Lesotho: ABC Supporters Bay for PS Tšooana's Blood

13 November 2019

SOME members of the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) are livid with Local Government and Chieftainship ministry principal secretary, Khothatso Tšooana, and want Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to fire him for "spilling the beans" on the First Lady, Maesaiah Thabane.

Last Wednesday, Mr Tšooana made headlines when he told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that Ms Thabane and two cabinet ministers directed that a lucrative M380 million Mpilo Boulevard construction tender be awarded to UNIK Construction Engineering Company. The Mpilo Boulevard tender is for the construction of new road links, flyover bridges for vehicles as well as pedestrian bridges.

When complete, the new look Mpilo Boulevard is expected to reduce traffic congestion in the city as well as carnage on the roads.

Mr Tšooana also claimed that two cabinet ministers, Mahala Molapo (Local Government and Chieftaincy) and Chalane Phori (Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing) also supported the directive.

He said Ms Thabane and the two ministers wanted UNIK awarded the tender to reward its owner, Yan Xie, for allegedly assisting Dr Thabane and members of the ABC 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. He said Dr Thabane also attended the meeting.

He 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.

Dr Thabane and Ms Thabane were away in Canada for a business conference last week when Mr Tšooana testified before the PAC. The premier returned to the country on Sunday via South Africa and he was met at the Maseru border by several ABC supporters who waved placards with messages saying "Tšooana must go home".

Dr Thabane briefly addressed his supporters and told them that he remains the prime minister until the next general elections officially due in 2022.

The embattled premier faces a battle to stay on after disgruntled ABC legislators loyal to his estranged party deputy, Professor Nqosa Mahao, filed a no confidence motion against him in parliament.

The motion is the culmination of several months of infighting stemming from Dr Thabane's refusal to accept the February 2019 election of Prof Mahao as deputy leader.

In his brief Sunday address, Dr Thabane did not speak on the Tšooana issue despite being prompted to do so by the party supporters who waved placards and denounced the principal secretary for "exposing" the First Lady and the cabinet ministers.

However, the Prime Minister's spokesperson, Thabo Thakalekoala, this week told the Lesotho Times that Dr Thabane would have an audience with Mr Tšooana to establish what occurred at the PAC session last Wednesday.

"The prime minister was not in the country when these issues unfolded and he was very exhausted from his trip on Sunday. He (Dr Thabane) is yet to establish what is going on and apply his mind on the issues thereafter.

"He will probably sit down with him (Tšooana) to get a full explanation of what happened and make a decision. He will sit down with him and probably say, 'man what went wrong? What is happening?' But Ntate Tšooana remains the principal secretary and so far the prime minister has not taken any decision regarding this matter (that Tšooana must go home)," Mr Thakalekoala said.

Mr Tšooana told the Selibe Mochoboroane-led PAC that Ms Thabane and Messrs Molapo and Phori ordered him to award the M380 million tender to UNIK Construction. Mr Phori subsequently told this publication that his company, Tsoapos Brick Works Company, had submitted a joint bid for the tender with UNIK Construction Engineering, a company he said was owned by controversial Chinese businessman, Yan Xie.

Meanwhile, analysts this week said Messrs Tšooana and Maboee's revelations to PAC pointed to endemic corruption within government. Senior political science lecturer at the National University of Lesotho (NUL), Tlohang Letsie, said corruption was a stumbling block to the equal distribution of wealth among citizens. Dr Letsie said such fights over tenders could also destabilise and even bring down the government in the same way that the previous Democratic Congress-led government collapsed due to the infighting brought on by the controversial government fleet service tender which had been awarded to South African company, Bidvest, in 2015.

"It is obvious that corruption has a negative impact on Lesotho's economy and corruption affects the economy in various ways including by dampening investor confidence.

"In 2015 there was the Bidvest tender which ultimately caused the collapse of the then government. It is possible even today that the fight over tenders can result in the collapse of this government.

"The leading party in the coalition government, ABC, is already fighting and has factions. If you look this closely, the revelations on the tenders is coming from the so called State House faction (which supports Dr Thabane against Prof Mahao) and this is likely to divide this faction.

"This (revelation) is likely to cause more tensions which will trickle down to government. More people are likely to reveal others' secrets in the ABC and other coalition partners like the AD (Alliance of Democrats) to make sure they don't go down alone," Dr Letsie said.

On his part, local businessman Thuso Green said it was totally wrong for ministers to be allowed to adjudicate over tenders. He said the Mpilo tender pitting Mr Tšooana against Mr Phori was a classic example of how deeply rooted corruption had become in Lesotho.

He said it was very sad that ministers unilaterally awarded tenders to their favourites, especially the Chinese thereby saddling the country with huge debts.

"Just look at the M2, 4 billion tender (for the construction of new sporting facilities for regional youth games to be held in Lesotho in 2020). That tender was decided by few ministers and yet it is going to cost this country big time. Something is wrong in this country. Look at Phori. During the MCC tendering process, he ran to state house to influence the decisions of the tender panel. This is a serious problem because the MCC tender was solely in the hands of Tšooana and the (local government) minister.

"This has opened a door for corruption in this country and closed the other for accountability. There is absolutely no accountability in this country. Even institutions that were supposed to be condemning these acts have been divided along political lines.

"We need to have a central body to adjudicate on these tenders. We cannot continue having a situation where a ministry or minister adjudicates over a tender. We will continue to have these problems as long as a single minister adjudicates over tenders," Mr Green said.

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