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Farming equipment scandal

  • tractors and other equipment allegedly sold to ministers, MPs at knockdown prices,
  • ABC condemns scandal as “glorified theft and corruption” by govt officials,
  • as DCEO confirms it is probing the scandal.

‘Marafaele Mohloboli

POLITICAL parties across the divide including the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) are up in arms with the government over the sale of government-owned farming equipment at knockdown prices to cabinet ministers, government legislators and other well-connected individuals.

Leading the howls of protests is ABC spokesperson, Montoeli Masoetsa, who told the Sunday Express that the main ruling party was opposed to the “glorified theft and corruption” by cabinet ministers and other government officials.

The decision to sell the equipment at subsidised prices was taken by cabinet last November. It was meant to help local farmers to boost productivity and contribute to food security by using technology to plant and harvest crops. The equipment included tractors, planters, harvesters, seed bed cultivators and boom sprayers.

But according to various political parties, the sale of the farming equipment, which began last month, was hijacked by cabinet ministers including Agriculture and Food Security minister, Tefo Mapesela. The politicians are said to have been the biggest beneficiaries at the expense of ordinary farmers who had been earmarked to be the main recipients.

Mr Masoetsa yesterday said “no straight-thinking politician should have made such a decision” to sell the equipment to cabinet ministers and government officials.

Mr Masoetsa said the decision was taken by his party’s members who are in the executive. He said they did not consult the party’s national executive committee (NEC) which would have advised that the government officials should not benefit in any way from the disposal of the farming equipment.

The ABC’s main coalition partner, the Democratic Congress (DC), has said it will not comment on the issue for the time being. DC secretary general Tšitso Cheba, yesterday said they would only comment after they had “obtained all the relevant and accurate information” pertaining to the sale of the equipment.

However, the Monyane Moleleki-led opposition Alliance of Democrats (AD) has come out guns blazing, saying the police and Directorate of Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) should probe the sale of the equipment which was organised by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security.

AD secretary general and former Justice and Correctional Services Minister, Mahali Phamotse, accused Agriculture and Food Security minister, Tefo Mapesela, of flouting procurement regulations by unfairly excluding ordinary farmers and other members of the public from the bidding process.

“The auction was not transparent in any way as the public was excluded,” Dr Phamotse said, adding, “most of the beneficiaries are cabinet ministers, MPs and their friends”.

“The auction was announced in parliament late last year and we all embraced it thinking that it would be open for all who had an interest in buying the farming equipment only to find that all the equipment had already been taken by the cabinet ministers, MPs and other government officials.”

Dr Phamotse said ministers and other government officials positioned themselves to benefit at the expense of serious farmers and the public.

“None of the procurement regulations (which forbid the government officials from participating in their own tenders) were followed in running this auction and this says it was a corrupt move. This is tantamount to theft because they have all benefitted unlawfully.

“It is on this basis that we call upon the DCEO, the auditor general, police and parliament to make thorough investigations and take action against all those who benefitted.

“Those who benefitted should be taken to task by the DCEO and police as soon as yesterday. These are the very people who are entrusted to protect Basotho and yet they are the ones who are doing everything to hurt them by unfairly enriching themselves,” Dr Phamotse said.

AD deputy leader, Professor Ntoi Rapapa, concurred, saying the police and anti-graft body should also investigate the distribution of fertiliser to beneficiaries and other farming inputs which are subsidised by the government.

Prof Rapapa said they strongly suspected that the subsidised agricultural inputs were mostly given to cabinet ministers and principal secretaries instead of deserving farmers.

“We expect the law to take its course with regards to this auction of tractors and other farming equipment which the government has disposed of.

“It defies logic and the principle of fairness when ministers and other government officials are the ones seen to be benefitting the most from the sale of government assets. They should not be benefitting from an auction meant to benefit the public. They were not supposed to have taken anything from the auction as this gave them an unfair advantage over everyone else.

“We also expect the law enforcement authorities to look into the distribution of fertiliser which was mostly given to cabinet ministers and their principal secretaries. This has been very unfair on other farmers as they did not get the fertilisers,” Prof Rapapa said.

On his part, the Acting Director General of the DCEO, Sefako Seema, yesterday said they were “already investigating this matter and we had even written to the minister in charge (Mapesela) to put the auction on hold pending our probe”. The auction proceeded nevertheless, notwithstanding the DCEO’s exhortation to Minister Mapesela.

The Sunday Express has seen a list of people who allegedly benefitted from the auction of the farming equipment and it includes Minister Mapesela himself.

Others who are said to have benefited include ministers, Mohapi Mohapinyane (Energy), Kemiso Mosenene (Prime Minister’s Office); deputy ministers, Likopo Mahase (Agriculture and Food Security) and Nto Moakhi (Health).

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Sephiri Motanyane, and the Senate President, ‘Mamonaheng Mokitimi, are also among those said to have benefited from the auction.

AD spokesperson Thuso Litjobo also slammed Mr Mapesela for allegedly hijacking the auction from procurement officers in the Ministry of Finance to benefit himself and other government officials.

“The procurement officers were ready to do everything by the book but they were told to leave the process in the hands of Minister Mapesela. The funny thing is that even the LMPS bought a tractor at the auction and I think this could make it difficult for meaningful and thorough investigations to be done,” Mr Litjobo said.

LCD spokesperson Apesi Ratšele yesterday said the sale of the equipment “lacked transparency and fairness”.

“It was very unfair because it benefitted government officials instead of real farmers.

Ntate Mapesela chose to process this auction as a closed bid because he already knew the beneficiaries. There is something fishy with this auction and in-depth investigations have to be made,” Mr Ratšele said.

He said LCD deputy leader and former Defence and National Security Minister, Tšeliso Mokhosi, initially applied to purchase some farming implements but later withdrew after learning that the process was riddled with corruption.

However, Minister Mapesela has dismissed the allegations of corruption and impropriety on his part.

“No regulations have been flouted; the auction was even advertised in some newspapers as should be the case,” Mr Mapesela said in an interview with the Sunday Express yesterday.

“The only thing that really happened is that most people thought they would be getting this equipment on hire purchase which was not the case. This was a cash sale and most people’s applications to participate in the auction were declined because they did not have the cash.

“The tractors and other equipment are still there. Anyone who is interested and has the money is allowed to come and buy.

“This equipment was not dished out for free like the AD and all these people seeking political relevance are implying. There is no corruption on my part because the money from the sale of the equipment was not paid into my account. It was deposited into the Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL) account. I also tabled the issue of the auction before parliament and the MPs including those who are now attacking it lauded the move at the time,” Mr Mapesela said.

However, Mr Masoetsa insisted that the auction was unprocedural and a corrupt affair.

“This is glorified theft and corruption. No straight-thinking politician would have made such a decision to auction the equipment to cabinet ministers and government officials,” Mr Masoetsa said.

He said in the past, the ABC had advised its leader Thomas Thabane and party officials from buying government vehicles which had been put up for sale at knock-down prices. He said they felt their participation would have led to their unjust enrichment when they were already benefitting in many other ways from their positions.

“As the ABC’s NEC, we would have advised this government and our members in the executive not participate in the auction.

“There is a time when we took then Prime Minister (and former DC leader) Pakalitha Mosisili to task for selling state-owned cars to ministers and others for M4000 each. Even in this instance, we could have still advised the ABC members not to participate.

“The majority of the ABC’s NEC is opposed to this glorified and organised theft of public assets and corruption.

“More so because Lesotho is facing a problem of food insecurity. They are now privatising farming and this will only worsen the problem of food insecurity.

“Poor farmers cannot afford to purchase expensive machinery at auctions where they have to compete with government officials who have the money. Like I said before this is just organised theft and we, as the majority of the ABC’s NEC, are not a part of it,” said Mr Masoetsa.

The ABC is heavily divided on several fronts.  Those in government are at loggerheads with NEC members who are not part of the executive. Mr Masoetsa and party secretary general, Lebohang Hlaele, are both not in government. They and others who are not in government like deputy chairperson Chalane Phori do not see eye to eye with their NEC colleagues who are in the Moeketsi Majoro-led government.

NEC members in government include the party’s deputy leader Professor Nqosa Mahao, who is Justice and Law Minister. ABC chairperson Samuel Rapapa serves as Local Government and Chieftaincy minister while deputy spokesperson, ‘Matebatso Doti, is the Social Development minister.

Messrs Masoetsa, Hlaele and others who are not in government have thrown their weight behind veteran ABC leader, Thomas Thabane, who was forced by the party to step down as prime minister last May and make way for Dr Majoro.

The ABC had forged a new coalition with the DC and other smaller parties to replace the previous Thabane-led coalition which comprised of the AD, Basotho National Party and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho.

Meanwhile, DC Secretary general Cheba, said his party will only comment on the sale of the farming equipment when it has accurate information regarding the auction.

The various political parties who spoke on record, including the ABC, insist that only ordinary farmers should have participated at the auction of the government-owned farming equipment excluding ministers and other top officials.

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