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Govt’s payment delays affect King’s birthday celebrations

Pascalinah Kabi

GOVERNMENT Secretary Moahloli Mphaka has ordered the Ministry of Home Affairs Principal Secretary, ‘Machabana Lemphane-Letsie, to look elsewhere for blankets for civil servants in the Ceremonies Committee for His Majesty King Letsie III’s birthday celebrations.

This follows the refusal of the ministry’s usual supplier to supply the blankets on credit owing to the government’s bad reputation of settling its debts very late.

The blankets are specially designed for the King’s 56th birthday which will be celebrated on 17 July in Upper Moyeni, Quthing.

Until Tuesday, there had been uncertainty whether or not the blankets would be purchased for the Ceremonies Committee. The committee is made up of 30 civil servants from different ministries and annually the government buys them blankets that are specially designed for that year’s celebrations of the King’s birthday. Although the number of civil servants in the committee is not fixed, they rarely exceed 30.

But this year there were fears that the government would not buy the blankets because the Ministry of Home Affairs was struggling to strike a deal with a local retailer who sells the designer blankets.

Last December Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro revealed that the government was struggling to pay its suppliers whose debts had at the time ballooned to M1, 1 billion since July 2017. M700 million of the M1, 1 billion debt was from the 2017/18 financial year while the remaining M400 million was from the 2018/19 financial year.

And on Monday Ms Lemphane-Letsie said their supplier had refused to sell the blankets to the government on credit because of past experiences where they failed to settle the debts on time.

Each blanket costs M1 100 and this translated to approximately M33 000 which the government needed to pay for 30 members of the Ceremonies Committee.

Members of the Ceremonies Committee raised concerns over the government’s likely failure to buy the blankets this year as has been the norm in the past during their meeting with Mr Mphaka on Monday.

The committee allegedly raised the concerns after learning that the supplier had refused to sell the blankets on credit because the Ministry of Home Affairs delayed settling its debt.

It was then resolved at the meeting that the Ministry of Home Affairs should speed up negotiations with the retailer and ensure that the blankets are supplied ahead of next Wednesday’s celebrations in Quthing.

Mr Mphaka recently told the Sunday Express that the blankets were purchased on his instruction to the relevant authorities from another retailer who was willing to sell on credit.

“Not all of the civil servants that are members of the Ceremonies Committee can afford to buy the blankets because some of them are very junior officers,” Mr Mphaka said adding, “We have therefore, all these years, bought blankets for them”.

“But I received a report that their regular blanket supplier said they were not going to accept government’s order to sell the blankets on credit. The supplier wanted the blankets purchased for cash but I issued an instruction that they should engage a supplier who is able to buy the blankets on cash from the retailer and sell them to the government on credit.

“Immediately after that, the order was issued and the blankets were already delivered.”

Mr Mphaka’s instruction came after Ms Lemphane-Letsie told a media briefing on Monday that  the government’s unsavoury past dealings with the suppliers have come back to haunt them as the blanket retailer has refused to sell to them on credit.

“Lesotho is struggling financially and some of the government spending that we are looking to cut out of our budget are items that may directly affect civil servants. It may happen that we will not get blankets because the budget has been hugely slashed,” Ms Lemphane-Letsie said.

She however, said that this was all dependent on the ongoing negotiations with the blanket retailer to sell the blanket to the government on credit. Ms Lemphane-Letsie said the negotiations were not promising and that there was a high possibility of the government not buying the blankets on behalf of members of the Ceremonies Committee because the retailer was not budging.

Ntate Minister, I am in no position to give an exact day (if the blankets will be available) because our negotiations with the supplier have taken longer than expected. The negotiations began a little while ago but until today we still don’t have a concrete answer, therefore I cannot stand here and vouch that we will have blankets,” Ms Lemphane-Letsie said.

Pressed for more information, Ms Lemphane-Letsie confirmed that the supplier had put forward stringent conditions which include an upfront payment for the blankets.

“It is true that in the past few years, blanket retailers like any suppliers that deal with the Home Affairs ministry were faced with a challenge of late payments by the ministry. That makes it difficult for us to do business with them despite the fact that we have paid a huge chunk of our debt. Although we have settled some of their debts, we have not regained the trust of most of our suppliers, including the blanket supplier because of our tendency of paying them late.

She said that she had tried her best to negotiate with the supplier and they had not reached an agreement a week ahead of next Wednesday’s celebrations in Quthing.

“If the situation remains as it is, we will not have those blankets come the event day. I however, don’t think this will affect the festivities as planned, we will use those that were given in the past years like that of Butha-Buthe celebrations. Even though we would have liked to wear the Quthing district blanket, it will be business as usual because a blanket is just a blanket.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs usually buys not more than 30 blankets for members of the Ceremonies Committee. We never buy blankets for ministers and whoever you see wearing them would have bought from their own pockets,” Ms Lemphane-Letsie said.

Ms Lemphane-Letsie was not reachable on her mobile phone yesterday to comment on the latest developments.

Meanwhile, Ms Lemphane-Letsie on Monday said she did not readily have the names of individuals and companies that were awarded the tenders for the King’s Birthday. She however, said 54 Quthing businesspeople would cater for the ordinary citizens at the event.

She said a catering tender for dignitaries was awarded to four businesses from the same district. She said other tendering processes — that include the hiring of chairs, tables and tents – will be concluded this week. She also said the government had this year opted to use the Ministry of Communications’ Public Address (PA) system and the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF)’s mobile toilets instead of hiring from other suppliers.

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