THE government has bowed down to public pressure and reversed its decision to include legislators among the list of Basotho who are eligible to lease their vehicles to the state as it moves to ensure that all its vehicle needs are procured from locals.
This was revealed by the Finance Minister, Moeketsi Majoro, at a press conference in Maseru on Friday.
Dr Majoro first announced in March this year that the cabinet had resolved to lease vehicles from Basotho who include taxi operators, disabled groups, youth, women’s groups and legislators who were not cabinet ministers.
While the announcement was generally welcomed as an initiative aimed at empowering Basotho, there was however, a massive public outcry over the inclusion of legislators among the list of beneficiaries.
Cross sections of society argued that the legislators were already enjoying huge benefits in the form of salaries and allowances during their term of office.
The legislators earn salaries up to M469 884 in salaries per annum and M150 in daily sitting allowances. They are also entitled to M500 000 in interest-free loans.
Dr Majoro explained at the time the decision to include the legislators was made after realising that despite all the benefits the legislators enjoyed, they were burdened with huge financial tasks in their constituencies.
He said their current benefits were not enough to cater for their constituency commitments like assisting poor families to bury their loved ones.
But in a new turn of events, Dr Majoro announced on Friday that the government would no longer be leasing vehicles from legislators.
He also revealed that the long-awaited procurement of Basotho-owned cars for government fleet will begin next month.
“We had included the backbenchers but we got a backlash from the public,” Dr Majoro said.
“We listened and we decided to exclude them (legislators from the leasing their vehicles to the government) because we also realised that it would compromise their relations with the electorate.”
Dr Majoro further said they were working with the police to investigate if there were any senior government officials who were using ordinary people as ‘fronts’ to lease vehicles to the government. If discovered, he said such contracts would be terminated immediately.
In another development, Dr Majoro, said his ministry’s preliminary investigations show that the government and taxpayers were prejudiced through irregular payments to the South African company Bidvest for the vehicle fleet services tender.
Dr Majoro said he will on Tuesday table the findings before cabinet, adding that the irregular payments by the previous government should be further investigated to establish whether or not there was any criminal conduct on the part of the government officials who made the payments.
The Pakalitha Mosisili-led former seven parties’ coalition government courted controversy by awarding the vehicle fleet services tender to Bidvest without going to tender in August 2016.
The Bidvest deal which ran for 48 months, was prematurely terminated in April 2017 at the huge cost of M107 713 780, the latest Auditor General’s report states.
The then Finance Minister, Mr Tlohang Sekhamane, directed the Central Bank of Lesotho (CBL) to transfer funds into the Consolidated Fund to finance the termination fees for the Bidvest tender and other activities. The transfer was nevertheless done in a manner that the Auditor General (AG) Lucy Liphafa has since declared unlawful and unconstitutional.
Although Dr Majoro did not say how much was made as irregular payments to Bidvest, he however, said that they would continue investigating the issue to “ultimately find out what happened and why such decisions were made”.
“We would be a very irresponsible nation if we let cases of mismanagement of public funds slide and in the end our cash reserves will run dry.
“We wish to understand how such irregular payments and decisions were made. We have not yet established if there were criminal acts involved. However, the investigation has started and we will ultimately find out what happened and why such decisions were made,” Dr Majoro said, adding that tax payers’ money was unnecessarily wasted and it would be disastrous if the government did not fully investigate the matter.
There are varying accounts of the exact amount that the government paid out to Bidvest for the controversial fleet services tender.
The AG’s report for the 2015/16 financial year indicated that the former seven parties’ government paid M261 million to Bidvest for the vehicle fleet service contract from October 2015 to March 2016.
The figure could have been higher as the AG’s report only captured the payments up to 31 March, 2016 – the period which the audit covered.
The AG’s report for the 2016/17 financial year stated that there was an increase of 60 percent in costs compared to the government fleet management contract with Avis Fleet Services in 2014/15 and Bidvest Fleet Services in 2015/16.
Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki, who served as Police Minister in the former government, has claimed that the former government paid M710 million to Bidvest during the 2016/17 financial year.
Mr Moleleki said this in April last year while addressing thousands of supporters of his Alliance of Democrats (AD) at a rally in Ha-Marakabei village in the Butha-Buthe district. The rally was meant to drum up support for the AD ahead of the 3 June 2017 elections.