Lesotho: Covid-19 Payment Saga Turns Deadly

8 September 2020

The scandal surrounding payments to companies who supplied goods and services to the government's response to the Coronavirus (Covid-19) has taken an ugly turn.

This amid revelations that the cabinet principal secretary (PS), Kabelo Lehora, has received death threats from angry suppliers who accuse him delaying their payments by the government.

Mr Lehora is being targeted for his refusal to bow down to immense pressure from the health ministry officials to pay its suppliers grossly inflated amounts running into millions of maloti for goods and services procured for the fight against the deadly pandemic.

As first reported by the Lesotho Times last week, the payment requests submitted by health ministry officials to Mr Lehora, reflected huge discrepancies with those supplied to the ministry by the service providers.

For instance, a food supplier had billed the government M29 000 yet a payment transfer letter prepared by the health ministry requested Mr Lehora to approve a whooping M7, 1 million payment to the same supplier.

In another case, a cleaning material supplier billed the health ministry M97 000 but in its payment transfer letter, the health ministry asked Mr Lehora to approve M7, 9 million for the same supplier.

Instead of processing the grossly inflated amounts, government sources say Mr Lehora turned to the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) to probe the massive corruption.

Early this week, Mr Lehora dropped a bombshell, saying he had received death threats from some of the suppliers. He said their invoices indicate that they want to be paid a total of M50 million for goods and services supplied to the government.

"I have received death threats," Mr Lehora told the media this week.

"I passed some service providers outside our offices and they did not look happy at all. One of them came into my office and told me that they were circulating my photos among themselves because I don't want to sign their payment vouchers.

"The other day, some of the service providers came to my office and told me and other officers that one day my secretary will find me dead in my office... ," Mr Lehora said. He said he had since reported the death threats to the Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, his deputy Mathibeli Mokhothu and Health Minister Motlatsi Maqelepo.

He said all hell broke loose when health ministry officials accused him of refusing to pay suppliers for goods and services supplied to the ministry for the Covid-19 response.

He said the payments saga could have been avoided had the ministry obeyed government orders and operated under the banner of the central procurement unit set up to procure Covid-19 related goods and services on behalf of all ministries and government departments.

He said the central procurement unit was established shortly after former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane set up the now disbanded National Emergency Command Centre (NECC). But for unexplained reasons, the health ministry shunned the procurement unit and continued to procure goods and services on its own. It now wants the office of the prime minister to foot the bill.

"An executive decision was made that all Covid-related goods and services must be procured through that (central procurement) unit under the guardianship of the Disaster Management Authority (DMA).

"Then finance minister (Dr Majoro) beefed up that unit by appointing an accountant general and representatives of all government ministries and relevant stakeholders.

"It is only the health ministry which shunned this unit and procured goods and services on its own. Several attempts to get them to join this unit were fruitless. They simply chose not to be part of this unit.

"I remember very well that then finance minister (Dr Majoro) also made several attempts to have the health ministry join the unit but the ministry refused. Then Cabinet PS (Lefu) Manyokole wrote to the NECC chairperson Thesele 'Maseribane on 3 June 2020, asking him to request the health ministry to come on board.

"It had been agreed that all Covid-19 procurement must be above board hence the appeal to the health ministry," Mr Lehora said.

"Then (NECC) chairperson ('Maseribane) failed to bring the health ministry on board. They (health ministry) started engaging contractors and running tender processes on their own. They went on to receive goods and services and accepted invoices for payment."

He said despite its refusal to join the central procurement unit, the health ministry now wanted the office of the prime minister to pay for the goods and services it procured on its own.

"The blame is now being placed on the office of the prime minister for the health ministry's failures. There are now claiming that the PS Cabinet is refusing to sign for the payments to be processed. There is no way a ministry can commit funds it does not have and expect another ministry to just come in and pay service providers on its behalf.

"They (health ministry officials) had their boardroom talk, sipping coffee and awarded tenders. Just a week into office, I received visitors who had supplied the ministry with goods and services. They were angry and inquired about payment.

"The truth of the matter is that the procurement (by the health ministry) was not above board. The ministry did not have any legal obligation to procure services and goods when it knew very well that it did not have the money to pay for those services...

"Now they are just using me as a scapegoat. I am no longer free to move around because of angry service providers."

Mr Lehora said he had sought the legal advice of the DCEO, the Auditor General Lucy Liphafa, Attorney General Adv Haae Phoofolo, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Portfolio Committee on the Prime Minister's Ministers and Departments.

He said it had been resolved that the health ministry's spending on Covid-19 be audited. He said the audit began on Monday.

Asked how much the health ministry owed its suppliers, Mr Lehora said "we have surpassed the M50 million benchmark based only on the invoices that I have seen. There are more invoices coming in."

Mr Manyokole, who was cabinet PS before Mr Lehora's appointment, confirmed writing to Chief 'Maseribane over the health ministry's refusal to comply with the procurement regulations.

"I wrote to Thesele 'Maseribane in his capacity as chairperson of the NECC. I wanted him to advise those people (health ministry) to comply with the procurement laws because as chief accounting officer of the prime minister's office, I needed to ensure that all ministries comply with procurement regulations.

"I established a tender panel to deal with the procurement of goods and services for Covid-19 related issues but some ministries, mainly the ministry of health, refused to comply with that. I then asked 'Maseribane to advise them to comply with the procurement regulations," said Mr Manyokole.

Several attempts to obtain comment from Chief 'Maseribane proved fruitless as his mobile phone rang unanswered. He did not respond to questions sent to him via WhatsApp.

Health Minister Maqelepo and his PS Khothatso Tšooana were not reachable on their mobile phones for comment.

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