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Puzzle of French hand in IEBC deals

If you look at the current budget summary, there is an item entered as Standard Bank-BVR and it shows that Kenya shall be paying Sh813 million per year until 2020 for a loan taken to finance the purchase of biometric voter registration kits that the Canadian government was tasked to buy from a French company, Safran Morpho!

Why Kenya did this, nobody knows.

Safran was back in the news this week after the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) single-sourced it once again to provide election equipment for yet another election. Reason: “The Commission has very limited time left to comply with the legal timelines in relation to deployment of ICTs in elections”.

It is the same reason that was advanced in 2012 and in the hurry to meet deadlines, the Kenyan taxpayer ended up with an expensive kit as Canada and France fought to have a piece of the election billions. Parliament was last year told that the country lost Sh4.1 billion in the procurement of the 15,000 BVR kits that malfunctioned on election day.

How French multinationals clinch some of these multi-billion-shilling deals is a matter of economic strategy, arduous negotiations and foreign policy.

This story is not only about the French foreign policy in Kenya but also about how their companies look for business opportunities.

To understand the bigger picture, one might need to read last month’s issue of Foreign Policy titled – “Why is France so corrupt?” – to understand what I am about to say. In a nutshell, the article says that France is an “outlier” when compared to other European nations. Last year’s Transparency International “corruption perception” index, ranked France at number 23 among 176 nations, just behind Estonia and just ahead of the Bahamas.

‘PARTICULARLY HIGH-PROFILE’

“What may make matters worse is that French corruption is particularly high-profile: It doesn’t come in the form of cops asking for petty bribes, or companies buying off bureaucrats. Rather, thanks to the peculiarly French principle of a republican monarchy, French corruption involves vast sums and takes place at the highest levels of government,” writes Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College.

In the search for business, French multinationals, and with the backing of their government, are in a class of their own and they bulldoze to get lucrative tenders.

The story of the controversial BVR kits – that we are still repaying – has been with us ever since they failed, which could explain the political hullabaloo witnessed after IEBC went for Safro once again.

What we know is that four months to the 2013 election, a French business delegation led by their minister for Foreign Trade Nicole Bricq arrived in Nairobi on November 12, 2012. It was received by then minister of Trade Moses Wetang’ula and they were looking for business – big business.

‘DISGUSTING’ FOOD

Allow me to digress. Mrs Briq is the French minister who would later be caught on tape and film in March 2014 telling Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault that food – roasted poultry with mushrooms, foie gras and caramel dessert – served at a state dinner for China’s President Xi Jinping was “disgusting”. She later apologised to the chef. End of that story.

A few days before Mrs Briq arrived in Kenya, the French Embassy in Nairobi had alerted media houses on the minister’s itinerary: a courtesy call to Prime Minister Raila Odinga and a meeting with Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi and his Finance counterpart Njeru Githae.

In Mr Odinga’s office, the French minister discussed what was known as “reinforced partnership” which had been signed on April 20, 2011 at the Hotel Matignon between Mr Odinga and the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon. Hotel Matignon is the official residence of the prime minister of France.

For those who are not following the French Presidential elections, Mr Fillon is the leading presidential candidate caught up in a $900,000 (Sh90 million) scandal paid to his wife as an “assistant” for a fictitious job, or what the French call emplois fictifs.

‘ECONOMIC SELF-INTEREST’

The Matignon meetings – also attended by Mr Murungi – took place at a time when the Africa policy of the government of President Nicholas Sarkozy was described by leading Paris journalist Pierre Haski as a “mix of neglect, economic self-interest, and political expediency”.

It was known that Sarkozy’s government was trying to chaperon its companies to where it could get money and that could be the reason Mr Haski described Sarkozy as an “opportunistic leader, desperately looking for foreign policy successes after his government’s disastrous management of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions”.

At that time too, France was looking for a chance to become the champion of African democracy – and Mr Haski said as much – having played a big role in the fall of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo and the takeover by his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

AFRICAN UNION

In January 2011, Sarkozy flew to Addis Ababa to address the African Union meeting, the first such speech by a French president since 1963. He was concerned by the French failure in Egypt and Libya – and then Ivory Coast. It was after Sarkozy’s meeting that Mr Odinga was picked by the African Union to mediate a truce between the two Ivory Coast rivals in a bid to rescue the West African nation from further trouble. He would later be accused by Gbagbo’s foreign minister Alcide Djedje of “taking the side of Mr Ouattara.” In the same crisis, Mr Sarkozy had also been accused of being friendly to Mr Ouattara – over whose marriage he officiated when he was mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of the moneyed communes of France, between 1983 and 2002.

The French like laying their antennas at the top echelons of African governments to clinch business deals.

It was three months after the Ivory Coast visit that Mr Odinga left for bilateral talks with the French government and signed the Matignon agreement with Prime Minister Fillon.

It was an agreement for closer cooperation in areas of international security, climate change, economic partnership, and development aid. Later, at a breakfast meeting hosted by Patrick Lucas, the chairman of a leading network of French entrepreneurs, the Movement of French Enterprises/Companies or simply Medef International, the Kenyan delegation asked the French companies to tender for opportunities once they are advertised.

FOLLOW-UP

That is all the French wanted.

It was Mrs Bricq who was to undertake a follow-up. Her Nairobi delegation consisted of members of Medef International and they went to the IEBC offices where they witnessed the presentation of BVR kits produced by the French company, Safran Morpho – as a time-saving measure, following delays in awarding the tender.

The presentation was more of a business ritual since the 15,008 kits had arrived in Nairobi between October 10 and November 5, 2012 in six consignments airlifted by Martinair and Ethiopian airlines.

Through errors of omission (and perhaps commission), the IEBC had found itself without the crucial BVR kits required for a fraud-free voter register. These were a necessity, after Justice Johann Kriegler – the South African judge who chaired a commission that looked into the 2007/2008 post-election violence – asked Kenyans to put in place an effective, transparent and efficient electoral system that could provide a base for a free and fair election. But a few months to the elections, the IEBC hadn’t procured the system – as integrity of their procurement was questioned.

After two failures, the IEBC had threatened to use the Optical Mark Reader which had been used during the referendum, sparking another political uproar.

By this time, the French and the Canadians were eyeing the Kenyan pie. Their interests would soon merge.

AN ARRANGEMENT

Sometime before August 2012, Tim Colby, the First Secretary at the Canadian High Commission, drove to State House in Nairobi for a meeting with President Mwai Kibaki. At the meeting, also attended by Mr Odinga, the trio agreed that there would be a government-to-government arrangement between Kenya and Canada for the provision of the BVR kits – and hence IEBC can keep their money.

When the auditor-general tried to carry out an analysis on how the Canadians entered into this BVR saga, he found some loose ends. He could not establish the chronology of events that led to the selection of the Canadian government as the sole supplier for the BVR kits in the arrangement and minutes of the meetings were missing or not provided.

Up to this time, the French were out of the picture. When the French learnt about the Canadian bid, and the State House visit, they wrote a letter to the Office of the Prime Minister on August 15, 2012 saying they would fully support the proposal by the French company Safran Morpho, which participated in the cancelled tender. But Finance Permanent Secretary Joseph Kinyua wrote to the French government telling them that the Canadians had committed to finance the procurement of BVR kits.

We also know from the records that on August 29, 2012, Finance minister Njeru Githae signed an MoU with the Canadian Commercial Corporation in which only Canadian suppliers were to be involved in the supply of the BVR kits.

ADOPT AWARD

Mr Kinyua would eight days later write to the CEO of the IEBC, asking the Tender Committee to adopt the government-to-government procurement award to enable the signing of the necessary supply and financing contracts. That was done on September 11, 2012 and ministers were informed nine days later about this in a special Cabinet meeting held on September 20, 2012 at State House and chaired by President Kibaki.

Despite a warning by Attorney-General Githu Muigai that this was an illegality, and that Treasury should execute necessary papers justifying direct sourcing – this was never done.

Later, a supply and delivery agreement was signed on September 24, 2012, between Canadian Commercial Corporation and Government of Kenya through the Ministry of Finance.

How the French got into this particular BVR tender has been the million-dollar question since they never signed any agreement with the Kenya government on it – but still their minister showed up at the offices of IEBC to deliver the kits.

And that is where Kenya became a pawn in a game that was played by both Canada and France and some faceless political brokers in Nairobi.

SHARE MONEY

Since France could not deliver the kits directly to Kenya, they entered into a business deal with Canada to share the money by doing the contract.

Finally, Kenya paid 9 million Euros to Canada’s Export Development Corporation as “insurance premium for the loan”, and 2.7 million Euros to Canadian Corporation as “contract award and management fee”.

After entering an agreement with Canada Commercial Corporation, it is now clear that the Kenyan taxpayer paid 2.6 million Euros for no apparent work, according to the Auditor-General.

The Canadian government did not give Kenya any money but negotiated a Standard Chartered Bank of London loan – which Kenya is currently repaying.

The Auditor-General later noted that though Kenya required Sh6.3 billion to procure 15,000 BVR kits through the government-to-government process, the Ministry of Finance released two exchequer issues to IEBC totalling Sh6.5 billion, meaning there was an excess of the cost of the BVR kits by Sh193 million. Again, Kenya had entered a loan facility agreement with Standard Chartered Bank of Sh7.2 billion.

In all these deals, the country lost Sh4.1 billion. Safran Morpho is back – now on their own, and without a piggy-back ride on the Canadians. And what does that tell us? The French are still pulling strings in Kenya.

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Twitter: @johnkamau1

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