations.

After the purchase of food items to be distributed countrywide, a contract has been awarded to several transporters to move the food items from the suppliers’ stores to the various locations of distribution. The said contract was awarded by the NDMA through RFQ to the General Transport Union, the Jagana Brothers Enterprise, Fast Lane Logistics, and M.S Secka Import & Export, A.S Gambia.

However, the amount of the contract for the transportation of the food items for the COVID-19 responses across the country is yet to be made public. There is also no public information available (not even on the GPPA portal) indicating how much it cost to transport the food items even though an unpublished report of the National Audit Office at NDMA and the Ministry of Trade has it that D 41 million was spent of the transportation of the food items. It is important to highlight that the contract bearing the unknown amount of this Covid-19 related financial transaction has been awarded since June 2020.

According to the GPPA publication, the transportation of the food items for the COVID-19 responses across the country is an “Ongoing process”, with a “Charge Rate per Metric Tons.” By the GPPA 2019 procurement rules, on Registration bidders, "Subject to Section 24(2) of the Procurement Act, the absence of an application for entry into the registry shall not be a ground for exclusion of a bidder from participation in procurement proceedings, but registration may be required as a condition for award of a contract". This clearly indicates that while other requirements may be “navigable”, an official registration granting the status of a supplier by GPPA is a prerequisite for an entity to earn the privilege of being a recognized bidder competing to get the state awarded contracts.

But one interesting case from the published contracts on the GPPA portal is the one concerning Maruo Farms Ltd, ID 4894 with Registration date 06 February 2020 certificate number 0405/2020, according to GPPA own list of the year 2020 suppliers and contractors. At least from the available public information provided by the GPPA, this means that technically, Maruo Farms’ registration as a recognized bidder is valid through the fiscal year beginning from January 1st 2020 to December 31st 2020.

After the official registration as a bidder of Maruo Farms expired on December 31st 2020, Maruo Farms did not renew it until the 25th February 2021. Yet, a procurement contract for COVID-19 FOOD AID of 8,400,000 dalasi was single sourced to Maruo Farm Ltd on 18 January 2021. Meanwhile, Supplier ID 4894 Maruo Farms Ltd only renewed its registration on 25 February 2021 with certificate number 0639/2021. The question is how could Maruo Farms be awarded a single source contract worth 8,400,000 dalasis for COVID-19 FOOD AID before the company renewed its expired registration?

The obscure practice of single sourcing

The majority of the Covid-19 related contracts have been single sourced, very often in violation of the GPPA rules that bar single sourcing for contracts beyond D10, 000. Virtually all the contracts with hotels for accommodation of the suspected quarantine individuals and Health care workers in the Campaign to CURB the Spread of COVID -19 in the country have been single sourced. The smallest being a single source contract for D 1,610,000 to Golden Beach Hotel and the biggest contract being D 10,350,800 single sourced to Badala Park, Tropic Garden Hotel, Atlantic Hotel, Ballangar Motel, Bamboo Village Resort.

But the government has along the line developed a pattern of non-transparency about the biggest Covid-19 related single sourced contracts. For example, there is an unspecified amount for a July 2020 single sourcing contract awarded by the Ministry of Health to ten Hotels for the purpose of Quarantine /Isolation. The contract was single sourced to Bamboo Hotel, Atlantic Hotel, Sea view Garden Hotel, Bamboo Village Resort, Palm Beach Hotel, Golden Beach Hotel, Tropical Garden Hotel, Badala Park Hotel, Baobab Holidays Resort and Metzy Residence Hotel.

The explanation given on the GPPA portal is that there are “various amounts Indicated” by the hotels involved as part of a framework of agreement negotiated with each hotel. This means that even though the purpose of publishing the existence of the contract is to make a step towards transparency, the critical information about the cost of the contract has been concealed.

“Using the cloak of a pandemic to shy away from public scrutiny”

In May 2020, The Ministry of Finance told the Special Select Committee of the National Assembly on the implementation of the state of public emergency that of the D500 million pledged to the Ministry of Health, D172 million has already been paid.

The Minister of Finance indicated that D100 million (of the D172 million) was added to the grant approved by the World Bank toward the procurement of ambulances and other medical equipment from Turkey because the total bill of the Ministry of Health for that purpose was US$12 million. The Ministry further revealed that the World Bank actually approved US$5 million (instead of US$10 million) and the other US$5 million was taken from the US$35 million that was earmarked for the State-Owned Enterprises Reform Program.

But it appears that “The Gambia COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Project” was approved by the World Bank Board on April 2, 2020. The allocated $10 million was disbursed as of December 2020. The project has supported, among others, the procurement of 6 pickup trucks and 18 motorcycles to facilitate contact tracing and response.

And contrary to the repeated assertions of the government of the Gambia that all Covid-19 related contracts have been published, the Covid-19 related contracts for the procurement of the ambulances and other medical equipment purchased in Turkey have not been published on the GPPA portal, one year after the transaction has been made. The only available information is a press release from the ministry of Health indicating the purchase of the ambulances, without any information on the procurement and the cost involved.

Malagen, a Gambian online investigative news portal has revealed how the Turkish supplier in this contract, TMS is, from the onset the preferred supplier of the Ministry of Health. And although other bidders were way lower, yet the Gambia’s Ministry of Health still went ahead with single sourcing to TMS, and even revealing the bids of other competitors, while urging TMS to ‘reduce its prices’ in order to justify a single source decision.

TMS ambulance cost stands at USD89, 750 compared to USD69,500 and USD55,900 respectively. Massive difference of USD33,800 and USD20,250 respectively. With a total for 10 ambulances, there is provision for a savings of at least USD 338,000 or 16.9 million Dalasi that could have been saved immediately.

The Directorate General-Internal Audit discovered that the payment of VAT for the 18 motorcycles was made from the Donor Funds (the World Bank funds). While the standard procedure requires that the supplier pays the VAT for the motorcycles, an arrangement at the Ministry of Health was made to ensure that the supplier pockets all this cash and pays nothing. Although there is no indication that the purported VAT levied from the donor funds by the Ministry of Health is not a disguised kick back, the Director of Internal audit consequently requested and obtained that the supplier should be engaged accordingly to ensure the VAT charges are removed from the cost of motorcycles.

Questions on RFQ contracts totaled D65,351,933

There is indication that a contract in six lots for the purchase of Plastic Buckets and Hand Sanitizers for the Parliamentarians has been awarded. But the only information made available to the general public relates to the lots 3 and 4 on the said contract. There is no information on Lot 1, Lot 2, Lot 5 and Lot 6 for the Request for Quotations contract Procurement awarded on “Plastic Buckets and Hand Sanitizers for the Parliamentarians”. The only available information on this contract procurement concern “Lot 3: Marr Banta Suppliers, Lot 4: Hali’s Trading; Lot 7: Atlas Trading Enterprise, and Lot 8: Dicko Enterprise.”

A contract worth D19,100,000 through Request for Quotations (RFQ) has been awarded to suppliers to provide PPEs and sanitary materials for the reopening of schools. But there is also no public information on the identity of the said suppliers and companies that were paid the D19,100,000 to supply the government with PPEs and sanitary materials for the reopening of schools. The information made available to the general public by the GPPA portal only suggest that there is a list of the contractors and beneficiary or owner of the companies that got the procurement contract. But there is no link or lead for anyone browsing on the GPPA portal to get that information, nor is the information publicly available anywhere else.

All these facts go to prove how misleading is the assumption according to which “The authorities have published all COVID-19-related procurement contracts on the website of the Gambia Public Procurement Authority (GPPA), with details on the nature and amounts of the contracts as well as the owners of the beneficial companies”.

Overall, the government of The Gambia has only published very limited information on the pandemic-related spending. There is not yet a publicly release comprehensive audit where government auditors publish their findings from 2020 to date, to allow for an independent check on COVID-19 spending as it happened. The government lacked transparency on the implementation of the COVID-19 policy and fiscal response as well as transparency on procurement of services.

Nino Tchelishvili, an expert on Public Financial Management at the Division of Fiscal Affairs Department, IMF conducted a research on Fiscal transparency and public accountability including keeping the receipts, designing, implementing, and overseeing the support package. The Gambia is one country Nino Tchelishvili assed among 120 governments' COVID-19 fiscal policy responses, and almost 400 emergency fiscal policy packages, in the period from March to September 2020.

The Level of accountability in early COVID fiscal policy response by The Gambia was graded minimal, the lowest as per Tchelishvili’s standards of “Substantive”, “Adequate”, “Average”, “Limited”, and “Minimal”.

The Gambia’s low level of accountability in its early Covid-19 fiscal policy response only matches countries like Yemen, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Malawi, Myanmar, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Burundi, Cambodia, Chad and a few other countries.

Public procurement in The Gambia has faced diverse challenges over the years, underscoring the need to improve the legal framework to ensure transparency and tighten the use of single sourcing.

Implementing the support package includes tracking additional COVID-19 related spending through dedicated programs, channeling donor funding through the budget with complete transparency, applying international standards of transparency to the implementation of off-budget measures, strengthening ex-post controls, and informing citizens about policy measures.

An oversight of the support package means regularly reporting on the progress of implementing the support package – both on and off-budget operations, instituting parliamentary oversight of implementation either through conventional or specific tools, involving civil society organizations in monitoring and ex post-assessments.