Just as we seem to be battling with the NUDEGATE then appeared another new APC scandal: the $12 million BUSGATE. Unfortunately, it seems our APC friends have been GRIPPED by a dangerous mentality: the mentality that as a citizen if you raise concerns about government policies and initiatives or you constructively criticise Government on national issues or you are a journalist asking legitimate questions which bother on transparency and accountability, you are labelled as Unpatriotic; Anti-Developmental; Enemy of Progress; Enemy of the State; a Frustrated man or woman; some even out of naivety will say you do not love your country or you become a subject of blackmail, intimidation and hate messages.
I am sure, anybody will welcome the idea for any government to buy buses to ameliorate "transportation problems" for ordinary citizens and anyone would appreciate that even without the free bus ride. But the shocking facts that the 100 buses, plus spare parts, Chinese technical team, two mobile garages and all other expenses they want to shove down our throats cost a whopping sum of $12 million is just incomprehensible or what the Chinese people would pronounce as Fèijiěi de (the transcribed form of the word incomprehensible in Chinese Language).
It is no surprise that since the $12 million revelation, many citizens have turned to search engines to look up for the cost of NEW buses which must have been unpleasant readings for our APC friends. But it shows the level of awareness of citizens that in this digital age you get information at the click of the keyboard or the touch of a smart phone even though the APC Fibre Optic Project now depends on a miracle.
Every Transport Engineer will tell you that addressing our transportation problem goes far beyond taking a loan for an expensive $12 million bus contract. Even with these buses, at the heart of our transportation problems we are faced with huge challenges: the traffic congestion; the narrow roads and streets; the major issue of street trading; the problem of street parking and the challenges of designated car parks; and still having the eyesore of the roads and streets used as rubbish dumping sites obstructing free flow of vehicles.
In this busgate affair, the issues regarding prices of the bus and the compliance with the procurement procedures will never go away. According to a SALONE TIMES newspaper publication “Inconsistencies Over Cost of 100 Buses…Logus Koroma Embarrassed”, it reported of two contradictory sets of prices of the unit cost of the buses from both the Minister of Transport and a Procurement Officer in the ministry. Surprise! Surprise!
The said SALONE TIMES publication reported that the Procurement Officer in the Ministry, Unisa Dumbuya, revealed the unit cost of the buses: 20 seater bus at $74,815; 30 seater bus at $104,000 and the “Provincial” bus at $137,950. Contrast that with Minister Balogun Koroma who told the public through Radio Democracy, FM 98.1, that the buses cost between $55,000 and $60,000; according to the SALONE TIMES publication.
The obvious question is: how can even the public believe in a contract that on an elementary issue as the unit prices of the buses there are two contradictory sets of prices from the Minister and the Procurement Officer both in the same Ministry? I am sure the Minister does not think Sierra Leoneans are that stupid even with the offer of free bus ride.
Just as many citizens have questioned the whooping $12 million cost for the contract so too many people are still questioning the procurement procedures surrounding the $12 million busgate. In the aforementioned SALONE TIMES publication the Procurement Officer in the Ministry stated “they” agreed to procure the buses based on “Sole Sourcing”. But don’t be surprised if you ask the Minister about the method of procurement he tells you something completely different from what the Procurement Officer said just as the contradiction in the unit price wahala.
In a piece on the controversial procurement procedure by my friend, Sheriff Mahmud Ishmail, who told me he works for State House, the CEO of NPPA, Brima Bangura, was quoted as saying under normal circumstance such procurement would have attracted international competitive bidding. Extraordinarily, Mr. Bangura went on in the interview that "under the circumstance we had to give our acquiescence…" As someone who is not a procurement practitioner, I would not be surprised if the public is as confused as I am with that line of excuse which does not make the circumstance any clearer.
But let even assume the "circumstance" was because this $12 million loan was giving by China and their "lending practice ensures that its selected state owned companies get the contracts arising from their financing". It is unimaginable to think China would give us loan to procure buses and expect us to sign a contract with a Chinese company – China Poly Group Corporation- which has absolutely no business to do with neither the manufacturing of buses or renowned in the Chinese automotive industry.
I did a bit of research about the China Poly Group Corporation with which the Transport Minister signed the contract. We are told that the company has a local representative in Sierra Leone but I was shocked to learn that in China this company deals in five types of business – import and export of military equipment, Culture and Art, Real Estate, Mineral Resources and an Explosive Business.
So the questions which would ordinarily come to mind are: could there have been any other arrangement underneath the surface of this $12 million contract with this company which the public has not been told about? What could have been the motivations or incentives for a company which deals in import and export of military equipment, Mineral Resources, Explosive business etc to be awarded a $12 million contract to procure buses?
Let also even assume that Chinese "lending practice ensures that its selected state owned companies get the contracts arising from their financing" then could it not have been more sensible if the contract was awarded to Chinese state owned bus manufacturing companies like First Automobile Group (FAW Group) or Dongfeng Motor Corporation? As a matter of fact, Zhontong Bus Holding which manufactured the buses is not a Chinese State Owned Company.
Both FAW Group and Dongfeng Motor Corporation are part of the "Big Four" Chinese automakers presently in China. It is not unreasonable to think that awarding a contract directly to any of these state owned Chinese renowned bus manufacturing companies the cost of the contract might have been lower and quality of the buses would have been better.
It will not be inconceivable for anyone to think that the busgate looks like a contract was awarded to China Poly Group Corporation and then the Poly Group appeared to have “sub-contracted” the manufacturing of the buses to Zhontong Bus Holding. Like a journalist friend of mine puts it "It appears like the China Poly Group Corporation acted like a 'middleman' but at what cost?" It is no wonder the delivery of the buses took so long because the whole awarding of the contract and manufacturing seemed like a murky business.
And if the $12 million bus contract is not shocking enough citizens could have been bemused with the bus float parade and the President Koroma Appreciation Free Ride. Even the bus float parade made a messy deal messier for the government. With the report of a bus breakdown or to borrow the words of SLRTC Chief "the driver engaging the wrong gear", I am sure it did very little to convince a cynical public.
And with the "free ride" on Tuesday, we also learnt there was another breakdown at Savage Street of a NEW bus or maybe the SLRTC Chief will tell us again the "driver engaging the wrong gear". But at least rather than blaming the drivers, it appeared there is now an acceptance of the bus breakdown. The new excuse from our APC friends is to post a certain link on social media that "manufacturing faults" do occur citing the withdrawal of Jeep Wrangler 2008 – 2012 by Chrysler in 2014. At least that excuse seems more sensible than using drivers as scapegoats for any manufacturing problem by Zhontong Bus Holding.
But even with that, do citizens expect to be paying a loan of a whopping $12 million contract for NEW buses and during the very appreciation free ride passengers coming off a bus because of breakdown? Absolutely Not! And as the murky affairs surrounding the contract continue we also learnt about the insurance of the buses which is alleged to have been done by RITCORP, the insurance Company of the President. If it is true, then it seems the President's company must have hit another jackpot. At least, the President may just be right when he said in a speech in December 2007 "You may well recall, as I mentioned in one of my earlier addresses, that I said I was going to run this country like a business enterprise".