Tower of Babel: More questions on Sh9.9b offices ahead of opening

Bunge Towers, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Controversy has rocked Parliament ahead of the opening of the Sh9.6 billion Bunge Towers by President William Ruto.

On Wednesday, National Assembly Speaker Moses Wetang'ula and a section of MPs engaged in a verbal exchange even as questions abound on whether the public got value for money for the project that commenced 14 years ago and the initial cost almost doubled.

In his communication to the House, Wetang'ula, who revealed that 58 MPs had already moved into the building, appeared to be on a war path. He promised to take action against members who had been "pouring vitriol” on the relocation process.

“Those members who have been pouring hatred on this process may in fact find themselves before the Powers and Privileges Committee because they have been saying things without proof. They are saying things that are utterly untrue,” said the Speaker.

“We have a stark choice of leaving this building to be a white elephant or moving in, working in it and making things work as we move along. In any event, if we need any money to improve the building further, it will come before this House for appropriation.”

This was a direct response to Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei who had earlier opened a battlefront with the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) over what he termed as poor workmanship and alleged graft in the prolonged construction.

Ballooning budget

Cherargei, during a press briefing called for an inquiry into the “mystery” of billions surrounding the construction, claimed that the lifts do not work, and that there were no lights and windows on some floors.

“Parliamentary Service Commission should be taken to task to explain Bunge Towers, which has taken all those years to be completed. It should also be noted that despite the re-location currently taking place, construction works on some floors are still ongoing or others visibly incomplete," said the Senator.

Construction started in 2010 with an initial budget of Sh5.9 billion. This was later revised to Sh7.1 billion with a financial claim attracting Sh1.1 billion and over Sh225 million in interest over delayed payments, among other variations, hence the total of Sh9.6 billion.

Alluding to financial impropriety, Cherargei went ahead to compare Bunge Towers with the Central Bank Pension Towers.

“It is interesting when we compare Bunge Towers with the Central Bank Pension towers that took not less than three and half years to be completed. It is a 27-storey ultra-modern building that cost Sh2.49 billion and was officially opened by former President Uhuru Kenyatta in May 2022, and therefore compared to Bunge Towers we used an extra over Sh6 billion,” he said.

The senator demanded that the PSC furnish members with the completion certificate of the works, certificate of occupation and certification by Public Health.

He also sought an explanation on pending works and a breakdown of the pending bills.

Three Speakers later

But Wetang'ula reiterated that the contractor owed no explanation to Cherargei. “For those claiming that lifts are not working, there are six high-speed lifts all working efficiently like any building you can find in Manhattan USA. The offices are ready but there are some that are already going on. The gym is still going on but, in the transition, members can go to the one at Continental House,” he said.

“The kitchen and modern dining is ready and the commission has decided that we will outsource the management of the kitchen. I therefore urge members not to join the rejectionist philosophers on the streets.”

National Assembly Minority Leader Opiyo Wandayi also appeared to seek answers from the Speaker.

“In the past one day, we have been treated to fairly negative publicity about that Bunge Tower project…You know Parliament, just like Caesar's wife, must be beyond reproach. My dilemma is, how do we address the concerns coming from the public on the efficacy of this Bunge Tower project?”

But even as the President commissions the building, questions linger on whether the delay was deliberate.

The construction of the towers began under the reign of then-Speaker Kenneth Marende. In his ambitious plan, Marende aimed for the offices to house the expected 349 MPs and 67 senators, further estimating that the 28-storey building would be complete by 2014.

This was, however, not the case. Shortly after the promulgation of the new Constitution, the reign of Speaker Justin Muturi set in. It was under his reign that the completion stalled the longest.

Despite additional allocations for the completion of the project, the status quo remained, capturing the attention of Auditor General Nancy Gathungu. In her report for the financial year 2019/2020, Gathungu raised the alarm at the slow progress of works.

She faulted PSC for breaking the law in varying the contract sum in 2018. The contract sum, the Auditor General said, was varied by Sh1.5 billion, representing a 27 per cent above the 25 per cent limit allowed by Section 139(4) of the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, 2015.

“A verification visit to the site revealed slow progress of the interior fit-out sub-contract works. As of January 2020, the work done under the interior fit-out sub-contract was below 10 per cent whereas 50 per cent of the extended contract time had lapsed, casting doubt as to whether the project would be completed at the estimated time,” said Gathungu.

And when Wetang'ula moved to clear the air on the towers, he sought to assure the public that he had not expended any funds for the project’s completion.

“For your information, since you elected me your Speaker, there have been no Exchequer releases towards construction or completion of this building. I have done so with the capacity as PSC,” he said.

This earned him praise from a section of the MPs. Rarieda MP Otiende Amollo said: “The fact that finally, we are likely to occupy those offices is a good thing. Us occupying them will make sure that those who are supposed to complete it do so faster. The longer we don’t occupy it the longer it will take to complete.”

Maragwa MP Mary Wamaua also lauded the Speaker for his efforts. “This will go into record that during your time and within the shortest time possible we got into those offices. I want to confirm to members that having already moved into my office, the offices are convenient. I urge the Speaker to move away from those noisemakers because the place is very conducive for members,” she said.

Phased occupation

Emuhaya MP Omboko Milemba argued that prioritisation of the offices now would ensure better facilities for those who come after them.

According to Wetang'ula, the occupation will be conducted in phases. The ongoing relocation will see MPs currently in Harambee Sacco Plaza move into their new offices.

It will also see MPs with offices at KICC who were allocated offices in the Bunge Towers relocated to their assigned offices, whereas those that were unsuccessful in the balloting for offices in the new building are accommodated at the Harambee Sacco Plaza.

In his communication last Tuesday, the Speaker explained that phase two of the relocation will entail MPs with offices at the Continental House, whereas members operating from other leased offices will be expected to shift to the new offices from July.

Further, the Clerk’s office will facilitate the allocation of appropriate offices in other buildings within Parliament Square to MPs moving from the Continental House or leased premises who were not allocated offices in the Bunge Towers.

Only 280 MPs out of the total 349 members of the National Assembly will be allocated the new offices, while only 51 out of the 67 Senators will be given priority.