NIKUV International Projects (NIP) has hit back at gorvenment which had accused the Israeli firm of sabotaging operations of the registration systems.
NIP was controversially awarded a M300 million contract to produce passports, national identity documents and birth certificates before withdrawing its services a fortnight ago.
Last month, NIP wrote to Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo demanding M34.7 million for “maintenance services” the company had provided since February this year, threatening to withdraw from the project if the money was not paid within two weeks.
Thereafter, the Ministry sought and obtained an urgent High Court order on 8 August to “interdict any possible disruption or suspension of service” by NIP, while the issue was being resolved.
However, NIP staff stopped providing their “expert services” two weeks ago, compelling government to indefinitely suspend the production of the documents last Monday.
The Ministry of Home Affairs Deputy Principal Secretary (DPS) Johannes Masia, told the Sunday Express’ sister-publication, the Lesotho Times, that NIP technicians had “interfered with our data-management system”.
“We have since discovered these experts have removed a licensing key dongle from the system, thereby disabling the operations of the whole programme,” Mr Masia said.
“The licensing key enables the passport and ID systems to operate and, without it, they become dysfunctional. The system can’t function at the moment and we cannot print any passports or IDs.”
According to Mr Masia, NIP’s actions were in contempt of a standing court order which clearly stated there should not be any disruption of services while the case was being finalised.
However, in her response, NIP Spokesperson Maya Speer laid the blame for the suspension of services on Chief Molapo whom she accuses of not honouring and unilaterally terminating the agreement for the maintenance and support of the registration systems.
“. . . the Minister has refused to pay for NIP’s maintenance of the systems for about the past eight months, as he is obligated to do under the terms of the agreements,” Ms Speer stated.
“… in light of the Minister’s termination of the agreements and continued failure to pay, NIP had no choice but to relieve its nine personnel in Lesotho of their duties and stop providing the maintenance support of the systems.
Ms Speer added that due to the nature of the state-of-the-art technology, the programme required constant professional maintenance from specially trained staff.
“We have heard that since NIP left Lesotho, the systems have been negatively affected by the lack of proper maintenance and it is possible that in certain areas some of the systems have not been in working order,” she said.
According to Ms Speer, since its official inauguration in July 2013, over 100 000 e-Passports and 180 000 ID cards were issued while over 500 000 birth registrations have been recorded, “all to the complete satisfaction of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the citizens of Lesotho”.
“The result of the minister’s sudden and abrupt termination of the agreements with NIP is apparently resulting in a severe blow to government services meant to be provided to the citizens of Lesotho, due to the glitches in the systems which are being caused by the lack of the professional technical support required,” Ms Speer argued.
“There is a serious concern that the situation in Lesotho will only become worse until the systems entirely crash and the government’s investment unfortunately goes to complete waste.
“It should be noted that when the Minister’s actions left NIP’s staff no choice but to leave Lesotho at the end of August 2014, the systems were all in full and proper working order.”
Ms Speer further states that, contrary to Mr Masia’s claims, NIP staff did not alter any part of the systems when they left, and neither did they remove any licensing key dongles.
“In fact, NIP’s employees properly trained local staff of the Ministry in Lesotho to operate the systems, and when NIP left Lesotho, such Ministry staff were continuing to operate the systems,” went on Ms Speer.
She said NIP is “willing, ready and prepared” to return to Lesotho to continue its maintenance and support of the registration systems once the Home Affairs ministry pays its dues “in accordance with the agreements and agrees to continue to abide by the terms of the agreements for their duration”.
“The responsibility for this situation rests entirely upon the shoulders of the decision-makers at the Ministry of Home Affairs,” Speer opined.
On his part, Chief Molapo also hit back at NIP, accusing the firm of taking “political advice” from people hoping to gain political mileage when the ministry fails to deliver passports.
“We are clear and adamant that we have a case before the courts, hence we have not terminated any contract,” Chief Molapo said.
“Our case is based on non-performance of the contract on the part of the company. We believe we are not getting from the company what we paid for hence our lawsuit.”
Chief Molapo added that personnel from his ministry should not only be equipped with the skills to operate the systems, but also to maintain them.
“The system belongs to the Lesotho government,” he said. “Therefore we want ownership of the system so that when other government agencies and Ministries need to use the system we do not have to ask Nikuv first before our government can use the system.”
He said whenever other government agencies, such as the Ministry of Social Development, need statistics on orphaned children across the country, for instance, the Home Affairs ministry should be able to do so without seeking NIP’s permission.
“Are they saying when the police want to have access to certain people’s finger prints we should always be asking them for permission to grant such requests?” Chief Molapo queried.
The Home Affairs ministry, Chief Molapo said, wants to have remedial processes whenever the systems malfunction without having to seek NIP’s assistance.
“We won’t cave-in because we want our people to be able to maintain our systems after three years. Where would we take another M100 million if we do not have ownership of the system and the skills to maintain the system?
“We do have people who can be trained and they (NIP) have only offered operational skills and not maintenance skills,” he said.