* Growing use of no-bid deals tarnishes government's image
* Probe finds 95 percent of deals should have been tendered
* Fifty eight percent deemed not to have met criteria
By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Most of Ivory Coast's no-bid government deals contravene regulations and should have been opened up to bidding, an audit by the public procurement watchdog showed on Thursday, echoing growing donor concern over the contracts.
President Alassane Ouattara has won widespread praise as the architect of a revival of French-speaking West Africa's leading economy following a decade of political turmoil that ended in a brief 2011 civil war.
Ivory Coast - the world's top cocoa grower - posted growth of more than 9 percent in each of the past two years, boosted by government spending on post-war infrastructure projects and is piquing the interest of frontier market investors.
However, the increasing number of sole-source contracts - deals in which only one bidder is solicited - has become a blemish on the government's record.
No-bid deals accounted for about 30 percent of Ivory Coast's public procurement by value in 2011 but rose to more than 56 percent last year, according to the National Public Procurement Regulating Authority (ANRMP) watchdog's data. The combined value of all sole-source procurement during the three years was about 500 billion CFA francs or nearly $1 billion.
"It was revealed that in 95 percent of cases ... the reasons evoked for awarding deals through sole-source contracts are not justified with regard to the regulations in place," stated a summary of the audit's findings.
ANRMP president, Non Karna Coulibaly, declined to comment on whether the agency believed corruption was behind the rampant failure to respect procedures.
The audit, carried out by the Ivorian firm ICP and Mali's Phoenix Consultants, selected a sample of 60 contracts awarded between 2011 and 2013 by six ministries: Construction, Health, Infrastructure, Education, Transportation, and Urban Hygiene.
Under Ivory Coast's public procurement code, the government can use sole-source deals under specific conditions, including in situations where immediate intervention is needed and normal tendering would create unacceptable delays.
Ouattara's government has maintained that the no-bid deals are necessary to allow reconstruction to move forward quickly.
However, of the audited contracts, 75 percent were awarded after periods of more than 100 days, well beyond the regulation time of 45 days, with 17 percent taking more than 400 days.
Overall, taking into account a number of criteria, 40 percent of the deals were found to be satisfactory, while 58 percent were deemed unsatisfactory.
The audit nevertheless found that work provided through the deals had been well executed, and the costs were in line with those that could have been obtained through an open tender.
"We want sole-source contracts to be the exception ... Open tenders must be the rule," Coulibaly said at the announcement of the audit's findings.
Among the agency's recommendations, the ANRMP would call upon the government to introduce a cap on the percentage of their budgets that ministries are allowed to spend on sole-source public procurement, he said. ($1 = 508.1000 CFA franc) (Reporting by Joe Bavier; Editing by Bate Felix and Louise Ireland)