By Judex Okoro, Calabar
March 20th, 2012
In this interview, Dr. Tom Ogar, former Special Adviser to Governor Liyel Imoke on Due Process and Procurement, stated that “Procurement is a very problematic area where 80 – 90% corruption takes place in Nigeria because there are ‘many little areas’ where there are loopholes,” adding “It takes only a trained person who has integrity to discover and plug such loopholes as some persons are out to collude with you to inflate the contingency fees. It takes one with integrity to run procurement business for government.”
Ogar, the former Governor’s aide and university don who recounted his experience during an interactive session with newsmen in Calabar, said corruption can only thrive if public officers continue to collude with contractors and it can lead to collapse of the entire system.
The soft-spoken graduate of Philosophy from University of Calabar, maintained that introduction of Due Process Department does not in any way slow down budget implementation rather “those who are having this notion are the ones that want to cut corners as I cannot imagine how a budget in MDA that was supposed to run for ten months would wait till the last hour of December 31 ending before presenting its procurement.”
Revolutionizing Due Process and Price Intelligence in C’River
It was extremely difficult introducing Due Process and Price Intelligence in the state in 2007 let alone revolutionizing it when I was appointed as the head of the unit. As a university lecturer, I was a novice because the job essentially is about regulating public procurement. We were basically a regulator and to ensure that procurement and due process exercise in this state were carried out to meet international best practice; ensure openness, accountability and to add value for money. Public procurement as you all know is the hub of every government and every organisation, whether private or public.
As the government is daily into public procurement- buying of items for the smooth running of government- it became expedient to introduce these reforms because I didn’t have background knowledge about it except Public Tenders Board. I observed there were a lot of irregularities and such other things that should not naturally be. Before you could win a contract in the public service, it is either you know someone, the governor, the commissioner or such persons. There was no transparency, no openness. Most of the jobs were haphazardly done or abandoned.
When you pick certain percentage of the mobilization fee, it would be seen as part of the national cake which would be shared and then the job abandoned or done in a shoddy manner. You can, therefore, see why the reforms became imperative.
Perception by politicians and others on that Due Process slows down budget implementation
It is not just in this state. I remember even at the federal level, there were lots of misgivings. We have been to Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and other countries to see how they carried out their own. If we have to go through all the processes as lawfully authorized, I have not seen where Due Process Department slows down budget implementation. Those who are having this notion are the ones that want to cut corners. I cannot imagine how a budget in MDA that was supposed to run for ten months would wait till the last hour of December 31 ending before presenting its procurement.
Or, take for instance, this Cross River State, Calabar where the rains come in early. Take for instance the ministry of environment, you need to decongest the drains; this is January and you are doing nothing about procurement, and you wait till April or May and you now rush to Due Process, believing it is an urgent matter, I would tell you clearly No! There is nothing like emergency here! You have a budget and a plan for this budget. You should start your procurement early. This is why we insist on procurement planning. With the plan it gives you chance to work because you want to cut corners; you don’t want to follow the processes. We only recognize emergency procurement where there is natural calamity, windstorm or disaster etc.
So there is a myth. There is no reality about the fact that Due Process slows down implementation of the budget. The slow-down is from the MDAs. If it was not so I would tell you. And this was basically because of lack of capacity sometimes. Some MDAs have refused to use the procurement officers that we trained for such purposes. Commissioners and heads of MDAs these days want to stay in their offices to do procurements. This is wrong. The chief executives of MDAs are not supposed to be part of procurements if you look at what we call the resident Due Process team. The accounting officers of the MDAs are the permanent secretaries that should be saddled with the responsibilities of procurements.
Sub standard and abandoned projects
I can beat my chest to affirm that when I was in charge, we never had abandoned projects. In fact, it has been reduced to the barest minimum. Fraudulent practices, we have them all over the world. For instance, there is this construction company that built a tunnel between London and Paris; at the end of the day, they got it all wrong. The initial allocation to that project was tripled. So, in issues of fraud and corruption, you have them everywhere. But over there it has been reduced to the barest minimum because they have check and balances in place and once you are caught you are punished immediately.
In Cross River State, when we came on board, we were operating on executive fiat, so to speak, when the office was set up. There is a law passed by the state House of Assembly and assented to in 2011. Basically we have instrument in place. The drawback was that there were no punitive measures for those caught committing fraud. Now that we have a legal instrument backing the establishment of this office, we were empowered and if anyone had faulted, the law would have taken its cause. Therefore, for the contractors that thought of abandoning jobs, it was no longer business as usual.
Besides, I don’t deal with contractors directly and do not encourage loitering around my office. They have any business with me but with the MDAs. They were no threats to me because they too even know that they are not supposed to see me.
Corruption at procurement level
We have substantially been able to save money through the Due Process reforms. Sometimes you discover that when you are doing procurement for medical equipment, educational materials that are not supposed to VAT procurement officers will still go ahead and with VAT on those materials by putting it on our price indices. We have stopped those practices where certain items were charged VAT and then the proceeds do not get into government coffers. Sometimes some items were charged contingency whereas it was not supposed to be the case. We have also removed that. For contingency, in this state we only accepted 2.5% instead of five per cent previously. Procurement is a very problematic area where 80 – 90% corruption takes place in Nigeria because there are ‘many little areas’ where there are loopholes.
It takes only a trained person who has integrity to discover and plug such loopholes. Often, you will find some persons coming to you to collude with you to inflate the contingency fees, for instance, asking you to close your eyes that we would share the extra.
It takes one with integrity to run procurement business for government. If as SA, I had compromised, the entire system would have collapsed. But I can stand on the mountain-top and talk because there was no contractor that can challenge me that he gave me money. None will have the gut to even say it! You must know where you coming from and where you going if you have to succeed in building the reform system. Essentially, we have saved money for government. But the emphasis is really on getting the right thing done. I am most certain that we have saved substantial amount for government through reduction of inflation in contract sums.
The department saved about close to N500 million both from due process and registration of contractors and renewals. I am very bold to say that the Due process office, the smallest of all the government offices, got the highest revenue last year. If we had got into all these sharp practices, we would not have realized that. I cannot remember when last we committed a ‘genuine mistake’ that would have cost the government revenue.
Entrenching public procurement best practices in key ministries, LGs and agencies in the state
In fact, there was even a report in The Guardian that the Due Process in Cross River State is one of the best administered in the country. As a result of this, a lot of international donors are getting interested in the state. This is essentially so because of this office. The World Bank, EU, DFID etc can only come to you when they are certain that you are running a transparent financial system. And you know that these people do not just want to throw their money into the drain. They constantly have interface with us, especially the World Bank that donates whole lot of assistance, equipment, generators and other supports. Before the procurement law came out, they kept calling to find out when it was going to be enacted.
The disciplined was so entrenched that at a point I longer had friends even at the state executive council. They say when it comes to procurement I do not compromise and that I don’t have friends. I talk procurement with masked face.
But one funny thing is that I did not read Procurement in the university. In fact, when the governor swore me in and gave the Procurement portfolio I was scared because I did not know a thing about it and that was even the reason upon my swearing-in I dodged the newsmen because if anyone of them had asked me a question about procurement I wouldn’t have known what to answer. What I did was to begin to read anything about procurement vociferously.
Again, I approached the governor, told him my plight and the need to attend courses. Surprisingly, he readily approved for me to go for training and other courses on capacity building even abroad. At a point my cabinet colleagues would be asking how I managed to get such approvals whereas they have not even gone to, say, Badagry in Lagos. Perhaps the governor understood the vast need for all that. Now that I am preparing to go back to the University, I do not even know what I would go to teach. Maybe Procurement, who knows?