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* Deals represent nearly 43 pct of 2013 public procurement
* Government says contracts necessary to speed reconstruction
* Critics argue they allow corruption, balloon costs
By Joe Bavier
ABIDJAN, March 26 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast awarded 294 billion CFA francs ($617.87 million) worth of public procurement, nearly 43 percent of last year's total by value, via no-bid contracts according to government figures, despite growing donor concern and public suspicion of graft.
President Alassane Ouattara has won praise for orchestrating a rapid 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 GDP growth of around 9 percent last year and is projected to be one of Africa's best economic performers in the years to come.
However, as the country has begun to rebuild, the number of sole source contracts - deals in which only one bidder is solicited - has spiked.
Ivory Coast approved contracts worth a total of 687.9 billion CFA francs last year, government spokesman Bruno Kone said. Despite their high value, the 285 no-bid deals made up less than 11 percent of the total number of contracts.
"You must understand that these sole source contracts, which are so often criticised, are always done this way in the interest of the people," Kone said.
Ouattara's government maintains that the no-bid deals are necessary to allow the country's reconstruction plan to move forward quickly.
However critics claim the deals are opaque and open the door to potential corruption. They also say such contracts lead to inflated costs for projects at a time when Ivory Coast is borrowing heavily to finance a sweeping infrastructure makeover.
Around 40 percent of public procurement deals were sole source contracts in 2012 as well, according to the National Public Procurement Regulating Authority (ANRMP), a government watchdog.
Kone denied that the 2013 figure showed an increase in such deals.
"A large part is carryover from 2012. There is, therefore, no increase," he told Reuters.
Two projects agreed in 2012 - a motorway and 107 billion CFA francs worth of university refurbishing - made up much of the 2013 sole source figure, Kone said.
The ANRMP, meanwhile, is preparing to launch an audit of no-bid contracts awarded by six government ministries from 2011 to 2013, the agency's president said.
"We've chosen the auditing firm. The audit will begin soon. The results should be known in two or three months," Non Karna Coulibaly told Reuters, declining to comment on the figures announced by the government on Wednesday.
"We need more than just figures. We need to know what happened," he added. ($1 = 475.8310 CFA Francs) (Additional reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly; Editing by Eric Walsh)
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