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Monday, July 6, 2015

Sierra Leone's buses: A question of need

Sierra Leone’s whopping $12 million buses – has government violated procurement rules?
Freetown is one of the most congested cities in the world, with a population of over two million people and hundreds of thousands of vehicles, plying the narrow and poorly maintained roads. Every single day of the week, over 70% of the population spend hours angrily competing for access to the woefully inadequate and poorly maintained, yet expensive passenger transport service. And when they do manage to get on board, a five mile one-way journey would normally take hours, in sweltering heat or pouring rain, as drivers struggle to navigate their way through narrow roads and congested traffic.

Freetown’s inefficient public transport system has a lot do with the poor availability of suitable and reliable public transport. But the main problems for transport operators are; traffic congestion, narrow streets, and the sheer mass of pedestrians and traders encroaching on to traffic lanes.

It is estimated that traffic congestion is costing the country over two hundred million dollars a year in productivity loss, fuel costs, and loss of earnings for those commuters for whom time is money. The Koroma government says it has prioritised the country’s transportation problem. But so far, despite spending millions of dollars on importing dozens of buses, there has been little impact, if at all.

Most of the 40 buses brought into the country two years ago to help solve the transport problem, are hardly functioning today. Last year the government announced that it has signed a contract with a Chinese company for the supply of 100 new buses at a cost of $120,000 each. But there are far more serious questions to be asked, about how the government arrived at the decision to spend $12 million on just 100 buses, each costing $120,000, at such difficult time for the people of Sierra Leone.

Sierra Leone is one of the poorest nations in the world, and relying on donor funds to cover 60% of its current spending. Last year, when thousands of people were dying of Ebola, the government said it had no money to pay doctors, nurses and burial teams, nor did they have money to buy adequate protective wear to save the lives of medical staff. Yet it could find $12 million to hand over to the Chinese for 100 buses. Is this not misplaced priorities?

Why did the government fail to go out to public tender for these buses, so it could buy them cheaper elsewhere? What was the business case for spending $12 million on 100 buses at $120,000 each? On what basis was the manufacturer chosen as the preferred contractor, given the fact that there are several other manufacturers in China and elsewhere, who could have competitively bid for the contract to ensure value for tax payer’s money?

Investigation carried out by the Sierra Leone Telegraph shows that most bus manufacturers in the Far-East, can supply a sixty seater bus (freight on board) at a cost of between $30,000 and $40,000.

The Bigger Question: What really is the problem, and what is needed to address the real problem?

Why is the government paying $120,000 for each of the 100 buses, when the congested roads can hardly cope with the existing volume of traffic? How can $12 million be spent on 100 buses to ease the problem of traffic congestion in Freetown, given the fact that the problem of congestion is caused by too many vehicles using the extremely narrow streets in the capital? How can the government justify spending $12 million on 100 buses, when there are far too many pedestrians and market traders encroaching on traffic lanes causing traffic congestion?

How can $12 million be spent on 100 buses that can only add to the traffic congestion, given the sheer mega size of each of those buses? How does the government justify spending $12 million on 100 buses, with the problem of poor parking on most major roads and streets in the capital, exacerbating the problem of traffic congestion? Why has the government not focussed its energy on measures aimed at easing traffic congestion, including ensuring that major roads and streets are not used as rubbish dumps?

But more importantly, why has the government failed to encourage the private sector to invest heavily in the transportation sector, with government using its finance as leverage? Government has no business running a transport business.

This $12 million Chinese contract not only violates the country’s public procurement regulations, but is a bad spending decision that will fail to yield best value for tax payers money.
China Technical Team to arrive ahead of 100 buses
With 100 buses purchased in China by the Government of Sierra Leone slated to arrive the shores of Sierra Leone July 8, a six man technical team will be leaving China on the 4th July for Freetown to receive and handover the said buses to Government through the Sierra Leone Roads Transport Cooperation, and also undertake a training program for staff of SLRTC. In March 2015, a Pre-Delivery Shipment Inspection was conducted by officials from the SLTRC and Sierra Leone Roads and Safety Authority on the (100) one hundred Buses, manufactured by Zhongtong Buses, in Shandong Province.

Chargé d’ Affairés, Sierra Leone Embassy, Madam Kumba Alice Momoh expressed optimism that with the arrival of the buses in Sierra Leone, the challenges in the country’s public transport sector could be addressed. General Manager, SLRTC, Bockarie Lewis Kamara, at the time, said, “the Manufacturers went by the technical specification which takes into account value for money and upholding safety proposals like seating capacity and number of doors in each Bus”. Engineer Lamin A. Koroma, Consultant from the Sierra Leone Roads and Safety Authority, disclosed at the time of inspection, that “…the work done by the Manufacturers was impressive and the manufacturing requirements as per contract signed were met.”

This is a great article for pointing out that procurement should begin with carefully assessing a need, not with a desire to spend (or bend to a vendor's desire to sell).

UPDATE: Sierra Leone bus procurement investigated by anti-corruption agency
Concerns had been raised about the procurement whereby funding for the purchase was financed by China in a deal that meant the contract must go one of its state-owned companies.

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