By Majirata Latela
Minister of health, Motlatsi Maqelepo has admitted that there have been corrupt practices by ministry officers in Covid19 related tendering processes, and vowed that implicated officers will face the full might of the law.
This has seen procurement of substandard, grossly overpriced equipment, and lucrative contracts awarded to companies with little or no expertise.
Like other governments around the world, Lesotho responded to the emergency by loosening procurement checks and balances. The country invoked emergency legislation, scrapping the need to open tenders to competitive bidding — instead choosing one supplier in what is known as a “direct award.”
This meant procuring entities could bypass the normal requirement to publicize a tender openly and directly negotiate with suppliers when purchasing coronavirus-related equipment. The risk was that the choice was ultimately made by a small group of people, eliminating robust scrutiny and cost, quantity, and capability comparisons.
Also, unmet demand in the market also saw the government award contracts to suppliers they have never dealt with before or companies that have no track record of supplying professional grade medical products. Price rigging and gouging of essential items became commonplace, in the process.
According to Maqelepo, there have been officers at the ministry who are alledgetly associated with some of the companies that provide services at the ministry. Preliminary investigations reveal that some of the companies were contracted to provide services they are not registered to provide.
“It has come to our attention that there may have been some corrupt practices that happened and they should be investigated quickly.
“I want to make a few examples: we have to look into people who own the companies because we suspect that as a result of the selective tendering which was adopted instead of open tendering, unqualified companies were called in to provide services.
“They should be investigated because there is a possibility that some of the officers are shareholders in some of the companies that provided services and we are talking about lucrative tenders valued at up to M5million,” he said.
Maqelepo said that some companies seem to have been registered just two days before their contracting date, which is enough to raises a red flag. He, however, did mention that some companies like hotels and guest houses seem to have not been involved in any corruption, and therefore urged those responsible for finances to pay them as they are will not be investigated.
He added that the fact that the ministry of health decided to work on its own without National Emergency Command Center clearly shows that there was an ulterior motive behind the selective tendering. He says if the ministry did work with the NECC maybe transparency would have been involved.
The minister also said the fact that the ministry of health isolated itself from the NECC is what has brought about the situation, as they are now expecting another ministry to help them solve the problems they created on their own.
Allegations of corrupt practices gained traction after the principal secretary – Cabinet – Kabelo Lehora called a press conference on Monday, to distance himself from the debts that the ministry of health has acquired during in the battle for a piece of the Covid-19 cake.
Lehora said there have been people coming from the ministry of health showing that they have provided services at the ministry but they have not yet received their payments as the ministry also indicated that the only signature that was left to authorize payment was that of PS Cabinet.
“I would like to refute those statements from whoever is pointing a finger at us, that we should pay those suppliers because as it is the ministry of health when it was called to come and work with other ministries when the NECC was formed, did not come but decided to work on its own.
“When I did my investigations when people were now losing patience and even threatening me, I discovered that the officers did connive to work on their own in the tendering process, and decided that the office of the cabinet shall be their treasury which will pay for whatever they have procured.
“What they did is very surprising because one ministry cannot procure and then expect another ministry to come in when payment needs to be made. The ministry of health decided to work on its own without other ministries, therefore they should finish what they started. They should not make us responsible for their actions,” he charged.
Lehora said the ministry of health mis-procured as they had no right to call people to provide services when they did not have a warrant from the ministry of finance, as guarantee that it will pay on their behalf.
Subsequently, Lehora says after his arrival in office he took the initiative to communicate with other relevant stakeholders on this matter, which include the Auditor General, Attorney general, budget controller, PS finance, Accountant general and the Prime Minister’s cluster committee.
“I have also written to Public Accounts Committee as is the one that will be investigating how public funds have been used. Also I have written to the Directorate Economic and Offences which also be investigating if proper processes have been followed while issuing tenders.
Meanwhile, cabinet legal advisor Seeng Matṧosa said she did report that the ministry of health seemed to be uncooperative as there have been several attempts to invite it to be part of the Covid-19 tender panel because it was the one with the technical knowhow of matters relating to the pandemic.
She said this referring to a letter written on June 3 2020 by the then Principal Secretary Cabinet to the then chairman of the NECC, pleading with ministry of health to work with other ministries instead of procuring on their own.
“In spite of this the ministry of health did not cooperate; there is no way we could work on health issues without including the ministry of health, because there was a fund for Covid-19 and all the procurement for the pandemic was done by NECC by that time.
“After deciding to go solo, the ministry of health brought their pile of papers which they said were invoices that needed to be paid by cabinet even though they were not procured under the Covid-19 fund.
“Some of the invoices did not have enough supporting documents and were rejected; the ministry of health was called to come and collect the invoices and resubmit them with the required documents, but they never did.”
theReporter approached the Lesotho Chamber of Commerce and Industry secretary general, Fako Hakane, who said some of their members have also been complaining that the ministry of health has not paid them for their services they provided during the lockdown.
“We plead with the ministry of health to pay our business people because we have taught them that they should not accept orders that are done over the phone; we have educated them that it is not an order until it is in writing and that they should not be involved in any shady business.
“What is happening now at the ministry is utter corruption. Now it is unfortunate that people are not paid after incurring expenses of providing services; some business people are killed by acts like this like this delay of payments,” Hakane said.
While the ministry of health mis-procured on its own, the NECC was on the other side extravagantly spending Covid-19 funds. This was revealed by a local publication which reported that NECC had gobbled ‘a sum of M161 million out of the M698 million budgets set aside by the government to fight the deadly Coronavirus (Covid-19) by the time it was disbanded in June 2020’.
The publication has further developed that the amount of money was not spent on core activities aimed at fighting the pandemic. Also, theReporter also revealed that the M40million allocated to the NECC to prepare for the pandemic between March and June cannot be accounted for; there is no paper trail.