MASERU — The ombudsman has opened a can of worms by alleging that government ministers could have looted millions of money provided under the block farming scheme meant to boost Lesotho’s food security.
A report by the ombudsman, Sekara Mafisa, alleges that ministers who were appointed as mentors for block farmers could have used their positions to benefit from million-maluti loans provided by the government under the scheme.
The report, released on Friday, has left Finance Minister Timothy Thahane and Forestry Minister Ralechate ‘Mokose fuming, with the latter accusing Mafisa of playing a “political game”.
Mafisa’s report says the two ministers could have used their positions as block farming mentors to access loans they were not entitled to under the scheme.
The scheme was established to help poor farmers get loans from the bank to fund their agricultural activities.
The loans were distributed by Standard Lesotho Bank and the government was the guarantor in case the farmers failed to repay the loans.
The main motive of the scheme was to improve food security in households and to boost national food production.
But Sekara Mafisa’s report says the ministers were supposed to be mentors to the farmers ended up being the major beneficiaries of the scheme after they became block farmers themselves.
Mafisa’s allegations appear to be based on an earlier report by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security which alleged that the ministers had benefited from the scheme.
Both Thahane and ‘Mokose yesterday vehemently denied that they had benefited from the scheme.
Agriculture and Food Security Assistant Minister Ramootsi Lehata has however admitted he was a beneficiary.
The ombudsman’s report alleges that Thahane did not pay the M3 423 777 he allegedly borrowed during the 2006/ 2007 farming season.
It also alleges that in the 2007/2008 summer cropping season Thahane borrowed M11 576 348 — and only repaid M2 343 877 with the remaining M9 252 476 being carried forward.
The report further alleges he still also owed M4 855 598 for the 2007/2008 winter cropping season.
It puts Thahane’s alleged liability at M17 531 851 before interest.
This, according to the report, means that for the 2006/2007 farming season Thahane borrowed 66 percent of the annual block farming national budget.
In the 2007/2008 summer cropping season, his loan was 26.8 percent of the budget, Mafisa’s report says.
The report alleges that Lehata got the second biggest chunk of the block farming funds.
It says 2007/2008 winter season Lehata’s loan accounted for 17.6 percent of the funds loaned to the farmers.
Lehata, the report alleges, borrowed M336 324.71 for the 2007/2008 summer cropping but only repaid M8 000.
That meant he still owed M328 324.
It says for the winter cropping season of the same year Lehata took a loan of M1 682 739, repaid M30 538 and was left with a balance of M1 652 201.
The deputy minister’s total outstanding debt is M1 980 526, the report says.
According to the report, ‘Mokose is alleged to have borrowed M51 501 for the 2006/2007 cropping year.
Mafisa has blasted the ministers for setting a “regrettable example”.
“It will be seen from the foregoing that people holding positions of responsibility or trust in GOL (the government of Lesotho) have betrayed their positions,” Mafisa says.
“Instead of serving as examples of how to handle public funds they are counted among the people who have crippled the block farming fund which carries the GOL guarantee.”
Mafisa recommends that the cabinet “re-considers and reviews” the selection of mentors to avoid a conflict of interest.
“I am made to understand that cabinet set the criterion of such a person being an elected Member of Parliament,” he says.
“Apparently that criterion has not been met in the case of Hon Minister Thahane because he is not an elected MP.”
Both Thahane and ‘Mokose this week denied having benefited from the scheme.
“I am not a block farmer. I am a farmer and a member of the association of Temo- ‘Moho-Mpharane Leribe,” Thahane told the Sunday Express yesterday.
“I have not borrowed any money from the scheme. I do not owe anything to the government.”
“As a farmer I pay for my own inputs and operations,” he added.
“You can refer to the letter that was written to Public Eye by the principal secretary of the agriculture ministry on that issue.
“That letter clearly said I did not owe anything.”
Thahane said as a mentor his role was to help the farmers manage their books and get training.
“Those farmers do not handle money. I do not handle the money as a mentor,” he said.
“Everything is done through the bank and the suppliers.”
‘Mokose, on the other hand, was livid about the ombudsman’s allegations.
He is alleged to have benefited from the scheme in his capacity as the mentor for a group of farmers in Kolonyama.
“I still insist that I did not benefit from the scheme,” ‘Mokose told this paper yesterday.
“As a representative of the constituency I was asked to help mentor the farmers.
“Mine was to help those people keep their books and get organised. At no time did I handle money.
“I have a list of the people who owe and what they owe but I cannot force them to repay the loans because I have no such powers. I can only encourage them.”
‘Mokose said Mafisa was using his name for his “political games”.
He said Mafisa had made the allegations without giving him a chance to respond.
“Mafisa did not even call me to get my side of the story,” ‘Mokose said.
“This is a political game. I am aware Mafisa is trying to use my name to pave his way to parliament.”