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Minister’s terrorism claims rile car dealers

Bereng Mpaki

THE Import Car Dealers Association of Lesotho (ICDAL) are outraged over Trade and Industry Minister, Thabiso Molapo’s comments linking their industry to money laundering and terrorism activities.

They say they are now living in fear that their lives are now in danger and they could be attacked by people who would have been swayed by the minister’s “reckless and unfounded utterances”.

The utterances could even lead to loss of business due to their tarnished reputations, the dealers say.

Dr Molapo on Friday said his ministry had hiked the motor traders’ licence fees from M600 to M150 000 per annum. He said the hike was necessary to prevent possible money laundering and terrorist financing within the industry.

“I wish to bring to your attention that Lesotho is a member of Eastern and Southern African Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG) and it has an obligation to combat money laundering and terrorist financing activities in the country.

“The motor dealer industry has been identified as a high activity for money laundering and terrorist financing by ESAAMLG and the Ministry of Trade and Industry is responsible for monitoring this industry to combat activities of money laundering and terrorist financing. Monitoring of this nature requires intensive surveillance and inspections and as such this is a costly operation,” Dr Molapo said on Friday.

Yesterday, some motor dealers who spoke to the Sunday Express on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said they were shocked by the minister’s utterances which were made without any shred of evidence.

They said due to the minister’s statements, they were now in danger of being attacked by people who considered them terrorists and money launderers.

“Money laundering and terrorism are not small issues,” one ICDAL said.

“The minister is implying that our members are terrorists and anybody can just come to shoot us any time because his unfounded utterances.”

Another ICDAL member said, “our members are feeling insecure and now living in fear of being attacked. The business reputation of our members is also going to be seriously ruined by the minister’s utterances.”

Another member challenged the minister to prove his allegations. He said there was no way their members could be involved in money laundering and financing terrorism as all their transactions were conducted through the local banking system.

“It is not true that we are not banking with local banks. Without proof of payment we cannot clear the car from our international sellers. We are paying tax under the Simplified Business Tax (SBT) and we have tax clearance certificates to prove that. If the minister has any doubts, he should check with the Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA),” the ICDAL member said.

The association also took exception to the minister’s claims that increasing the motor dealers’ licence fees would help fight environmental pollution caused by the second-hand vehicles.

Dr Molapo had said Lesotho was involved in climate change mitigation, and had to take steps to minimise pollution through carbon emissions by the imported pre-owned vehicles.

“We have learned of studies indicating that used vehicles emit more carbon than new vehicles. Therefore, steps must be taken to control and minimise the emissions for our benefit and for the benefit of the coming generations,” Dr Molapo said.

But the car dealers found the reasoning ludicrous.

“How is hiking the fees going to improve the environment,” one dealer asked.

The dealers said they never agreed to the massive licence fee hike. They threatened to relocate their businesses from Lesotho if the ministry did not reverse or reduce the fees.

“We are not operating illegally in contravention of any laws. We are here generating revenue for the government by paying tax and creating employment. At least 600 jobs have been created through our businesses. There is a whole value chain of economic activities that are depending on this industry. If the government does not reverse the fee hike, we will be forced to close shop and take our businesses elsewhere,” one car dealer said.

Reacting to the ICDAL, Monaheng Monaheng, the Director of the One Stop Business Facilitation Centre (OBFC) in the trade ministry, said Dr Molapo’s comments had been taken out of context.

Mr Monaheng said it was a fact motor dealers, real estate and betting and gambling industries were among high risk businesses identified in the ESAAMLG Lesotho national risk assessment.

“We did not imply that the members are involved in money laundering or financing terrorism as there is no specific business that has been identified as doing that.

“We were merely pointing out that as members of the ESAAMLG, we are bound to develop trade regulations to guard against the possibility of money laundering and financing terrorism before they can happen in the industries that have been found to be prone to it,” Mr Monaheng said.

He accused the motor dealers of hold the government to ransom with their threats to quit the country if the licence fees were not reduced.

He said the dealers were only calling the government’s bluff but they would not leave because they will not have an easier operating environment than they were currently enjoying in Lesotho.

“They do not want to be regulated and they want to hold the government at ransom with their demands. We have already relaxed some of the conditions after they complained but they still want more.” Mr Monaheng said.

He accused some motor dealers of under-declaring their sales to evade paying the correct tax amounts.

“It is a fact is that most motor dealers’ licences have expired and they are refusing to pay the M150 000 fee. The ministry will soon embark on a business inspection campaign to enforce compliance within the sector,” Mr Monaheng added.

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