Intrigues of Sh10b college project that has left Balala in a tight spot

When former Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala addressed the press after visiting Ronald Ngala Utalii College. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

The controversial Sh10 billion project that has sucked in former Tourism and Wildlife CS Najib Balala could arguably be the most probed in the country in recent times. 

A report from a special audit revealed that the Ronald Ngala Utalii College project is overburdened with incremental interests and penalties from delayed payments due to consultants and contractors. 

The 2020 report by a task force recommended that the interests and penalties be frozen, and the remaining part of the project be phased out. It also added that the contracts with the contractor and consultants be revised. 

Excerpts of the report tabled in Parliament in February show the task force was established at the height of concerns over the ballooning costs. 

Although billed as Jubilee Government’s flagship project at the Coast, President Uhuru Kenyatta never visited the multi-billion-shilling project during his 10-year reign. 

However, the project, whose idea was birthed in mid-1996 by the late President Daniel Moi’s government, has been the subject of probes by committees of Parliament and all state investigative agencies. 

Cabinet resolution

The idea was shelved by the Moi government due to a lack of funds, but revived in 2007 as one of President Mwai Kibaki’s Vision 2030 flagship projects. 

“This matter was revisited in 2007 by Cabinet, which resolved that the project would funded by the National Treasury at an estimated cost of Sh1.948 billion,” states the task force report. 

As per the concept paper, the college was to cost Sh1.9 billion, with a training and demonstration facility and an initial capacity of 600 students.

It was also to have a five-star hotel complex that would be a training facility, according to the initial plan approved by the Kibaki Cabinet on September 13, 2007. 

But two years before Kibaki exited power, a board established to oversee the project rejected the plan, saying the design and drawing looked “more like other town colleges to the rural settings.” 

It is at this date, December 13, 2010, that the board resolved to enlist the services of the consultants, which appears to have led to the increase of the cost from Sh1.9b to over Sh10 billion. 

The board settled on a consortium of Baseline Architects, Ujenzi Consultants, Westconsultants Engineer, Geomeasures Limited, and PKF Consultants that revised the project and put the cost at Sh8.5 billion. 

On Friday, Balala, his former Principal Secretary Leah Gwiyo and Mr Joseph Odero, the managing partner of West Consult Engineers, were arraigned over the project. 

But the three denied the charges and were released on bond. They will appear in court on Thursday when more suspects are expected to be charged. 

They are alleged to have inflated the cost of the project and paid a consultancy firm Sh4 billion for services that were not delivered. 

In the charge sheet, the prosecution claims that Balala and Gwiyo used their offices to improperly engage four private consultants against a Cabinet decision. 

The Office of the Auditor General revealed that the cost of the project was high because the contract was awarded on May 14, 2013, to the third lowest pre-qualified bidder.

However, due to the economic austerity measures,  the government decided to downscale the project although the tender had been awarded and work started.

“During the rationalisation period, the contractor had halted the works and this was the beginning of penalties, accruals, and other aspects of the variation orders,” stated the audit report.

AG advice

Reports indicate that the consultants revised the project, and the total cost was scaled down to Sh4.93 billion after they omitted some components of the project.

But in the past, the Attorney General has advised against such radical measures, saying it would be deemed to be a breach of contract, which could be costly to the government.

On March 28, the National Assembly Committee on Tourism and Wildlife, was the last watchdog to visit the site, where it directed the National Treasury to stop financing the project until a probe it initiated was finalised.