It has been said that promises by politicians are as brittle as lovers’ oaths. This is certainly true of the current ruling coalition which appears to have forgotten its promise to stamp out corruption in the country.
It is only two and half years since Prime Minister Thomas Thabane romped to victory in the June 2017 polls on the back of promises to fight graft.
But with the recent appointment of Themba Sopeng to the post of principal secretary for Mining, it is safe to conclude that the governing coalition no longer takes the fight against corruption and impropriety seriously, assuming it ever did.
For the record, Mr Sopeng was controversially fired by a state-owned institution- the Lesotho PostBank-over accusations of gross misconduct involving M7 million.
This after the banker allegedly irregularly transferred that amount from the account of one company into another’s without any basis for the transaction. The beneficiary account is controlled by a controversial Chinese businessman.
Mr Sopeng was fired by the bank after an internal disciplinary hearing found him guilty of gross misconduct, among other charges, for unilaterally transferring M7 million without following the bank’s procedures and without involving others who should have authenticated the transaction.
In the aftermath of his sacking, PostBank managing director, Molefi Leqhaoe, told this publication that criminal charges against Mr Sopeng will ensue.
That is what makes Mr Sopeng’s elevation to an even higher responsibility involving the public purse totally mind numbing.
How any government can rush to appoint someone with such a thick dark cloud hanging over him, to one of the highest administrative offices in the land, is not only mind crippling. It makes a huge mockery of the entire anti-corruption crusade that was promised pre-3 June 2017. In other words, voters were conned.
The hasty appointment has inevitably got tongues wagging.
Local and international investors are watching; Lesotho’s all too important development partners are also closely watching. They have long identified corruption as a key impediment to development efforts.
Corruption is also a key impediment to the ease of doing business anywhere in the world.
Dr Thabane was very forthright pre-3 June 2017 that fighting corruption would be one of his top priorities. Upon assuming office, his Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro spoke eloquently about how investors were sitting on the fence, trying to assess whether or not the new government would address all the impediments to investment, including addressing the volatile security situation and fighting corruption, among other things.
Every year the respected Transparency International ranks countries on their capacity to fight corruption or lack thereof.
Lesotho has generally not fared well. It falls far behind countries like Mauritius, Rwanda and Botswana.
It ranked 78th out of 175 countries in the Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index. It is common cause that when investors seek places to deploy their money, they first consider the top 10 candidates, in addition to whatever else they are looking for in terms of opportunities. With Lesotho having little in the way of resources, clean government and lack of corruption could be one of our drawcards to companies who want to set up manufacturing shop and export goods from here.
It therefore stands to reason that the government cannot afford such controversial appointments and any other decisions which fuel perceptions that it is an abettor of grand graft.
While Mr Sopeng has not been convicted in a court of law, and while it does not necessarily follow that a person who has been dismissed from his job must be condemned for posterity with no second chance. It also has to be understood that perceptions are much more important than reality. Mr Sopeng was a senior official in a major banking institution. He was accused of malfeasance by a major banking institution owned by the state. At the time of his appointment to become PS, Mr Sopeng had neither taken steps to clear his name nor been actually cleared of wrongdoing by any other body. Yet the government saw it fit to catapult him to an even more senior government job, putting him in charge of public funds.
If any development partner were to ask them, it would be difficult or almost impossible for the government to proffer a credible explanation for the elevation of a man who has just been found guilty of improper conduct and fired by another quasi-government institution. Which is why the Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka was in sixes and sevens when asked to justify the appointment.
A principal secretary is the chief accounting officer in any government ministry. He/she runs the ministry’s entire budget.
Elementary reasoning would suggest that this responsibility be entrusted to the cleanest of hands.
While we wait to see how the government wiggles out of this mess of its own making, we urge it to demonstrate a clear and firm commitment to fighting corruption.
Public disenchantment with this coalition is becoming more palpable with each day that passes. Time is running out. For all their weaknesses, lest it not be forgotten that Basotho have assumed a new trait; they now punish errant governments very fast and furious.