THE recent revelations by the Local Government Ministry’s principal secretary, Khothatso Tšooana, and Maseru City Council (MCC) Town Clerk, Moeko Maboee, that Ministers Chalane Phori and Mahala Molapo ordered them to award the M380 million Mpilo Boulevard tender to their preferred bidder, reveal deeply entrenched government corruption which must be investigated and rooted out if the country is to flourish economically, analysts have said.
The Mpilo Boulevard tender was first advertised in April 2019 and among other things, the successful bidder is expected to construct new road links, flyover bridges for vehicles as well as pedestrian bridges.
It is envisaged that when complete, the new look Mpilo Boulevard will reduce traffic congestion in the city and also reduce carnage on the roads.
Messrs Tšooana and Maboee recently shocked the nation when they told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that Messrs Phori (Minister of Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing) attempted to arm-twist them into awarding the Mpilo tender to UNIK Construction Company.
Mr Tšooana told the PAC that Mr Phori was supported by the First Lady, ‘Maesaiah Thabane, and Mr Molapo when he directed that the lucrative tender be awarded to UNIK. He said the trio wanted UNIK to be given the tender to reward its Chinese owner only identified as a Mr Yang for assisting Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.
Mr Yang allegedly offered financial assistance to Dr Thabane and members of his All Basotho Convention (ABC) party during their time in exile in South Africa during the political instability from 2015 to 2017.
According to Mr Tšooana, Ms Thabane and the two ministers delivered the order in a meeting at State House, Maseru on 15 October 2019. This was just three days before the MCC’s tender board met to study the tendering evaluation report before deciding the winning bid.
Mr Tšooana however, absolved Dr Thabane of any wrongdoing, saying although he attended the meeting, the premier advised them against any improper conduct and instead told them to “go and do the right thing” by awarding the tender to the deserving bidder.
While denying any wrongdoing, Mr Phori later made even more sensational claims when he revealed that he wanted the tender awarded to UNIK because he had submitted a joint bid with the Chinese owned company for the project.
He said that in addition to being a minister, he was also a businessman and he had jointly bid for the Mpilo tender with UNIK.
He said went to the State House not as a minister but as a businessman to ask Dr Thabane to intervene in the matter after realising that his company – Tsoapos Brick Works – was allegedly being victimised by the Local Government ministry.
“We also tendered for the Mpilo job but we were not awarded the contract despite that we were number one. What annoys me here is the element of corruption that I have picked; that element of corruption made me to go to State House,” Mr Phori told this publication.
He produced a document which appeared to show that UNIK’s tendering price for the Mpilo job was M348 322 542, 52 million while that of the winning bidder was M379 036 817, 98.
He said this forced him to go to State House to ask Dr Thabane to intervene because his company was being victimised for the second time by the same ministry in two years.
This after the MCC ignored the ministers’ order and awarded the Mpilo tender to the SCIG-SMGG-TIM Joint Venture on 21 October 2019.
Commenting on the Mpilo tender saga, Lesotho Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) president, Ntaote Seboka, said it was unfortunate that senior government officials like Minister Phori and other public servants were competing with the private sector for tenders and yet it was the role of the private sector to be awarded tenders and create jobs in the process.
“Tenders should be given to the private sector to enable it to create more Matekanes,” Mr Seboka said in reference to business mogul Mr Sam Matekane.
“This tendency of awarding tenders to public servants is not working for us. The (LCCI) chamber is extremely disappointed in the manner in which corruption has become so rampant in the country,” added Mr Seboka.
National University of Lesotho lecturer Mahao Mahao said Mr Phori’s revelations pointed to the fact that “corruption in Lesotho had reached new unprecedented heights”.
“Tšooana must be commended for disclosing this (Messrs Phori, Molapo and Ms Thabane’s directive to award the tender to UNIK) because it shows that he wants to see Lesotho following the path of transparency and good governance.
“What Phori subsequently revealed is very unfortunate, especially coming from a government minister. He (Mr Phori) spoke like someone who has no idea of the implication of his words and actions n. The real issue however, is that Lesotho simply has no leadership and it is fast moving towards self-immolation and being a failed state. A minister can do as he likes without any consequences. Anywhere else in the world, someone like Phori would have been fired within two minutes of uttering those statements,” Dr Mahao said.
Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) director, Tsikoane Peshoane, was just as scathing in his condemnation of Mr Phori’s conduct in relation to the Mpilo tender. He said it was shocking that Mr Phori did not seem to realise that there was a clear case of conflict of interest when a minister bid for tenders awarded by the same government that he was a part of.
“He (Mr Phori) should have considered the issue of conflict of interest. It’s a bizarre scenario for a minister to be fighting for a tender. It’s amazing. It might not be an isolated case but it is shocking. It tells the extent to which corruption and ethical deficiency have grown.
“It is also worrying that a meeting about tenders happened at the prime minister’s residence. It’s not a matter that should be discussed outside cabinet. Beyond cabinet, it will be difficult to justify why the prime minister and the First lady are being involved. It’s out of order and unlawful. It’s an irrational situation and I am battling to make sense of it. Ethics have gone to the dogs and the levels of mediocrity are beyond rationalisation.
“Patronage, nepotism and embezzlement are the biggest types of corruption in the country,” Mr Peshoane said.
He called for transparency to root out corruption in the awarding of tenders as well as ensure an efficient public service which inspired confidence.
“One famous statement that say that ‘light is the disinfectant of corruption’. If you reinforce transparency in public management that will assist the public to understand why certain decisions were made. This is why we embrace the work of the Public Accounts Committee. At least it helps people understands how certain decisions are reached,” Mr Peshoane said.
On his part, the European Union (EU) Ambassador to Lesotho, Christian Manahl, called for investigations into the Mpilo tender.
“Media reports on the management of the Mpilo tender suggest that an independent investigation is warranted and the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) is the competent institution to undertake such an investigation.
“It is not up to us, international partners, to comment on this before this investigation is concluded and has clarified exactly what happened. I trust the DCEO will swiftly look into the matter and act in an independent and objective manner, without any political influence on its work. I also hope that the ongoing reforms dialogue will conclude with decisions that safeguard the independence and efficiency of oversight institutions, including the DCEO.”
Dr Manahl said it was also necessary to reform the public service to ensure efficiency and professionalism.
“The place where to start are the principal secretaries, who are the interface between politicians and the public service. The principal secretaries also need security of tenure in order to see through the policies they are instructed to implement, and their reassignment or dismissal before the end of their term should be well founded and be based on recommendations of the same panel that proposed their appointment. If the appointment or assignment of principal secretaries is politicised, then the entire public service will be as well,” Dr Manahl added.
As things stand- according to Dr Mahao- “ministers like Phori continue to annihilate the state at will and their principals view it as business as usual,” Lesotho continues to suffer the negative perceptions as corruption-ridden country where ministers crowd out genuine private businesses in the awarding of tenders.
It is a culture of impunity which must be rooted out without further ado, the analysts say.