The directors of a British printing firm contracted to print Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC) certificates four years ago appeared in a London court yesterday to answer to bribery charges.
The case, involving directors of Smith and Ouzman, is expected to lift the lid on economic crimes at the multi-million-shilling transnational corruption ring that has enriched a number of senior Kenya government officials.
Christopher and Nicholas Smith are accused of corruptly agreeing to pay KNEC officials undisclosed amounts of money to secure a printing deal with the examinations body.
The two officials yesterday appeared before Southwark Crown Court for the start of the hearing alongside Tim Forrester, the firm’s international sales manager, and Abdirahman Omar, who is an agent of the firm.
The charge sheet says “Christopher Smith, Nicholas Smith and Smith and Ouzman Limited between October 1, 2008 and November 30, 2010 corruptly agreed to make payments to KNEC officials as an inducement for showing favour to Smith and Ouzman.”
The British nationals have been separately accused of bribing Kenyan, Ghanian, Mauritanian and Somaliland officials with £413,552 (Sh59 million) to secure tenders for the printing of ballot papers and examination certificates. The suspects were first arraigned in November last year when a preliminary hearing took place.
The four denied all five counts of corruption during the plea and case management hearing in January this year. They were released on bail pending the setting of the trial date.
Judge David Higgins is expected to deliver his verdict after the five-week hearing.
Smith and Ouzman is one of the oldest printing firms in the United Kingdom, and specialises in security documents, including examination and ballot papers.
Prosecutor Mark Bryant was yesterday expected to open the trial and proceed to the arduous task of producing the evidence against the Smith and Ouzman officials.
The firm prints examination certificates for Kenya’s primary and secondary school leavers, a deal said to be worth over Sh200 million annually. The directors allegedly liaised with one Trevy James Oyombra, the firm’s representative in Kenya, to pay off KNEC and Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) officials for the deals.
While Mr Oyombra is mentioned in the court papers, he has not been charged in Kenyan courts with any offence relating to the tenders. KNEC signed a new three-year contract with the printer in 2012 that is set to expire next year. Smith Ouzman is also accused of bribing IEBC officials to secure a ballot papers printing deal.
The IEBC last year single-sourced the UK firm to print ballot papers for the General Election, a deal that cost the taxpayer Sh3 billion. Suspicion of underhand dealings in the contract came to light after another UK firm, Aero Vote Limited, claimed that Smith and Ouzman’s outsourcing of the printing jobs to third parties was contrary to procurement laws.
Former IEBC chief executive James Oswago, however, defended the contract, arguing that there was not enough time for open tendering, prompting the agency to take the single sourcing route. The dispute moved to the Kenyan High Court but Justice George Odunga gave the single sourcing the stamp of legality.
The IEBC has since the arraignment of Smith and Ouzman opted to contract GI Solutions, one of the third parties that the UK firm outsources jobs to.
During an interview with a local daily in March, IEBC communications director Tabitha Mutemi admitted that GI solutions had printed ballot papers for the Siaya, Kibwezi West, Matungulu, Bungoma, Bomachoge Borabu and Nyaribari Chache by-elections. The IEBC may have to permanently cut ties with the UK-based firm should Justice Higgins rule against them.
Kenya’s involvement with Smith and Ouzman during the last General Election raised credibility questions with opponents of the deal arguing that the National Intelligence Service had issued advisories on the deal before the tender was awarded.
Smith and Ouzman has printed ballot papers for Kenya’s elections since 1997, when it was contracted by the defunct Electoral Commission of Kenya Prior to the 2007 elections, however, the UK printer was forced to hand over the deal to Kalamazoo Secure Solutions Limited after it failed to deliver on time.
The UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and an independent anti-graft body that reports to the office of the UK Attorney-General started investigations into the alleged corruption in October 2010.
The SFO has since the Anglo-leasing scandal kept a keen eye on business contracts in Kenya, especially those involving British firms. The SFO concluded its year-long investigations into Smith and Ouzman in August last year and followed it up with written charges that led to the arraignment of the officials.
The case could see KNEC and the IEBC terminate their contract with Smith and Ouzman, as the law provides for fresh tendering if a contractor is found guilty of corruption.
Fresh tendering could delay printing of certificates for those sitting their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exams this year. This because such a process will involve advertising the tenders in advance, evaluating the bidders and allowing time for appeals to the award.
The re-tendering process could also cast some doubt over completion of certificates for the 844,475 KCPE and 449,246 KCSE candidates who sat their examinations last year.
Smith and Ouzman has in the past been accused of bribing examination officials in Ghana, the Ministry of Interior officials in Mauritania and electoral commission officials in Somaliland to ensure it won all the tenders.
The firm’s directors allegedly colluded with its representatives top bribe local officials in order to gain undue advantage in the battle for contracts in the four countries.