|Mucheke Trunk Sewer project pipes abandoned in Rujeko eight years ago|
Masvingo city’s Mucheke Trunk Sewer upgrade remains incomplete and abandoned, nine years after the project started, and more than US$4 million has been lost in the bungled project.
A throw-back investigation by TellZim with support from Information for Development Trust—a non-profit organisation helping the mainstream media to report on corruption and bad governance—has revealed that possible graft and mismanagement are mainly to blame for this.
How it all began
In 2012, City of Masvingo advertised a tender to upgrade the Mucheke Trunk Sewer, a pipeline running roughly parallel to Mucheke River and planned to link with the sewerage plant in Eastvale.
Covering some 7km, the new sewer trunk was meant to extend to the fairly new and sprawling Victoria Ranch suburb just outside Masvingo.
The tender was awarded to the Harare-based Mutual Construction (Pvt) Ltd, “beating” at least 10 other bidders, and council fixed a US2.1 million loan from the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) to fund the project.
Checks have, however, revealed that Mutual Construction was, by March 03 2021, not among the 108 professional firms listed on the Engineering Council of Zimbabwe (ECZ) website.
Project development kicked off in 2012 and was supposed to be completed within a year, but the works stopped in early 2013.
By the end of 2014, Mutual Construction had removed equipment that remained on the project site, save for the giant 750-1200mm diameter cement-asbestos pipes purchased from Turnall Holdings.
In 2015, council put out a public notice of its intention to borrow a further US$1.7 million to fund resumption of work on the project.
But barely a quarter of the job has been done, according to council insiders.
An October 2019 report by the Auditor General’s Office (OAG) that covered January 2013 to June 2017 that TellZim dug up places Masvingo among the six sampled urban local authorities—also comprising Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, Chitungwiza and Marondera—that faced severe challenges in the repair, completion and maintenance of sewerage systems.
Masvingo, according to the report, reported an average of 2812 sewer blockages per year and was, like the other five, blamed for “lack of supervision” and “lack of enforcement of contract agreements” by its engineers and staff.
Down the sewer drain
Failure to complete the project as initially planned means that the US$2.1 million loan that Masvingo City borrowed from NSSA went down the sewer drain.
The local authority has had to pay an extra US1.4 million in loan interest, bringing the total loan-based loss to US$3.5 million.
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The grand total is actually higher, considering that, according to the OAG report, there was a mysterious US$900,000 that was also used on the project outside the NSSA loan that no-one else is talking about.
“The initial contract amount was $2,143,110 but an additional $900,000 was added for the completion of the project.
“At that time, the $2,143,110 had not been exhausted but was not sufficient to complete the works… The additional $900, 000 was again not sufficient to complete the project,” reads part of the report.
The social security authority was also left smarting because the failure to complete the sewerage works robbed it of the chance to have its own housing scheme connected to the sewer mains.
The NSSA corporate communications manager, Tendai Mutseyekwa, said the loan carried a 10 percent interest.
“NSSA provided a loan of US$2.1 million to capacitate the City of Masvingo to finance the development of offsite infrastructure at Mucheke in Masvingo and effectively facilitating the servicing of 683 housing stands owned by NSSA at Runyararo housing development.
“The loan agreement was…for five years at 10 percent per annum, maturing on 31 December 2018. This loan was fully paid and the city no longer owes NSSA any money,” said Mutseyekwa in emailed responses to TellZim.
Investigations showed that, following a council resolution, the pre-project consultancy was awarded to CNM-YBJ Consulting Engineers, which the insiders described as “dodgy and obscure”.
The sources claimed that CNM-YBJ Consulting Engineers had no proven track record nor the adequate engineering staff complement to carry out a competent feasibility and cost job.
“What came out was a shoddy report which was then used to source for funding from the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) and the project was doomed from the beginning because the money was not going be enough,” said a source.
The source said the tender was manipulated to ensure that the winning bidders won on the basis of offering the lowest price quotations as has become the norm in Zimbabwe’s procurement protocols.
The advertisement for sewerage development that TellZim has in its possession, though, clearly noted that council would not be obliged to offer a tender on the basis of the lowest bid.
The CNM-YBJ was also not among the 108 professional engineering firms listed on the ECZ website as updated on March 03, 2021.
However, the company was listed by the Zimbabwe Association of Consulting Engineers (Zace) as a member firm.
Former town clerk, Adolf Gusha, refused to comment on the sewerage bust-up, insisting that he it would not be proper for him to do so since he had retired.
Gusha retired from Masvingo City Council in August 2018 after serving in the municipality for close to 30 years, 14 of them as town clerk.
Councillors opposed the deal
Selina Maridza, a former deputy mayor, told TellZim that she was among a significant number of councillors that opposed contracting Mutual Construction.
“We felt that Mutual Construction had submitted a deliberate underbid just to out-compete everybody else. Many of us felt that Forit was better placed to deliver, given its track record,” said Maridza.
She is currently the Masvingo Urban Ward 1 councillor, the only member of the 2008-2013 council who is still serving.
Forit Contracting (Pvt) Ltd is among the 108 companies listed on the ECZ website, alongside such other prominent civil engineering firms as Masimba Construction, Bitumen World and Drawcard.
Maridza said council was often overridden by a powerful clique of senior managers.
Further, she said, the procurement committee was effectively abandoned in 2008 and there was none when the sewer project was conceived, leaving management to make the decisions.
David Chingombe, who served as Ward 6 councillor during the project commencement period and was part of the tender adjudication committee by virtue of being the chairperson of council’s finance and general purposes committee, claimed that senior officials manipulated tender procedures to benefit Mutual Construction.
“The winner won not on the strength of his CV but on the whim of the town clerk, the mayor and the city engineer,” he said.
The city engineer then, Tawanda Gozo, is serving a six-month long suspension for alleged incompetence.
Councillors raised several objections and even wrote a red-flag letter to the then Local Government minister, Ignatius Chombo, who never responded, said Chingombe.
“As the adjudication committee, we discovered that Mutual Construction was incapable of delivering on the project,” he added.
Former mayor, Hubert Fidze who served between 2013 and 2018, rapped the pre-project consultant for a shoddy job.
“There was nothing much that was happening when we took over. Management told us that the project cost was underestimated and that the cost of removing solid rocks that were met during trenching was not factored in the feasibility report,” he said.
However, Mutual Construction director Stanley Madamombe insisted that insufficient funds forced the project off.
“We stopped work because council did not have money to have the project completed. The project just moved by fits and starts until we finally pulled out altogether,” said Madamombe.
He dismissed the claim that his company received more than US$2 million at the onset.
“Council struggled to make the payments and to provide other forms of support. If we had received that amount of money, I am confident a lot could have been done,” Madamombe said.
Mutual Construction still has a valid contract with council and is ready to resume work once resources are availed, he added.
Acting Town Clerk Edward Mukaratirwa also exonerated Mutual Construction and chose to blame CNM-YBJ, together with the councillors.
“The awarding of the (pre-) project consultancy tender was problematic and indeed, some councillors are understood to have raised some complaints with the then minister (Chombo).
“It, however, still comes back to the councillors as some of them were part of the procurement committee which had the final say on who won the tender. …The consultant soon proved to be not competent enough for the job,” said Mukaratirwa.
“The consultant’s contract involved two tasks which were project design and costing, and project supervision. They under-costed the project and we ended up having serious challenges when the project developer came. We then terminated the consultant’s contract,” said Mukaratirwa.
He admitted that some rival bidders had angrily protested the decision to award CNM-YBJ the pre-project consultancy.
This tallies with the Auditor General’s 2019 report, which states: “Costing of the project by the consultant, that is, CNM-YBJ Consulting Engineers, also contributed to the delay in completion of the project. Most of the excavation and blasting works were grossly underestimated in the Bill of Quantities.”
Mukaratirwa, then deputy city engineer, justified hiring CNM-YBJ, claiming that the engineering department which could have done the job was understaffed.
Current mayor, Collen Maboke said it was difficult to tell who was to blame but partly blamed CNM-YBJ.
“We don’t want to deal with consultants again because if they mislead you, you end up making wrong decisions,” said Maboke.
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On his part, CNM-YBJ director, Caleb Makwiranzou, dismissed the claim that his company did a shoddy job.
“They (City of Masvingo) must take responsibility for their failures and not defend themselves through falsehoods. We did the drawings and handed them over to council, which then looked for a contractor. We did what we could do and then left,” he said.
Makwiranzou, the former Midlands State University council chairperson, said, far from being ejected, CNM-YBJ actually pulled out “as council was no longer forthcoming with payments”.
He denied that his company won the tender through collusion with some city council officials and deliberate under-bidding.
Makwiranzou said his company could not have detected underground rocks along the sewerage route, so should not be blamed for physical hurdles that were discovered later.
Mukaratirwa told TellZim that $225 million in local currency, which translates to well over US$2.7 million at the current interbank rate, was needed to complete the project.
He said council now banked on its own revenue streams and devolution funds to complete the project, adding that borrowing was no longer an option.