Posted - 16 May 2020 : 20:33:44
How GNPC under Mambury Njie spent nearly D19m for a Banjul property in a deal ‘susceptible to favouritism’
In the name of land banking, the GNPC under Mr Mambury Njie splashed nearly D19m of public funds to purchase a property that is now valued a little more than half the price it was bought for. But who benefitted from this highly questionable deal? Our news editor Mustapha K Darboe reveals the details...
Malagen: MAY 7, 2020
By Mustapha K Darboe
The Gambia National Petroleum Company has paid a little less than D19 million to purchase a property in Banjul in a deal deemed to be ‘susceptible favourism and bias’. The transaction, details of which remain largely murky, has been a subject of audit and board queries over disregard for due process in the ‘rush’ to secure a property that turned out to be a huge white elephant of a project. This was in 2017, under the leadership of Mr Mambury Njie as the managing director of the state-owned petroleum products distribution company. Mr Njie currently serves as Minister of Finance, a position he held under exiled former president Yahya Jammeh, in addition to several other portfolios in cabinet until the two fell out in 2012.
Mr Sheikh Omar Gigo, the chairman of the GNPC board said the decision to buy the property has got the members of the board ‘jolted’. He however said the instruction for the public corporation to establish 3 patrol stations that year came from the board, adding: “Under normal circumstances, you would have a committee that would look into it. They would look into the business model and done studies.”
It was also the first time ever since its establishment in 2013 that the GNPC bought a plot of land. All the plots of land that are in the name of the corporation have been allocated by the state. With no prior board approval, no feasibility study and no independent valuation while ignoring procurement rules and alarm bells of conflict of interest, Mr Njie authorised and defended the payment of D17 million dalasi for the ‘mosdolly’ property, excluding associated cost of nearly D2m.
The Mosdolly property at the road intersection near McCarthy Square Mambury Njie bought for D17 million with an extra cost of D1, 955, 000
The ‘mosdolly’ property
‘Mosdolly’ is a combination of two Wollof words that could be translated as ‘get a taste and you’ll come back for more’. But the building informally known in Banjul as ‘mosdolly’ is so called not because of any spectacular architectural flavours. Rather, it was the name of a popular retailing shop for manually mixed milk.
Measuring 552.25 square metres, the property is located at No.1 Hagan Street, across the street from the McCarthy Square. On it is a one-storey building that has seen better days.
The property is part of the estate of late Mr Wilfred Manly-Rollings, a prominent Banjulian. Wilfred I.N Anderson and Mathias George are described in official documents as the beneficial owners. The two have now sold it to the GNPC for purposes of building a fuel station.
The contradictions, committee or no committee
The GNPC officials have insisted that the decision to purchase the property was strategic one, informed by the need to secure strategic locations in various part of the country in a crowded field of competitors.
“We were losing out on our competitors on strategic business locations,” said Dr Muhammed Lamin Sanyang, the GNPC’s environment expert identified by Mambury as a person who is familiar with the issues.
He added: “There was in our budget in 2017 money to establish two petrol stations and the year was ending. We had to begin this project in October 2017.”
According to Sanyang, a senior management meeting then instructed the operations manager Lamin Sanneh to write to three real estate companies, namely Prime Properties, Sahara Real Estate and Uniglobe properties and engage them on a land scouting mission.
Both Sanyang and Mambury said there was a land banking committee set up to take charge of the land purchasing transactions. It comprised Sanyang himself, Lamin Sanneh and a Francis Gomes, who is now away on studies in England.
However, Sanneh said that was not true. He said he was neither part of or aware of any such committee at the time. The one he is part of was set up last year by the current management.
“This [transaction] was totally managed by the managing director’s office,” he added. “In fact, I know very little about this, I mean the entire process. I know the land was purchased but how, I don’t know.”
Even though the decision to ‘secure strategic locations’ was said to be made at a senior management meeting, it remains a mystery how the three real estate companies were picked for the scouting missions. And Sanyang himself admitted in an interview with Malagen at his office that the property deal was done “in a rush”.
In January 2019, the National Audit Office conducted a special audit of the GNPC and queried the lack of evidence or documentary trail to show how the estate agents have been identified. This, in their view, makes the process susceptible to bias and favouritism.
The audit was submitted to the Office of the President and Ministry of Finance. Ironically, the latter has since June 2018 been headed by the very man who is the main subject of the audit query.
The spoils of little-known Uniglobe
Meanwhile, Uniglobe Properties that was eventually contracted out of the mysteriously selected three, is a little-known real estate company legally registered barely one year prior to the transaction.
The business is owned by a Mr Yusupha Darboe who has refused to respond to several requests for interview. The two mobile numbers found online associated with Uniglobe do not appear to be in operation while the fixed line was not picked after several calls.
The company’s office was traced to a building opposite Africell, near the Eco Bank. However, that office only carries the billboard of the Uni Globe Properties. It is occupied by a different real estate company.
And this was the company that was said to have identified the ‘mosdolly’ property in Banjul, for which it was paid D1,105, 000 million, including D552,500 for agency fee and D552,500 for charges on acquisition.
Conflict of interest?
Details of the full extent of the relationship between any of the decision makers at the GNPC and Uniglobe Properties could not be established.
However, Mamburay’s wife, Maimuna Ceesay, was said to be in active business with Uni Globe at the time of the purchase. A former senior staff of the company told Malagen that Uniglobe was managing a Brusubi property of Mr Njie’s wife.
And the lawyer for the GNPC who made the paper works for the buying of the property was Lamin A. Ceesay of Solie Law Chamber, a brother-in-law of Mr Njie.
‘The board can be told later’
The Gambia National Petroleum Company, as a state-owned enterprise, has a board of directors responsible for exercising oversight over the company’s operations, including approval of major purchases such as the ‘mosdolly’ property transaction.
What is clear, though, is that the board was not consulted prior to the purchase which cost a little less than D19m of public funds.
The minutes of GNPC board meeting show that the board had expressed concerns over the transparency of Mr Njie’s decision and one of had disapproved of the price paid as ‘exorbitant’.
“I was told the board was not involved and the board clarified that they were not involved. And the management agreed…,” said Mr Lamin Camara, permanent secretary of the line ministry for GNPC – the Ministry of Energy and Petroleum.
He added: “In the interest of proper corporate governance, it was not proper to leave the board out of a such large transaction. The board must be involved. If they are not involved, then that is a concern.”
Mr Njie, who has turned down many interview requests, had told the board that that the property was strategic and he had to urgently move in to secure it.
He offered a similar line of defence in his interaction with the London-based auditors Ernst & Young LLP, who quoted him as saying that “…because the GNPC had lost several strategically advantageous sites, and that he wanted to maintain commercial confidentiality around the purchase [that’s why he did not involve the board.” Ernst & Young LLP did a forensic audit of Gambia’s state owned enterprise in 2019.
Procurement regulations ignored?
Not seeking board approval was not the only process flouted in this transaction. The GNPC, under the leadership of one of the most experienced civil servants, has disregarded the procurement regulations.
The application for request for quotation was granted by the Gambia Public Procurement Authority on the condition that only 20 per cent be paid as first installment in line with the regulations. Yet, the GNPC went ahead to pay 50 per cent.
“Non-compliance with the dictates of GPPA Act could have serious implication on accountability and could lead to loss of funds,” the auditors warned.
The auditors further queried: “The absence of independent verification by public procurement agency prior to the approval of request for quotation increases risk of favouritism”.
“In the absence of independent assessment by the GPPA of the reasons advanced by the Corporation’s contracts committee prior to approval, we couldn’t substantiate what could have necessitated Request for Quotation (RFQ) method for a procurement worth of D17 million,” said the auditors.
‘Just tell us the price’
The GNPC bought the land without any independent valuation, Malagen has learned. The valuation of the property was done by Sphinx Associate Gambia Co. Ltd.
Established in 2014 according to its business registration information, Sphinx Associate is owned by Malick Njie (unclear whether he is related to Mambury). He valued the property at D19.27 million – for D16.57 million for the property.
The company which refused to have audience with the Ernst & Young LLP, did not respond to Malagen’s request for interview.
“We recommend enforcing that all land purchases are accompanied by an independent valuation from a third-party,” said the Britain-based audit firm in their 2019 audit of the GNPC.
“We note that independent valuation advice and scrutiny of large transactions, such as land deals, is a key control in managing corruption risk. Independent scrutiny and segregation of duties are also important controls that help to mitigate transactions which may be disadvantageous or harmful to the business.”
According to the minutes of board meeting accessed by the auditors, the D17 million price of the property was considered exorbitant.
Mr Gigo, the board chairman, told Malagen: “If the price was informed by an expert in the area and a credible one for that matter, we don’t have a reason to doubt their judgement. I think the board members at the time too wanted to know how we came to spend that kind of money on a property.”
‘Not fit for purpose’
Despite flouting rules in the name of securing a strategic location, it turned out that the land is not fit for the purpose it was bought for – building a fuel station.
“It was after the transaction that all of these things began to unfold, like whether the place was suitable for a petrol station,” said Mr Gigo.
The National Environment Agency has assessed the site as unfit for purposes of building of the proposed fuel station.
Mr Lamin Camara, NEA’s director of the department responsible for Environmental Impact Assessment, said the property is too close to important facilities like businesses, residences and recreational center.
He added: “Allowing the proposed project will unavoidably create negative impacts, especially during eventualities like fire outbreaks, explosions and spillage.
“The construction phase of the proposed project is anticipated to generate enormous quantity of construction debris and dust thus compromising the air quality of environment and thereby potentially affecting the health of nearby residences.”
However, Dr Sanyang, the environment officer for the GNPC, disagreed with the decision of the environment watchdog.
“The reasons they brought in are not convincing, not strong enough,” he argued.
In this case, though, the NEA has the last word. Without their approval, the GNPC could not have a license from Public Utility Regulatory Authority (PURA) to establish a fuel station as per the Petroleum Products (Service Station) Regulations, 2018.
And without the license, the GNPC has since aborted the plans to build a fuel station on the ‘mosdolly’ property.
Will GNPC sell the property?
Mr Mambury’s successor at the GNPC is Mr Yaya Barrow, who was not at the corporation at the time. When reached out for interview on the transaction, he said he was not privy to the finer details.
“We are planning to sell property,” he said, however.
Asked if there is an offer for the property, Barrow said a company offered only D10 million, representing only 53 per cent of the price the GNPC paid and as a result was declined. But the board chair Gigo said they would likely build an office complex there for rental or swap it for a land belonging to someone elsewhere if they cannot sell it.
Was the property bought for D17m or D12m?
Official records from the Registrar’s office show that the land transfer was made on February 15, 2018, two months after payment of the first installment of 50 per cent.
Malagen has also confirmed that one month after the transfer of ownership was made, the GNPC paid a stamp duty of eight hundred and fifty thousand dalasis (D850,000) to the Gambia Revenue Authority, representing 5 per cent of the D17 million.
However, the owners – sellers – of the property appeared to have paid less than they should have as capital gains tax.
Per the Gambia Revenue Authority Income and Valued Added Tax Act 2012, the minimum tax one pays on the disposal of a capital asset is 5 per cent of the income received.
Based on that tax laws, from D17 million for which the property was sold, the sellers should have paid a minimum of eight hundred and fifty thousand dalasis (D850,000).
However, Malagen has confirmed from official sources that Mr Wilfred I.N Anderson paid only D625, 000 in tax, made in August 2019.
The tax paid by Mr Anderson suggests that either the actual price of the property was a little above twelve million dalasis (D12,500, 000) or the sellers have made an under-declaration to the tax authorities.
A clear conscience fears no accusation - proverb from Sierra Leone