By Yusef Taylor, @FlexDan_YT
The Ministry of Interior (the Ministry) awarded a tentative contract to the highest bidder, Comfort Quality Services Limited (Comfort), to procure Aluminium Number Plates on May 7th, 2019. However, the Complaints Review Board (Review Board) chaired by Justice Amina Saho suspended the procurement process in its ruling dated March 15th, 2019. In fact, the Review Board described the Ministry’s decision to disqualify one of the bidders as “iniquitous and scandalously unreasonable” and ordered a financial re-evaluation.
The Review Board is a body established by section 54 of the Gambia Public Procurement Act 2014 and empowered to review decisions made by procuring organisations at any stage of the procurement proceedings. This story highlights a procurement process where the Review Board’s suspension has been blatantly ignored by the Ministry.
This investigation is a result of months of interviews, knocking on doors of Gambian Authorities and trawling through reams of documents including bid submissions, correspondence between private businesspersons and government officials.
What is really bizarre is that the tender was clearly for the supply of 65,000 Aluminium Number Plates one month after being awarded the project. However, what is being implemented is a five years renewable partnership between Comfort and the Authorities, who share the profits from number plates sold. The bid at the tender stage is totally at odds with the project being implemented today. In other words, what was tendered by the authorities and what is being implemented is totally different, it’s like day and night.
To better understand the project’s contractual agreements, Gainako hand-delivered letters to the Authorities requesting a copy of the final contract without avail. To date, Gainako has only acquired a copy of the tentative contract for a project one year into its implementation.
An “unsuccessful bid” notification sent to losing bidders on 8th February 2019 prompted two companies, Tedungal and SAMAR’T Gambia, to lodge complaints at the Review Board, Gambia Public Procurement Authority (GPPA), the Ministry amongst other government authorities to intervene in the tender process. After reviewing the bids submitted by six companies it’s evident that the contract was awarded to the highest bidder, Comfort, led by proprietor Mr Sulayman Ceesay.
Comfort’s bid of D65.7 Million was D20.2 Million higher than the second-highest bid from Touba Trading Enterprise (D45.5 Million). The chart below depicts all six bids submitted bids and shows that the average bid price was D37.8 million with the lowest bidder being Fayline who submitted a bid price of D15.6 Million, less than half the average bid price.
In our quest to understand the Ministry’s controversial decision to award Comfort a Concession Contract we obtained documents and photos proving that senior security officers travelled with Comfort and SAMAR’T Gambia to Germany and Spain in 2018. Currently, two bidders, Tedungal and SAMAR’T Gambia are soliciting legal support to overturn the decision. According to a letter addressed to the Secretary-General from a losing bidder (SAMAR’T Gambia) dated 1st December 2020 the current “number plates do not contain the specified security features and the accompanying system that should allow traffic officers to validate registered license plates is also not in place despite Comfort’s effort [to] develop a mediocre and inefficient solution in an attempt to deceive authorities”.
1. “It was always about a Direct Contract Procurement”
The winning bid submitted by Comfort used sample plates from a German business partner, Tonnjes, a company “specialised in Vehicle Identification Solutions operating in more than 100 countries including Senegal”. Gainako obtained an expression of interest letter from Tonnjes Managing Director, Mr Jochen Betz which highlighted that their business was “in the process of setting up a production and distribution centre for reflective security license plates in Dakar, Senegal, by the name of “AFRIPLAQUE” together with our partners from Senegal and The Gambia”. Tonnjes Managing Director in Senegal is Marie Rosalie Diop Gomis who eventually travelled on a fact-finding mission to the Gambia to witness the “surprise bid”.
In awarding the contract to Comfort, the Ministry also upset Tedungal Multimedia, led by Mr Omar Leigh and Mr Baboucarr Senghore. Tedungal raised concerns that Mr Ceesay (Comfort), visited “their German partner” [Tonnjes] with security officers, one year before being awarded the contract. According to Mr Betz, the Police presented Mr Ceesay as their preferred distributor of aluminium number plates in the Gambia.
To verify his allegations, we obtained a complaints letter sent from Mr Betz to the Director of Strategic Planning at the President’s Office stating that “in March 2018, Mr Sulayman Ceesay from Comfort visited our company headquarter in Germany together with 4 officials from the Gambia Police Force to inform themselves about Tonnjes products and solutions for security license plates, holographic stickers and manufacturing equipment”. The letter also claims that Mr Ceesay advised Mr Betz “that the contract for supply and distribution of new security license plate would be a direct negotiation between his company and the Ministry of Interior and he [Comfort] must be the distributor of our products for this contract”.
In Gainako’s interview with Mr Betz, he explained that he “always had the impression that [they were] the only party the Police was talking to because basically, it was only a conversation between Gambia Police Force, Comfort and ourselves. So, there was never any discussion about this project having to go to a tender… but it was always about a direct contract procurement that was being pursued by the Police together with Comfort.”
However, the direct contract procurement never materialised because the project would be subject to a tender with six companies submitting a bid. In addition to this Comfort is currently supplying number plates from a different manufacturer than Tonnjes, which was used to win the bid.
2. Tedungal “Security officers hijacked my German business partner”
Gambian business, Tedungal Multimedia submitted a bid of D35 Million and raised shocking concerns that security officers hijacked their German business partner, Tonnjes and presented Mr Ceesay (Comfort) as their preferred distributor of number plates to Tonnjes Managing Director, Mr Betz. According to Tedungal proprietor, Mr Leigh, he first introduced Tonnjes (Mr Betz) to the Gambian Police Force in 2017 through his partner Mr Senghore in Germany. Mr Leigh says that he presented his Number Plate business concept to then Deputy Inspector General of Police Alhagie Mamut Jobe who is currently the Inspector General of Police.
When I asked Mr Betz about security officer’s visiting his business [Tonnjes] he admitted that “after the visit of the Police delegation … we had no reason to doubt that Comfort had the best chances to secure this project in form of a direct contract. It was agreed that Comfort and Tonnjes would set up a joint venture company in The Gambia which would enter into the contract with GPF [Gambia Police Force] for the upgrade of the production facilities of the police and supply of blank plates and consumables over a 5-to-10-year period.”
In our quest to identify the delegation of security officers who travelled to Germany, Mr Betz sent Gainako a letter he sent to then Inspector General of Police, Landing Kinteh on February 12th 2018. The list of officers revealed that Mr Landing Kinteh, Mr Abdoulie Sanyang then Commissioner of Police Administration, Mr Gibril Lowe Police ICT Expert plus another officer travelled to Germany in March 2018. According to Mr Betz, some last-minute changes meant that Permanent Secretary for the Ministry was replaced by Senior Assistant Secretary Ms Kodou Njie.
In essence, Mr Leigh (Tedungal) alleged that Police stole his “Number Plate Business concept” he presented in 2017 aimed at introducing a more secure number plate system in the Gambia that would be difficult to forge. In doing so security officers travelled with a rival bidder, Mr Ceesay (Comfort) to [Tonnjes], a business partner which Mr Leigh had previously introduced to Police. Perhaps what was very telling is the fact that soon after the trip “Mr Ceesay asked us [Tonnjes] to appoint him as our exclusive agent for The Gambia and sever the ties with Mr Senghore [Tedungal]” said Mr Betz.
This is how Tonnjes and Comfort signed a partnership that came to an abrupt end just one week after Comfort was awarded the contract to supply number plates in partnership with the Authorities.
3. “Fake Reference Letter” Request
Ten months later, the newly formed business relationship came to a bitter end. In our quest to better understand how this occurred Gainako interviewed Tonnjes Managing Director, Mr Betz, who alleged that Mr Ceesay kept him in the dark over the Aluminium Number Plate tender while using his company’s expertise and sample number plates in his winning bid. According to Mr Betz, the fallout between Tonnjes and Comfort began when Mr Ceesay “asked us [Tonnjes] to give him sample plates and reference letters to confirm that Comfort is experienced in the license production which clearly, they have no experience in license plates.”
To verify this Gainako obtained an email sent by Mr Ceesay to Mr Betz requesting “fake reference letters” saying Comfort had done similar projects in three African countries. “I had the copy of that you have send [sic] to me before but that [is] not what is require [sic] inane my helper, at the summit, what was say is that Comfort need[s] to state that it has done similar work at elsewhere, that [is] why I suggest[ed] whether you can write I have done a similar [work] through with you guys in three African country. Can you write that for me?”
Declining Mr Ceesay’s request to issue “fake reference letters,” Mr Betz’s reply said, “we cannot do this as it would be a wrong statement and could hurt us and you afterwards. Also, I do not understand why you as our local representative need to provide such references – this is usually from the manufacturer not from local representative. The aim is to get Tonnjes qualified as experienced manufacturer and best partner for Police and you / Comfort is our local representative.”
However, Mr Ceesay had other plans which he executed to the letter. He used Tonnjes sample number plates and expertise in his winning bid (D65.7 Million) without informing their General Manager (Mr Betz), until when confronted.
In our interview with Mr Betz, he explained that Mr Ceesay insisted that the bid “is a local tender only, so no foreign companies [are] allowed”. Explaining how Comfort used his sample plates and expertise in a bid without his knowledge, Mr Betz said, “basically [Comfort was] using our samples and our references in his [Mr Ceesay, Comfort] bid submission but without involving us in the bid. That’s at a time when we still had a valid appointment, he would be our exclusive agent for the Gambia.”
The deteriorating business relationship resulted in Tonnjes severing ties with Comfort in a letter dated 20th May 2019, barely a week after Comfort signed a “tentative” contract with the Ministry. The severance letter read “we hereby confirm that the appointment dated 28.03.2018 of Mr Sulayman Ceesay as [the] exclusive authorised representative of our company in The Gambia, is hereby terminated with immediate effect. Mr Sulayman has no right to represent our company in any manner whatsoever.”
4. Police Travel to SAMAR’T Spain
In our quest to get to the bottom of this story Gainako paid Mr Ceesay a visit at his office in Kanifing Industrial Area on January 5th 2021. When asked about the German Trip with security officers Mr Ceesay argued that “SAMAR’T did the same, is that conflict of interest?” he asked. In his eyes, the trip did not represent any conflict of interest because other bidders were also conducting site visits to prove their capacity to deliver.
SAMAR’T Gambia is a subsidiary of SAMAR’T International, a “manufacturer of license plates based in Spain”. When Gainako met SAMAR’T Gambia’s Managing Director, Mr Banta Njie, who doubles up as an Ambassador at Large for Trade and Investment, he confirmed the trip to Spain and shared pictures of the site visit at SAMAR’T International’s manufacturing plant in Girona.
However, he stressed that his request was filed at the appropriate authorities and approved by the security institutions. According to Mr Njie, his trip to Spain with Gambian police officers was different from the German trip because he visited his parent company to “show them the house”. He argued that he was not given any guarantees to supply number plates during his trip.
Mr Njie showed Gainako a letter from the Inspector General of Police dated 8th November 2018 confirming a delegation of three senior police officers who travelled to Spain. The letter addressed to the President of Girona, Enric Sanchez revealed that Mr Abdoulie Sanyang, Deputy Inspector General of Police; Mr Demba Sowe, Assistant Inspector General Administration; and Mr Ali Faye, Officer at Licensing visited Girona in late November 2018. Mr Njie corroborated this with flight itineraries and a hotel booking.
Scandalous and Iniquitous Video Report produced by Gainako News
5. “The Bid Came as a Big Surprise to Us”
By early January 2019, Mr Betz became increasingly suspicious of Mr Ceesay after he began asking for additional sample plates for a “presentation” that turned out to be a bid. “We didn’t hear from Comfort on the progress and we kept asking him for months what’s going on. He subsequently asked for more samples and more documents and even a reference letter. When we enquired what it was for because everything was done previously. He then said he needs to go and do a presentation and then this presentation was a tender”.
“The bid came as a big surprise to us. We only learned about the tender in January 2019. And when we enquired to see the tender documents and to understand what he was going to tender, we actually didn’t receive any information from him.”
In the course of our investigation, Gainako obtained an email from Mr Betz dispatching Tonnjes Senegalese Business Partner, Marie Gomis on a fact-finding mission. Just four days before the tender Mr Betz emailed Ms Gomis to say “Note I have taken Sulayman off this communication: I really need you to attend this meeting in Banjul with Sulayman, if possible as I feel he is not in control. He informed us sometime in Jan [January] regarding the need for some motorcycle samples. We did not have enough time to prepare them according to the proposal, and now suddenly it is a bid with 8 companies invited.”
According to Mr Betz, “it was through that person [Ms Gomis] that we sent for the tender submission that we actually learned about the companies that were bidding and also about the bid prices that were read out publicly from each bidder.”
A month later on 11th February 2019, Mr Ceesay emailed Mr Betz to announce that his highest bid price of D65.7 Million had won the tender. “My company has been awarded the new Gambia number plate contract, [I] got the offer letter today.”
Reacting to Mr Ceesay’s announcement, Mr Betz told Gainako that “we were shocked to see that Comfort’s total bid price was by far the highest; and when you go through the bid document, the bid is only for the supply of 65,000 number plates … nowhere in this bid document is mention of a multi-year contract or a concession to be awarded to the successful bidder.”
After the project was awarded to Comfort, both Tedungal and SAMAR’T Gambia petitioned the authorities resulting in a suspension of the tender process by the Review Board. After the suspension, the Ministry still went ahead to award Comfort with the Aluminium number plate project. Both complainants argued that Comfort is currently implementing a concession-based contract instead of a one-time Supply Service purchase as stated in the bid documents.
The two businesses are currently pursuing redress to be awarded the project or compete in a re-tender.
6. “Iniquitous and Scandalously Unreasonable”
Awarding the contract to the highest bidder by over D20.2 Million raised a number of eyebrows especially among rival bidders who filed petitions at the Review Board and numerous government authorities.
Mr Leigh (Tedungal) said he lodged complaints at the President’s Office, GPPA, Gambia Police Force (Police), the Ministry of Interior (the Ministry), Gambia Revenue Authority and the Ministry of Justice. However, he only got one response from the National Assembly as other authorities refused to intervene.
Mr Njie (SAMAR’T Gambia) showed Gainako the “unsuccessful bid” notification letter he received from the Ministry dated 8th February 2019 and his response, rebutting the grounds for his company’s disqualification which he copied to a number of authorities.
The marathon of correspondence began with a reply from the Ministry dated 19th February 2019, highlighting that SAMAR’T Gambia “did not submit samples of number plates with holographic sticker encrypted on it, as well as sample stickers that are self-destructive”.
However, the next day [20th February 2019] the Review Board intervened by sending a letter to the Ministry disagreeing with their grounds for disqualification and suspending the procurement of Aluminium number plates citing sections 55(7) of the Gambia Public Procurement Act, 2014. “This contract should not be executed by your Ministry [Interior] pending the finalization of this administrative review” the letter directed.
The Complaints Review Board is a body established by provision 54 of the Gambia Public Procurement Act 2014 which states that “there is established by this Act, a Complaints Review Board consisting of seven members to review decisions made by procuring organisations at any stage of the procurement proceedings.”
After reaching a decision in less than a month, the Review Board sent a letter to the Ministry on 15th March 2019 siding with SAMAR’T Gambia that “it is manifestly apparent that the Applicant did complete section 3 of the Combined Technical Specifications and Bid Compliance. As a consequence, it appears to us iniquitous and scandalously unreasonable that the Procuring Organisation rejected the Applicant’s bid on the grounds of non-compliance.”
The decision from the Review Board ruled that the Ministry wrongly disqualified SAMAR’T Gambia by erroneously claiming they did not submit “samples of number plates with holographic sticker encrypted on it as well as a sample self-destructive sticker”. Instead, the decision “found that the latter [SAMAR’T Gambia’s bid] does contain holographic sticker encrypted in it and the former – what we believe resembles a barcode. We have however not found a sample self-destructive sticker. However, we are of the view that the omission should not warrant a disqualification”.
The investigation further stated that the Review Board found “no evidence in support of the grounds upon which the Respondent procuring organisation [Ministry of Interior] disqualified the Applicant’s bid and accordingly we overturn same pursuant to Section 55(6) (c) of the Act [Gambia Public Procurement Act, 2014]. As a consequence, and by virtue of Section 55(6)(i) of the Act the Respondent is required to evaluate the Applicant’s financial bid on its merits”.
“Iniquitous – Something that is iniquitous is extremely immoral or wicked, such as an iniquitous political regime that assassinates its enemies.”
7. “Tentative” Concession Contract Signed
Having gone through the Aluminium number plate bid document number GPF/NP/2019/002/RT/002 it’s evident that the procurement of number plates is for the delivery of “50,000 pieces of Aluminium Long Number Plates, 10,000 pieces of Aluminium Short Plates and 5,000 pieces of Aluminium Motor Cycle Plates” to be delivered “one month after the award of contract”. However, in an unexpected turn of events, the Ministry of Interior decided to sign an Undertaken between the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Assan Tangara and the proprietor of Comfort on May 7th 2019 states that the Project was “for an initial period of Five (5) years subjected to renewal”.
The “tentative contract” signed in the presence of Samba Jawo of the Police on behalf of the Ministry in the presence of Mamadu Khan (Comfort) also states that “the Contracting Authority shall have the option to extend or renew this Agreement” highlighting that the contract was for a concession contract inconsistent with the bid requirements. More importantly, the tender was suspended by the Review Board, chaired by a High Court Judge. So, it was very baffling to see the Ministry bulldoze its way against the Review board.
Having perused through the “tentative” contract Gainako wrote to the Ministry twice, requesting for a copy of the final contract awarded to Comfort and an interview to no avail. However, we received a hallowed response from the Police and the Ministry of Justice who redirected Gainako’s queries to the Ministry.
A letter from the Police dated 4th February 2021 read: “the Office of the Inspector General of Police acknowledges receipt of your letter dated 2nd February 2021 relative to the above caption “request for information and interview”. Accordingly, this Office hereby inform you to redirect your request to the Ministry.” Similarly, the Ministry of Justice’s letter dated 8th February 2021, said Gainako’s request “should be re-directed to the Ministry of Interior as it is the Ministry in charge of the Aluminium Number Plates”.
A letter was hand-delivered to the GPPA requesting the final contract and an interview to present their response to queries raised on the bid without success. In absence of the final contract, Gainako visited Comfort on January 5th 2021 to hear what they had to say about the number plate agreement with the Ministry. There, Gainako met Comfort’s Operations Manager, Mr Ousman Njai who explained that “our price actually is D20 Million, the government takes 40%, so you add the government’s 40% on top, that’s what skyrocket to the amount that is actually quoted [D65.7 Million]”.
When Gainako checked the figures, Mr Njai quoted, it was clear that they did not add up. If Comfort included a sum of D20 Million for themselves representing 60% of the bid then Gainako’s calculations showed that 40% for the Authorities would amount to less than D13.5 Million. Even at such levels, the sum of Comforts [D20 Million] and the Authorities [D13.5] cannot exceed D33.5 Million, instead, Comfort submitted a bid of D65.7 Million. More than double the amount calculated.
An argument advanced by Mr Ceesay is that rival bid prices submitted were for single pieces of number plates, while he bid for a pair of number plates making his bid price cheaper. These claims were rebutted by Mr Betz who highlighted that “the Call for Tender requests bidders to bid for 65,000 pieces and not 65,000 pairs of number plates.” In his view, a bid price for a pair of number plates or single pieces of number plates made no difference. “The price of a single number plate for each bid is calculated by dividing each bid price by 65,000”.
8. Challengers of the Smokescreen Bid
Despite numerous complaints and legal challenges from SAMAR’T Gambia and Tedungal on the irregularities of the tender and the Review Board’s decision that the Ministry’s disqualification was “scandalous and iniquitous”, the Ministry still proceeded to award the contract to Comfort in May 2019. It’s worth noting that the Review Board’s decision was signed by Justice Amina S. Ceesay, a High Court Judge. It’s not clear if the suspension sanctioned by the Review Board was lifted before the Ministry proceeded to sign a “tentative agreement” with Mr Ceesay (Comfort).
In perusing the complaints sent by competing Bidders and responses they received from the Review Board, it’s clear that the delay between the period Comfort won the bid in early February 2019 and being awarded the project in early May 2019 was due to the Review Board’s suspension of the tender process. However, the competing companies which raised concerns would intensify their efforts to overturn the Ministry’s decision.
After the Review Board’s ruling in favour of SAMAR’T Gambia on 20th February 2019, the Ministry sent another letter to Mr Njie on 24th April 2019 informing him that a “re-evaluation was done and that” his “bid was unsuccessful”. The letter concluded that “your financial bid … are all contrary to the bidding requirements.”
Defiant in the face of multiple unsuccessful letters and not willing to relent Mr Njie fired another letter to the Ministry refuting their grounds for disqualifying him for the second time. The Ministry sent another response on 3rd May 2019, four days before signing a “Tentative Contract” with Comfort on 7th May 2019. The letter from the Ministry to Mr Njie revealed the true intention of the Ministry was to award a Build, Operate and Transfer and not a one-time Service Supply contract.
The letter noted that “we have realised that there has been some inconsistencies in the bid document but the intention of the Ministry is “Build, Operate and Transfer”. The letter surprisingly admitted that the Ministry “relied on section 2 under invitation to bidders, subsection 1.2 which reads “the decision of the Procuring Organisation on any inconsistency shall be final”.
This highlighted that the Ministry recognised it’s handling of the tender was inconsistent and that the true intention of the tender was to award a Build, Operate and Transfer contract instead of a one-off Service Supply contract laid out in the Tender Document. When Gainako asked Mr Betz if he felt that the bid was a smokescreen and a farce to legitimise awarding the contract to a predetermined bidder he said “absolutely, there’s no other way you can look at it because what is being delivered today by Comfort has nothing to do with that bid. So, on what basis have they been given the contract?”. In his view “only Sulayman Ceesay of Comfort was informed to bid for a Build, Operate and Transfer Contract even though the tender requested for a one-time Supply Service contract.”
9. Ghost “Aluminium Number Plate” Contract
After the Ministry went ahead to award the project to Comfort, Mr Njie (SAMAR’T Gambia) instructed his Lawyer to write a letter to the Solicitor General, copied to the President’s Office amongst other authorities that “a very senior police officer is associated with Comfort. On our client’s trip to Spain with Mr Sanyang and two other delegates, Mr Sanyang informed our client about a company in Germany. Our client is able to prove that a visit took place to a German company and subsequently the award of the contract was made without a proper evaluation of the two bid and in clear preference for Comfort.”
Following the serious allegations made in the letter, Gainako quizzed Mr Njie on the identity of this Senior Police Officer, which he revealed to be Deputy Inspector General of Police, Abdoulie Sanyang. When we checked the names of the officers who embarked on both trips to Germany and Spain it can be observed that only Mr Sanyang made both trips. In fact, Mr Sanyang was promoted from Assistant Inspector General of Police Administration to Deputy Inspector General of Police in July 2018 after the Faraba shooting.
The letter informed the Solicitor General of SAMAR’T Gambia’s “intention to initiate Court proceedings” claiming that “there can be no proper justification for the award to a company with such a disparity in the bid amount”. The disparity between Comfort (D65.7 Million) and its next bidder, Touba Trading Enterprise (D45.5 Million) is D20.2 Million.
Most importantly, the letter impressed on the Solicitor General to “refrain from recommending the signing of a contract by the Ministry of Interior as our client intends to refer the matter to Court and the National Assembly for resolution.”
A copy of the final contract awarded by the Ministry for the procurement of Aluminium Number Plates to Comfort is still not available after requesting a copy of the contract from the relevant authorities. It is Gainako’s belief that the contract should be made publicly available.
Perhaps a letter to Interior Minister Yankuba Sonko dated 5th September 2019 from Mr Njie expressed the problems such ambiguous arrangements create for the public. “In this new dispensation, we believe in the sanctity of having unambiguous procurement rules to ensure the resources of the Gambian people are being spent with the utmost diligence,” Mr Njie suggested.
The practice of blatantly awarding government contracts to the highest bidder at the expense of taxpayers must be abolished to stem the privatization of public funds, as businessmen connive with government officials.
More to follow.