The observations raised by architect Dr Sylvester Mashamba at the ZICA post-budget discussion on Friday over the government’s need to initiate stronger measures to tackle high levels of corruption, inefficiency and abuse of office in the construction industry need to be urgently addressed.
The Minister of Finance, Alexander Chikwanda, failed to address in any meaningful way Mashamba’s concerns. Yet, it is Chikwanda himself who raised great concerns over very high and irresistible levels of corruption in road construction contracts.
Despite all the corruption Chikwanda is aware of in road construction contracts, he has gone ahead to allocate K5.6 billion, over 12 per cent, of the 2015 national budget, without putting in place corrective or mitigating measures. Why?
If things are left the way they are, this money is going to continue to be stolen, misused, misapplied, mismanaged, misappropriated and so on and so forth.
Under a system where there is corruption, it is not possible to utilise public funds in a manner that can be said to be efficient, effective and orderly. It also means that whatever money we are pumping into road infrastructure development, we are not getting value for it; it is actually wasted money.
The question is: why continue to waste money in this manner? Probably Chikwanda himself has provided the answer to this when he said the corruption of this sector is irresistible. Look at the people close to Chikwanda himself who are in one way or another involved in construction projects, those who bring him some champagne, notu ma red wine utwalekana lekana! Look at the close associates of Chikwanda who are in this industry! This may explain why despite knowing that there is irresistible corruption in this sector, Chikwanda continues to increase the budget allocation to it. For what? For money to continue to be stolen?
We shouldn’t be deceived by the few roads that have been constructed. With more prudent and honest measures in place, more roads could have been constructed out of the money that we have already spent. And these road projects should not be treated as gifts from Chikwanda or anyone else for that matter. This is money that belongs to the Zambian taxpayer. It is money from taxes we pay in Pay As You Earn, VAT on all the taxable products and services we buy. It is really our money at work and not Chikwanda’s money or that of his friends. But there is a tendency to try and treat this money as if some distant relative of Chikwanda has bequeathed it to us.
The levels of accountability on these road projects are very low. And we should not be deceived that what is being done is the best possible. They are interested in these road projects because they themselves are benefitting from them.
We have road construction contracts being given to their friends who have no capacity whatsoever to deliver on those contracts. And what do they do? They discount those contracts, enriching themselves without having done anything or undertaken any risk. You are given a free road contract for which you are paying nothing and you sell it at some value. This is how they are making money.
In some cases, they become fronts for foreign road construction companies. They are the ones who submit the bid documents and the political brokering through the patronising of the decision makers, buying them champagne and red wines and so on and so forth.
In the end, there is no Zambian road construction capacity that is really being built. And this did not start now. It is something that has been going on since 1991. For over 20 years, we have failed to build any meaningful Zambian road construction capacity.
The Chinese road construction capacity we are today utilising is their excess capacity. The Chinese did not contract foreign companies to do their roads and other infrastructure. They started by building their own capacity. And today, they have accomplished a greater part of their road network needs and can export the excess capacity. At the rate we are going, even if we are given another 50 years, we will not build any meaningful Zambian road construction capacity because our people are simply fronts for foreign companies. There is no meaningful participation of Zambians in all these things in terms of doing the job. There is only participation in getting a tiny fraction of the income from road construction contracts.
But there is a serious consequence of all this on the nation and its development.
This means our roads are increasingly becoming very expensive to build, the cost per kilometre of road constructed is not reducing. If this continues, we will be left with a really huge foreign debt. Those who are benefitting from these road construction projects will make sure the works don’t reduce and every year, we will be contracting new debt until we run dry.
A better way can be found to deal with this problem and reduce corruption and patronage. We can build capacity in our military institutions – Zambia Army, Zambia Air Force and Zambia National Service. They all have engineering units that can easily be incorporated into companies competing with each other for road projects and other construction works. If there is lack of skills, they can in the interim use expatriate labour while they are training their own. And moreover, military officers don’t easily leave to go and seek jobs abroad after being trained. Many countries in the developing world are using their military for economic development.
But a proposal like this cannot be accepted by those in power today because it will disadvantage them, their pockets will run dry. Many of our politicians today are heavily dependent on construction contracts. They will be heavily opposed to any move that completely takes away business from them. But personal interest should not override the common good of society.
Truly, all this massive road construction we are seeing is no longer solely driven by the desire Michael Sata had in mind when he initiated it, that is, to develop the country. It is today being driven by greed, vanity, corruption, fraud and all the selfishness one can imagine. What we are seeing is just change. More can be done with the money we are pumping into the road infrastructure if prudence and honesty were put in place.