Augustus Seminega is the Rwanda Public Procurement Authority (RPPA) director general. He talked to Ben Gasore about a number of issues concerning the procurement sector in Rwanda and the region
Question: Give us an overview of the Rwanda Public Procurement Authority over the past five years since it took over from the National Tender Board?
Answer: When RPPA came into existence, it was almost at the beginning of the reforms in public procurement in Rwanda. These reforms involved putting in place a legal regulatory framework and building institutions to handle the functions of public procurement, building the capacity in all these institutions and continuing to steer the systems and institutions that had been put in place earlier .
When RPPA was instituted, it had two major issues to handle: We had the law in public procurement which was at its infancy. It was just less than a year old. The law that established RPPA was promulgated on December 30, 2007.
We have been able to complete the regulatory framework and put in place the existing order to establish regulations in company law, as well as getting a number of ministerial orders to streamline the functioning of RPPA itself. We also put in place standard bidding and other documents to support the law on public procurement like the code of ethics of officials involved in public procurement and also a user guide for people involved in the public procurement sector.
After the third year, we realised that there were a number of things to be changed, especially those involving functions of procurement like government promulgation and publication. That was as far as the regulatory framework was concerned.
What else did you handle during the initial stages of the authority?
After RPPA was established, we put in place the internal structure, recruited staff and also set up tender committees and procurement departments in all government.
We also started training people in public procurement procedures and operations and have continued to do so.
We have entered into partnership with the School of Finance and Banking and they are introducing deeper and long-term courses that offer academic qualification in public procurement. The school is now offering masters in public procurement.
The International Management Academy, in collaboration with the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supplying (CIPS) in the UK, conducts exams that lead to professional qualifications in public procurement.
So, we have gone a long way in building our national public procurement system and it has won approval from development partners, especially the World Bank.
We first did a self-assessment exercise, which was being done in many developing countries besides Rwanda, but based on methodology that had been developed by the Organisation for Economical Co-operation's Development, which brings together developed countries in Europe and the US.
Later, the World Bank carried out an assessment with the intention of piloting the issue of country systems in World Bank-financed projects. All these assessments have been commending our efforts.
What are some of the challenges you have been facing in implementing the new reforms?
We are facing a number of challenges; the first one is that many people don't know the procedures established by law, but they stubbornly pretend to know and always want to complain how labourious the process is. Even suppliers always complain that they are being mistreated. So, it is important that people study the law so that, even when there are delays, they understand why.
There are also some rigidities with the law. Sometimes you find that you cannot move as fast as you would have liked because the law is not flexible. So it needs more rigorous planning and patience.
We have a problem of government officials who do not understand the law, especially when it comes to fighting corruption. People always fear to make decisions or act because they are not sure whether the decisions they take are not going to lead to prosecution.
Another challenge is the inability of bidders to package their procurement requirements in a tender document. These include procurement requirements, qualification criteria and definition of what they want so that at the end of the entire process, they get the right product. Sometimes people get the wrong product and blame it on the process, but usually, it is because they maybe not have specified what they wanted.
Recently, while in the Southern Province, RPPA announced that the public procurement law would be amended to make it possible for RPPA to punish those who will breach it. Isn't this going to scare away local contractors from competing for tenders?
There are specified clauses in the amended law, for example, previously, breach of any provision would lead to criminal prosecution. The new law, handles specific issues like collusion of the bidders or disclosure of technical specifications before the tender is published that would be punishable by law.
We have also introduced disciplinary measures for actors like failure to pay a supplier without justifiable reasons or refusing to accept the supplies after they have been completed. So, we were making the implications of such behaviour clearer.
What are you doing to promote local firms in the tendering process?
We provide, free of charge, the legal and regulatory framework on our website, where all the tenders are published. Through the website, they get to know of the tendering opportunities.
We also carry out awareness programmes every year in all provinces to educate them about the law and other procurement-related issues. Our last sensitisation campaign was held recently in the Southern Province, late this month, we will have another training for the Eastern Province sector stakholders.
Where does RPPA see itself in the next five years?
First of all, we see government institutions becoming more mature in the way they award tenders, having staff, who understand how to get value-for-money to avoid the current inefficiencies in public procurement, and also people who will treat the suppliers and contractors equitably. We also want to ensure the contractors receive good services from government entities.
Generally, we want to see institutions being able to carry out public procurement in a manner that facilitates the attainment of their objectives rather than complaining unnecessarily as if they should operate without laws and regulations. We see RPPA as a proactive body able to identify reforms to be carried out and do them on time.
Finally, being in position to identify the weak government institutions and help them is one of our goals.
How does Rwanda's public procurement sector compare with its regional counterparts?
I think we are almost at the same level of development, though they enacted their laws earlier than us. Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania had their laws enacted in 2003 or 2005, but we have been fast in revising our law. As far as performance is concerned, there haven't been any independent comparisons to see which is better, but I should say we have undergone more external independent assessments in public procurement systems than any of the three countries.
We meet regularly in forums organised by the World Bank, COMESA and the East African Community Economic Forum so we know what takes place in each country. We carry out all our activities to the best of our ability. Our three-year strategic plan is to be the centre of regional excellence.
What is your advice to local contractors?
They should spend time (and even invest money) to study and understand the law and procurement procedures. They should train their staff who participate in bidding or draft contracts that they enter into with the government to have competitive bids. They have been making a lot of mistakes when preparing the tenders.
Worse still, a number of them perform poorly when executing government contracts. Also, some of them engage in activities like forging documents or they are not fulfilling their contractual obligations, leading to being blacklisted. We now have a long list of people who have been blacklisted. So I would encourage them to invest and understand the procedures involved in public procurement.