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Corruption and SICPA Contracts Go Together- Dr. Ousman Gajigo

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Dr. Ousman Gajigo, Economist formerly with ADB

By Dr. Ousman Gajigo

The government recently announced a contract with a Swiss company called SICPA to help the Gambia Revenue Authority (GRA) with tax revenue collection. Stripped of all context, there would be nothing wrong with such a contract. After all, having amodern system in place that enables better tax administration is important. And tax revenue is the most important source of domestic resource mobilization for development finance by the government. While there may be other issues with this decision, the most basic one involves the choice of contractor, SICPA.   

SICPA is a Swiss company that has operated in several countries. It indeed has a track record in the sort of service in which it has ostensibly been contracted for in The Gambia. So,the issue is not the technical ability of the firm, rather with its ethics of doing business. Corruption and bribery allegations have dogged this company for years. As recently as 2023, the company was fined more than $90 million by Swiss authorities for bribing foreign officials to get contracts. That fine was based on bribes SICPA paid in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. 

In 2021, the company was fined about $150 million dollars by Brazilian authorities for illegal activities. The company had to pay this fine for its unlawful activities there and as a condition for its ability to continue to operate in the country. In addition to bribery accusations for which it has been found liable, the company was also accused of money laundering and embezzlement. The allegations of the wrongdoing were not just limited to some low-level employees, but extended all the way to the CEO of the company who is also its majority shareholder.This means that these illegal activities by SICPA are not some isolated events that could be solved by firing some officials. Rather, it goes to the heart of the company and a principal part of what it does. And because SICPA is a privately-held company, which means the financial details about the company that are not opened to the public, there may be a lot more skeletons in its closet. 

With this dark history of the company, one can begin to see howproblematic it is for the government to award it such an important contract. It raises the question of whether the government has any mechanisms in place to carry out appropriate due diligence on companies when awarding contracts. In fact, do Gambian public officials in charge of such procurements even have the desire to make selection decisions on merits and getting the best value for money for the country?And we are forced to ask, given the history of SICPA, how many senior Gambian officials were probably bribed for the company to be awarded the contract?

The awarding of contracts to firms with clear histories of corruption has unfortunately turned into a tradition with the Adama Barrow government. One of the earliest examplesinvolved Semlex, the company that was awarded a contract to make national ID cards and driver’s license. Semlex has a long history of bribing officials in developing countries in other to beawarded contracts. Semlex was the conduit for bribes by companies to officials in Ivory Coast and Congo, which resulted in a fine of $90 million for the company. In Madagascar, the company paid bribes to official worth up to $140,000. According to press reports, the allegations against Semlex across multiple countries even included money laundering.  

What was particularly unfortunate about the award of that contract to Semlex was that there was in fact a perfectly suitable company owned by Gambian entrepreneurs that had the capacityand track record to deliver all the requirements without any of Semlex’s dirty baggage. I’m referring to Pristine Consulting, which was started by Draman Touray, an ivy league educated Gambian who created companies worth millions of dollars. For one reason or another, Pristine Consulting was given all indications that it would get the contact only to have the government hand it to Semlex at the last minute. Shortly afterwards, the young and talented entrepreneur who was the major shareholder of Pristine Consulting, died from a massive stroke.

Another example is Securiport. This company was dubiously awarded a contract that has cost the country more than D 270 million so far. It has also earned the country an ignoble distinction of willfully advertising itself as a banana republic to the whole world by requiring all travelers to pay money whether they are exiting or entering – a practice that is not seen even in failed states. In both Benin and Mali, Securiport was involved with bribery of officials to get contracts. Once these contracts are signed, countries can only get out of them if they are willing to pay millions of dollars.

The Securiport deal in The Gambia was cooked up at the highest level of the government, which is the State House. The fact that the State House bypassed relevant ministries and agencies to directly handled the awarding of a contract unfavorable to the country to such a company shows the degree of the corruption problem we have in the country. Even the government’s own auditors were not allowed access to the necessary files to properly carry out their responsibility. And president Barrow was himself quoted as saying the findings of the auditors with regards to this matter is just an opinion. Would a president who cares about rooting out corruption utter such words?

These are not the only examples – the list goes on. 

Recently, we have seen many ministries unashamedly stating publicly that contractors are not delivering. In many instances, these are contractors that have a long history with providing sub-standard services to the government. These are not natural phenomena that we have to helplessly endure. Repeated failures by contractors to deliver is a direct result of government failure in having a system in place where the nation’s interest is completely replaced by the private interests of corrupt officials. Whether that failure is due to incompetence or indifferences to the interest of the country is anyone’s guess. What is not in doubt however, is that we have a government where officials at the very top have no desire to root out corruption given their enthusiasm to embrace firms that are widely known around the world for doling out bribes. Even if no bribes were involved, no serious government should want to associate with company with such reputations because the appearance of impropriety for governments can be just as damaging as the act itself. 

Another problem that the SICPA contract shows is the lack of transparency. The GRA commissioner was recently quoted as saying that the contract is a public private partnership (PPP). In that case, the details of such a contract should be public information. After all, the public’s need and right to know the details of a PPP contract should supersede any confidentiality concern by a company that is benefiting from said contract. But this would not be the first PPP contract that is kept as a secret. The only conclusion one can draw from the fact that these and all other PPPs are hidden from the public is that they were designed and negotiated with the interest of corrupt officials in mind, not interest of the nation.

It is high time that we have a government that is serious about all aspects of governing, including rooting out corruption. This should involve immediately ceasing to offer contracts to companies that have track records of bribery and money laundering. It is especially troubling given the fact that it is quite easy to find about the unsavory reputations of these firms, which rules out any possibility that officials even made a minimal attempt at due diligence. I did not need any special investigative skills since all the information about SICPA is freely available online.

To demonstrate seriousness about this issue, any officials complicit in such contracts should be held accountable. But I am not holding my breath, given what we know about the lack of seriousness of the Adama Barrow regime.

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