Bongiwe Zihlangu and Nat Molomo
MASERU — Finance Minister Timothy Thahane was on Thursday heckled by fellow lawmakers who demanded that he leaves an impromptu meeting called to discuss the block farming loan scandal.
Parliament’s public accounts committee chairman Vincent Malebo had called Thahane to a committee meeting to discuss allegations of massive “embezzlement” raised by former trade minister Mpho Malie.
The allegations are contained in a damning letter written by Malie to Standard Lesotho Bank, which was giving out government-guaranteed loans under the block farming scheme.
The public accounts committee meeting held in Maseru on Thursday had barely started when MPs who are part of the committee started grumbling about Thahane’s presence.
Thahane is not a member of the committee.
MPs from the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) were the most vocal.
The MPs queried why Malebo, who leads the Marematlou Freedom Party, had not informed them that he had invited Thahane to the meeting.
Shortly after Malebo had opened the meeting the LCD MP for Malingoaneng 77 constituency, Serialong Qoo, started demanding that Thahane leave the meeting.
“How is it that the minister is appearing before this committee without prior notice to members?” Qoo asked.
“The minister should leave because we were not formally told that he would be here on this day, addressing this committee.”
A visibly charged Qoo then turned on the journalists who were present.
“Who are these people? What are they doing here?” he said.
Malebo’s attempt to explain that the law allowed him to invite journalists to committee meetings only further agitated Qoo.
“I am not interested in listening to the law that you are trying to quote,” retorted Qoo.
“I will not listen to the law that you are referring to.
“If they are people of the press they should get out of this place and leave us to discuss matters amongst ourselves as a committee.”
LCD MP for Qhalasi 57 constituency Palo Leteetee then chipped in.
“Why were they invited without prior consultation with members of the committee?” asked Leteetee.
“Where were we when you invited these people, Mr Chairman?
“These people should vacate this room before we can go any further.”
Letuka Nkole of the National Independent Party interjected, demanding to know how Malebo had selected the journalists he invited to the meeting.
“By the way, Mr Chairman, please kindly explain to us the criteria used to select the media houses represented here today,” said Nkole.
“How did you choose them? Did you choose those who report things in a certain way?”
‘Maleabaka Bulane of the LCD also entered the fray.
“We need to know who these people are and what the minister is doing here,” Bulane said.
Malebo succumbed to pressure and ordered the journalists to leave the meeting room.
He however refused to show Thahane the door.
“But the minister will not leave,” said Malebo. “I have told the press to leave, but not the minister. No.”
Throughout the angry exchanges Thahane remained calm.
The MPs also said since Malie’s letter was addressed to Standard Lesotho Bank there was no need for the committee to deal with the matter.
Malebo’s action, they argued, had breached protocol.
Malie’s letter was copied to the committee as well as the Central Bank of Lesotho.
“Ntate Malie has not written the letter to the public accounts committee,” said Qoo.
“The letter was exclusively written to Standard Lesotho Bank.
“Why should we act on a letter sent to us as copy?
“The letter was not addressed to the committee.
“Ntate Malie must first write a letter to this committee and until such time this committee cannot act on a copy of a letter addressed to Standard Lesotho Bank.”
Malie’s letter, addressed to Standard Lesotho Bank managing director Roger Snelgar, queried why the bank had given more money to farmers that had previously failed to pay back their loans.
It also alleged that some ministers who had been appointed as mentors to some farmer groups had themselves borrowed from the scheme and failed to pay back.
Although it does not explicitly say so, the letter seems to have been targeted at Thahane and Forestry Minister Ralechate ‘Mokose who mentored some of the farmers.
The late agriculture minister Rakoro Phororo was one of the mentors.
Malebo said they had asked Malie, the former secretary-general of the LCD, to appear before the committee to explain his concerns.
“Ntate Malie has agreed to appear before this committee to explain his letter in a meeting that will be recorded for the sole purpose of clarity,” Malebo said.
“Again we also did not record his response the first time he was summoned and members of the press were not invited.
“We just want to do things by the book.”
When contacted for comment on Friday, a relatively calm Qoo justified his behaviour the previous day by blaming Malebo for failing to follow procedure.
“I did what I did because the chairman, Ntate Malebo, had intentionally chosen to ignore the correct procedure,” Qoo said.
“He should have consulted with the committee before making any major decisions like inviting the minister and the press.”
Qoo said “the minister also should not have attended that meeting because he is senior to the public accounts committee and should never have agreed to appear before it”.
He said the public accounts committee was supposed to receive orders from parliament “instead of assigning ourselves duties”.
“That letter was not written to the public accounts committee, therefore as a committee we have no authority to summon the minister,” said Qoo.
“We have no right to discuss the letter unless assigned by parliament to do so.
“All we were calling for was for procedure to be followed to the letter.
“We agreed to do just that and that is the direction we will be taking from now on.”
Opposition All Basotho Convention leader Thomas Thabane and his counterparts Kelebone Maope of the Lesotho People’s Congress and Basutoland Congress Party’s Thulo Mahlakeng also attended Thursday’s explosive meeting.
Bongiwe Zihlangu and Nat Molomo