MASERU — Some senior officials in the previous government could have pocketed M30 million in bribes from the company that won the ID tender in March last year, a Sunday Express investigation has revealed. Information gleaned from various sources over the past two weeks points to a syndicate of senior officials in former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government who arm-twisted Nikuv International Projects to bribe them before the contract could be signed.
The allegations of bribes being paid to the officials form the crux of the Directorate of Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO)’s investigation into the ID tender. A few weeks ago the anti-corruption unit raided the home and offices of the Principal Secretary of the Finance Ministry, Mosito Khethisa. The anti-corruption unit also raided the home of Retšelisitsoe Khetsi, the former principal secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs who signed the multi-million maloti contract with the Israeli company two months before it was approved by cabinet.
Around the same time three directors of Nikuv skipped the country after their offices were raided by the DCEO which also confiscated their computers. This paper can now reveal that at the centre of the investigations are allegations that some government officials received kickbacks from the company after threatening to cancel the contract if they did not agree to the corrupt deal.
This information, according to sources close to the investigation, was discovered in the computers the DCEO took from Nikuv.
For the past six weeks a company hired by the anti-corruption unit has been sifting through Nikuv’s computers for evidence of bribes to the officials. Sources close to the issue have told the Sunday Express that investigations have so far revealed that the initial tender was for Nikuv to supply e-passports only but the then government changed that when the contract was just about to be signed.
After winning the selective tender Nikuv was told that they should also bill for the production of IDs.
The contract for the registration of births, deaths, marriages was also offered to the company.
Nikuv, according to a source who was close to the talks, was told that unless they agreed to include those new components in the contract they might as well “kiss goodbye to the project”.
After much wrangling, Nikuv officials agreed to sign the amended contract. For the total project they billed the government US$25.7 million (M231.3 million) but before the contract was signed some government officials are said to have then told the company to bill US$29.1 million (M261.9 million), overcharging the government by an extra US$3.4 million (M30 million). “The suspicion is that this money was laundered through various briefcase companies,” said a highly placed source who refused to be named.
“It would appear that Nikuv was under immense pressure to pay the bribes before the contract was signed”. “In the next few weeks more officials who worked under the former government are going to be called to explain their roles in the deal,” the source added. The DCEO also suspects that part of the money could have been used to fund the campaigns of some Democratic Congress candidates in the last election, according to another official close to the issue.
This paper has it on good authority that Nikuv’s lawyers who came to negotiate with the DCEO and the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) a fortnight ago promised that Nikuv directors will turn state witnesses when charges are laid against those accused of corruption. “Nikuv directors are arguing that they won the tender fair and square but they were arm-twisted to agree to inflate the price when they were about to sign the contract,” the source said.
“The computers seized from Nikuv are showing a clear trail of how the money moved hands from the company to some officials. “It would appear that this issue goes far beyond Khethisa and Khetsi. It goes right to some ministers.” The DCEO and DPP are still considering Nikuv’s offer to assist the prosecution. The Ministry of Home Affairs is currently communicating with Nikuv officials to come back to Lesotho to complete the project. This push for Nikuv to come back is based on the fact that the government has already paid M140 million to the company.
So far the company has built an e-passport facility in Mohale, facilities in the 10 districts and provided the computer hardware for the project. The company has also supplied the software required to run the system and was now training some local officers. “If the government allows Nikuv to go it will have to find another software for which it would pay huge amounts of money,” said a home affairs official.
“The other problem is that Lesotho does not have an extradition treaty with Israel so the Nikuv guys can just refuse to come back to Lesotho. It’s better to have them here to finish their project while they help the prosecution,” he said.