BUCHANAN, Grand Bassa – Nearly six months since the Liberian government announced an agreement with Prista Oil Holding EAD to develop the Port of Buchanan, an investigation suggests that the pending agreement may violate public procurement laws.
Additionally, such violations may be leading the USAID to exclude the Port of Buchanan from inclusion within the Special Economic Zone, a source has confided to The Bush Chicken.
Prista Oil produces and distributes motor and industrial oils, lubricants, and special fluids. It is also one of the leading Bulgarian companies operating in more than 45 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa.
On January 29, the National Port Authority announced through its Facebook page the advancement of an agreement with the Bulgarian company to among other things develop the Buchanan port and rehabilitate and create new cargo handling berths.
NPA also quoted President George Weah as saying that, “Survey of the Buchanan port has already begun on land that is allocated for the establishment of a Special Economic Zone, and in this fiscal year, we work with our international partners to complete the feasibility studies.”
A special economic zone is an area in which the business and trade laws are different from the rest of the country and aims to increase trade, investment, employment, and job creation as well as effective administration.
Amid the economic challenges confronting his administration, Weah appointed a Steering Committee in April to create and coordinate the country’s Special Economic Zones. According to the Executive Mansion, the function of the steering committee was to ensure the establishment of the zones, beginning with the Buchanan site.
The government also requested the assistance of the United States government and development partners in exploring the feasibility of establishing a Special Economic Zone to facilitate direct foreign investment in a Liberian industrial sector to generate export-oriented growth and jobs creation.
However, a source told The Bush Chicken that USAID, which was working on behalf of the U.S. government to establish the zones, is threatening to pull out of the process because of the government’s potential deal with Prista.
In a statement in response to The Bush Chicken’s inquiry, the U.S. aid agency did not deny the report but was diplomatic in its response.
“The United States remains in discussions with the Liberian government regarding how Liberia might establish such a zone, and believes that in order for Liberia to fully realize the potential of an SEZ, the zone must be designed and managed so as to promote maximum transparency, efficiency, and fair competition in all aspects of its future operations,” the response from USAID read.
At the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission, another source who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution verified that the agreement is yet to be finalized and was before the PPCC.
“As of now, the agreement hasn’t been finalized. It looks good for Prista but it could also be taken back by the government,” the source noted.
The source also disclosed that Prista Oil was the only company apparently involved in the bid for the project, thus making it a sole source concession. Procurement laws set strict requirements for sole-source agreements and selection of Prista appears to not have met any of the five criteria.
When contacted, authorities at PPCC turned down a request to provide information on the agreement and justifications for having it categorized as a sole-source agreement. Instead, Communications Director Nathan Bengu directed The Bush Chicken to the National Port Authority, as the agency was the procuring entity.
When contacted via phone, the director of public relations at the NPA, Malcolm Scott, agreed to provide more details on the development, but noted that he was not in the country and would not speak until he returned.
Scott referred The Bush Chicken to the manager of the Port of Buchanan, Charles D. Gull, to respond to The Bush Chicken’s inquiries. However, the public relations officer at the Port of Buchanan, Hilary Mentoe, said specific information about the deal had not yet reached staff at the Port of Buchanan.
“Even the port manager cannot give you any substantive information on that. All you have to do is to check on the head office [National Port Authority] because that has not reached our desk. If anything of such is in the pipeline, then it has to be the headquarters, but it has not reached the Port of Buchanan yet,” he said during a phone interview.
Gbatemah Senah contributed to this article. Featured photo by Sampson David