Covid-19 ‘thieves’ suspended

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By ‘Majirata Latela

Following assertions by the principal secretary of the Cabinet that the ministry of health definitely flouted procurement procedures in its dealings with Covid-19 service providers, two officers are said to have been suspended from work on suspicion of corruption, pending further appropriate action.

The minister of health, Motlatsi Maqelepo has also publicly admitted that there had been corrupt practices by ministry officers in Covid-19 related tendering processes, and vowed that implicated officers will face the full might of the law. 

These malpractices saw procurement of substandard, grossly overpriced equipment, and lucrative contracts awarded to companies with little or no expertise.

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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.

Cabinet principal secretary on economic affairs, Kabelo Lehora told the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Wednesday this week that some of the requisitions that were submitted to his office surely raised the red flag, prompting an immediate investigation.

He said, for example, one of the files bore a different (bloated) amount on the summary page from the one that had been invoiced by the supplier. 

On the other hand, PAC committee member Nyapane Kaya also indicated that they now have overwhelming evidence to that effect, and will go through it with a fine tooth comb.

“As the PAC we did our own investigations to get to the bottom of this matter when we heard the much publicised outcry in the media regarding Covid-19 procurement malpractices at the ministry of health. We found the evidence we needed,” Kaya said.

Both Lehora and the principal secretary of the ministry of health appeared before the PAC to account for delays in the payment of establishments that provided quarantine services for the ministry of health.

Lesotho Hotels and Hospitality Association president, ‘Marethabile Sekhiba testified before the PAC that they provided quarantine services from April and were promised to be paid in 14 days but until now they have still not been paid.

Sekhiba said they met with all stakeholders about their concerns, and even went as far as seeking an audience with the Prime Minister, Dr Moeketsi Majoro, but there is still no indication as to when they will get their payments.

The association added that invoices to the ministry clearly showed that payment should be made within 14 days of providing services, and when they approached the banks for loans they did so with the understanding that they would repay their loans within 30 days. But now they have gone up to eight months without settling their bank loans. 

Responding to the association’s complaints, Lehora said due to discrepancies in their claims for payments, his department roped in Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) to have a look at all the documents and invoices that were forwarded from the ministry of health, before they could be honoured.

“We now promise that some of the districts such as Mafeteng and Teyateyaneng and part of Maseru establishments have all been cleared by the DCEO and we are currently processing their payments. We hope to have paid all cleared by November 202020,” Lehora vowed.

Maqelepo had earlier summed up the scale of corruption in Covid-19 procurement when he said:

“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.”

Maqelepo said that some companies appeared to have been registered just two days before their contracting date, which was 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 the National Emergency Command Center clearly shows that there was an ulterior motive behind the selective tendering. He said if the ministry had worked 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 brought about the situation, as they are now expecting another ministry to help them solve the problems they created on their own.

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