Transparency in Governance

  • 31st August 2020
  • 2020
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There is little doubt about why the Bainimarama government has not, in its six years in office as an elected government, enacted enabling legislation to check corruption and abuse of office – as provided for in its own 2013 Constitution: Mahendra Chaudhry.

A public inquiry into fraudulent transactions and other irregularities involving the sale of Housing Authority (HA) lots began in Lautoka yesterday (Friday 28 August).

The Auditor-General has also been asked to carry out a Special Audit into the allocation of lots by the Authority over the past 10 years.

The public inquiry and the Audit Report come in the wake of claims by Housing Minister Premila Kumar of ‘high levels of corruption’ in the Housing Authority.

A media release issued by the Housing Ministry in June complained of a serious “lack of transparency” in the selection process of applicants for HA lots.

Regrettably, this lack of transparency and accountability is not just confined to the Housing Authority. It is a malaise that afflicts the entire system under the Fiji First government from top down. Fiji has not appeared on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index in over a decade for lack of adequate data.

Failure to act

FICAC was set up in 2007 to clamp down on official corruption. But, many believe the term ‘independent’ applied to it is largely a misnomer, as it is more an instrument of intimidation, used by the powers-that-be to subdue critics, than an institution to fight against corruption. Since the Commission was set up in 2007, a qualified substantive Commissioner has not been appointed to head the organization.

Let me give an example of FICAC’s failure to act on a complaint I filed in June 2014 regarding unlawful development of a piece of State land in Bay View Heights, zoned for civic purposes.

The land had been improperly leased to the China Railway Engineering Group (CREG) by the Lands Department on “orders from above”. Commercial development was taking place on it without due process being followed and without the approval of the relevant authorities – the Town and Country Planning Department and the Suva City Council.

I wrote to the Lands Department and the Suva City Council querying the illegal works being done in contravention of proper procedures. The Lands Department did not respond to the letter. The Council wrote to say it would look into the matter and respond but never did. FICAC completely ignored the complaint. A complaint with the Police also led nowhere. No action was ever taken over this unlawful development.

Speculators not developers

The failure to hold authorities accountable, leaves Fiji vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous elements. I’ll give another example – that of the much-lauded scheme by another Chinese developer, the Gold Century Group, for the construction of a $500 million satellite city on a large tract of State land in Raiwaqa on which it had obtained a development lease in the name of a locally registered surrogate company.

The project was announced with much fanfare by the government with the principal shareholder, Shi Yubao, himself flying into Fiji in September 2011 to sign the deal with Prime Minister Bainimarama. Solicitor General Christopher Pryde was among those who enthusiastically hailed it as “a significant boost to the Fiji economy”.

The long and short of the story is that, after some minor initial earthworks, work on the project stopped. Next we hear Shi Yubao’s company had collapsed in Handan, China in 2014 owing USD506 million to thousands of people from whom money had been raised illegally to fund Golden Century’s development projects. Yubao himself was on the run from the Chinese authorities.

BUT the company made a windfall from the leased Raiwaqa land. Instead of the abandoned land reverting to the State for failure to comply with the lease conditions. Gold Century was allowed to sell the lot for a cool $19m to a prominent local retail developer in 2015. I understand it has just been sold to yet another local developer for a profit. The land remains undeveloped.

FLP’s questions on this case as well were ignored by the authorities. Who then is to be held accountable for such questionable deals leading to loss of prime State land to foreign speculators?  The legitimate question here is: Was there collusion between the speculator and the officialdom?

Membership of Boards

Lack of transparency in the public works tender process is another matter of serious concern. There is evidence that contracts are going to preferred contractors or consultants who also sit on government boards and are known to be close to the top guns. The same names appear on several boards making one wonder whether Fiji is lacking in professionals with the required skills and expertise.

For instance, the Governor of the Reserve Bank as holder of an independent constitutional office should not accept appointments to the boards of institutions and organisations which may be seen to compromise the independence of the Governor’s Office.

Yet, we find the current Governor Ariff Ali is chair of the Government Tender Board, Fiji Roads Authority, the Accident Compensation Commission of Fiji, and a board member of the Fiji Revenue and Customs Service. He has recently retired as chairman of the Sugar Cane Growers Fund and a board member of FSC. I have brought this issue of the impropriety of the RBF Governor sitting on various boards, to the public domain before.

Then there is the questionable practice of accommodating board members in a conflict of interest situation. In one particular case, a member of the FNPF Board who resigned in December 2018 was re-appointed in January 2020. I believe his resignation was associated with his company’s bid for a lucrative contract in the refurbishing and remodeling of one of FNPF’s top resorts. The member was back on the Board after securing the contract.

Public Works

Concerned observers believe that a lack of transparency in the public works tender process, is resulting in huge cost over-runs on government capital projects.

The 4-lane highway from Nadi International Airport to Wailoaloa junction was completed at a massive cost of $166m when the original estimate was for about $70m. Likewise, the Nabouwalu Highway originally estimated to be constructed for $120m, ended up costing over $200m; the Rakiraki Bridge initially projected at a cost of $5m ended up costing $13m.

The upgrade and modernization works at the Nadi International Airport was initially projected at $105m but ended up costing $130m.

The Ministry of Economy has a Procurement Office and a Tenders Board chaired by the Governor of the Reserve Bank. And then there is the Construction Implementation Unit. One wonders what sort of oversight are these bodies maintaining if public projects end up with such huge cost over-runs?

Another eye opener is that associated with the rebuilding and repair of schools damaged by Cyclone Winston. I am reliably informed that the cost of building these schools ranged from $3000-$5000 per m2. This is outrageously exorbitant, according to some local builders and consulting firms. One can build a five-star hotel for around $3500 m2. In most cases, the major work required was to replace roofs. The cost should not have exceeded $1500-$1800 per m2, they say.

The Ministry of Education says some $300m has been spent on reconstructing the cyclone-damaged schools. The process of awarding the contracts for this project has drawn much criticism from people within the construction industry.

It is alleged that the lion’s share of contracts was awarded to off-shoots of two prominent hardware companies which in turn subcontracted the works to local builders for much reduced sums, thus making huge profits with minimum outlay.

It is also alleged that the qualifying criteria for bidding for the contracts were specifically engineered to exclude the subcontracted companies which were ultimately engaged by the main contractors.

Big money was also made by some engineering consulting companies who had initially agreed to provide free design services to help the country from the onslaught wreaked by Cyclone Winston. But it is alleged that these very firms made a windfall from consulting fees which they charged at the rate of between 8-20% of the project cost.

The entire project was implemented by the Construction Implementation Unit which was moved from the PM’s office to the Ministry of Economy in 2016.

Action needed

Opposition Parties in Parliament need to demand that the Ministry of Economy table a full report with details of the schools rebuilt, showing the cost per m2 for each school, the amounts paid to the contractor in each case and the fees and associated charges paid to project consultants.

Information gathered from this report should then be referred to an independent panel of qualified architects and engineers for professional opinion on whether the allegations are justified.

From what I have written thus far, there is little doubt about why the Bainimarama government has not, in its six years in office as an elected government, enacted enabling legislation to check corruption and abuse of office – as provided for in its own 2013 Constitution.

I refer here to Chapter 8 of the Constitution on Accountability – s149 which requires the enactment of a written law to establish a code of conduct applicable to the holders of high office. It also provides for the establishment of an Accountability and Transparency Commission (s121) to implement the Code of Conduct with powers to investigate and refer for prosecution any breach thereof.

This Commission has not been appointed in the last six years nor has a Code of Conduct been developed. An associated requirement of enacting Freedom of Information legislation (s150) has also been ignored by the Bainimarama government.

What can one glean from these failures, which by now begin to appear deliberate? In my books, the answer is that this government has no intention of submitting itself to the checks and balances that will make it accountable to the people.

Catching the small fish while letting the big ones escape is not going to make a dent in the armour of corruption in this country.