Passport seizure warranted, but we also share the blame

05Mar 2017
Editor
Guardian On Sunday
Passport seizure warranted, but we also share the blame

PRESIDENT John Magufuli has struck a first of sorts in ordering seizure of passports belonging to number of contractors working with an Indian firm, Alliance Private Ltd, a foreign firm whose slow working pace angered the President.

The contractors were supposed to have completed a water project in Lindi region back in 2015, but were yet to be anywhere near completion as the costs were shooting up. The president did not just limit his remarks or direction of his concerns to the foreign contractor but local supervisors as well.

He notably said he would deal with the consultant as well as the ministry entrusted with the project and some regional officials overseeing the project.

While it was a bit prematurely to say where the problem stood precisely, it was helpful that the president saw it in its broader context, and not just as one involving expatriates doing a shoddy job and getting away with plenty of money.

Since coming into office, the president has blocked numerous ways of misdirected use of vast sums of public funds for no good reason, and those whose expectations were pruned or thwarted would constantly be on the lookout for nooks or crannies to make amends.

Not all of these payouts intended for a section of public officials using this or that project as a cover will be settled or resolved, let alone those responsible being held accountable.

It is thus necessary to be cautious as to what can be achieved; it is like a cat and mouse game. At the same time there are issues of whether passport seizure, a last resort measure in the circumstances, was necessary in the circumstances, which can only be presumed to be the case, as otherwise such a measure wouldn’t come to mind in the first place.

It means that the Indian firm back home might be compelled to plough back some resources so that the project is completed in the set time frame. It seems there was a possibility of the group making it quit in case they would be spending more on the project than they would earn.

In other circumstances, which perhaps is what officials were gunning for in this project, it would simply be taken away from the company and handed over to another firm, and the only penalty in their regard would be not to apply for another project.

But contractors can form companies like mushrooms, so when one is struck off they group in another one and do the same thing, hoping it won’t be struck off this time.

Direct penalties aren’t easy to administer on account of professional regulations, in dealing with a firm, not individuals.

Critics will say that the president ought to have followed regulations, and predictably there is no provision where the minister (usually the one making regulations or at least gazetting them) is empowered to seize passports if work is inordinately delayed.

Second, in construction industry terms, a delay that does not exceed two years might be considered tolerable, though that spirit is now being checked.

But if someone has sent outside the country billions of shillings (converted into foreign exchange) while failing to do the necessary work on the site, that can be elevated to constitute money laundering and the likes.

Passport seizure is thus meant to compel the foreign company to think of reverse money flow so that the project can be completed in the timeline set out by the president, instead of playing by the book to just surrender the project and the government becoming a loser.

It is an application of justifiable pressure on the conscience of a foreign company which would however prefer, along with their local lawyers, to be given the benefit of doubt as to why it failed to complete the project on time.

The president opted for more effective means of pressurizing the firm, just short of taking them to court for sabotage.

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