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PS implicates First Lady in dodgy M340 million tender

Pascalinah Kabi

A PRINCIPAL Secretary has sensationally claimed that First Lady, ‘Maesaiah Thabane, directed that a lucrative M340 million Mpilo Boulevard tender be awarded to controversial Chinese businessman Yan Xie’s UNIK Construction Engineering company.

The Local Government Principal Secretary, Khothatso Tšooana made the claims when he and Maseru City Council Town Clerk, Moeko Maboee, appeared before the Selibe Mochoboroane-led Public Accounts Committee (PAC) yesterday.

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 assisting Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.

Mr Xie allegedly offered financial assistance to Dr Thabane and members of All Basotho Convention (ABC) party during their time in exile in South Africa during the political instability from 2015 to 2017.

Popularly known as John, Mr Xie is Dr Thabane’s Head of Special Projects and his Special Envoy and Trade Advisor on the China-Asia Trade Network.

The Mpilo Boulevard tender was first advertised in April 2019 and among other things, the successful bidder is expected to construct new road links, flyover bridges for vehicles as well as pedestrian bridges.

It is envisaged that when complete, the new look Mpilo Boulevard will reduce traffic congestion in the city and also reduce carnage on the roads.

And in the latest turn of events yesterday, Messrs Tšooana and Maboee told PAC that they were pressured to award the lucrative tender to UNIK Construction.

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.

Mr Tšooana 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.

“We got a message to report to State House,” Mr Tšooana told the PAC.

“It was on a Tuesday (15 October 2019) and the minister (Molapo) left the cabinet meeting and we all met at State House. We were called upstairs and we found the First Lady, the honourable prime minister and Minister Chalane Phori. We sat down and listened and Ntate Phori is the one who narrated everything.

“He (Mr Phori) said he always listens when the leader (Dr Thabane) tells him to do things and the decisions of the leader must be respected. He then explained that UNIK assisted the leader and the ABC when life was difficult, especially when the leader stayed in Ficksburg. He (Mr Phori) then said that UNIK should be given the tender. He said Yan Xie, the owner of the company (UNIK), had assisted the prime minister’s family. He was seconded by the First Lady that Mr Yan must be awarded the tender. Minister Mahala also seconded this,” Mr Tšooana said.

He said the First Lady then left the meeting to go and have her animals vaccinated. He said that Dr Thabane remained behind and narrated how he was once offered a lot of money by an unnamed European during his time as a civil servant.

“He (Dr Thabane) told us that he told the white man to keep his money and leave. He said the white man said to him, ‘you are a fool’. He (Dr Thabane) then told us to also ‘go and do the right thing and know that will make me happy’.

“He told us, ‘Do not take a bribe’. The meeting was then adjourned and we left,” Mr Tšooana said.

He said he subsequently met with Chief Molapo and told the minister that they would do as the prime minister had instructed. However, Chief Molapo ordered him to go against Dr Thabane’s orders and do everything to ensure the tender was awarded to UNIK.

Mr Tšooana said he and Chief Molapo held another meeting with Mr Maboee who also reminded the minister of Dr Thabane’s orders for them to avoid an impropriety in the awarding of the tender.

“The minister (Chief Molapo) was not happy with our statements. But I told the town clerk (Mr Maboee) to go and do the right thing as the prime minister had instructed. The tender was not awarded to UNIK,” Mr Tšooana said.

On his part, Mr Maboee, who had initially requested to testify in private due to the sensitivity of the matter, told the PAC that he also attended the meeting at the State House.

“I attended the meeting with PS Tšooana, Minister Molapo, Minister Phori, the prime minister and the first lady. Minister Phori told us that there were people who assisted ministers and the ABC and we should look at those people with a merciful eye when we award the tender for the Mpilo project. The suggestion was that we should award the tender to UNIK. UNIK was one of the nine companies which tendered for the job,” Mr Maboee said.

He alleged that Chief Molapo said they must assist UNIK to win the tender. Mr Maboee however, differed with his principal secretary on the role of the First Lady in the 15 October 2019 meeting at the State House. He said the First Lady sat in the meeting and never uttered a word.

“Towards the end of the meeting, the prime minister told us to go and do the right thing. He told us not to take any bribes. The messages from the ministers and the prime minister were different in that the prime minister said to do the right thing and we should come back and report that we had done the right thing.

“When the prime minister has spoken, we must do as he tells us and we did just that. You will realise from the evaluation report that UNIK did not make it. Together with my panel, we did the right thing unless proved otherwise,” Mr Maboee said.

He said he was however, surprised to receive a letter from the Director General of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offenses (DCEO), Mahlomola Manyokole, ordering the MCC to immediately stop the processes of awarding the tender.

He said that he had furnished the DCEO with all documents relevant to this tender when the now suspended DCEO Chief Investigations Officer, Thabiso Thibeli, was still in office and he was surprised that Adv Manyokole did not use those documents and instead ordered him to again hand over all documents relating to the tender. Last week, Adv Manyokole ordered the MCC to stop the processes of awarding the Mpilo Boulevard tender pending investigations to determine if the tendering process has been above aboard.

Mr Mochoboroane adjourned the hearing immediately after the sensational claims by Messrs Tšooana and Maboee. He said the adjournment was to allow for a 15 day cooling off period.

Minister Molapo’s mobile phone rang unanswered when the Lesotho Times contacted him for comment yesterday. On the other hand, Ms Thabane could not be reached as she is away on an official trip to Canada.

Yesterday, the Lesotho Times interviewed Mr Phori who denied any wrong-doing. He however, told this publication that in addition to being a minister, he was also a businessman and he had jointly bid for the Mpilo tender with UNIK.

He said went to the State House not as a minister but as a businessman to ask Dr Thabane to intervene in the matter after realising that his company – Tsoapos Brick Works – was allegedly being victimised by the Local Government ministry. He said Tsoapos Brick Works tendered for the job in partnership with UNIK.

“These men (Messrs Tšooana and Maboee) are telling the truth mixed with lies. Such a meeting took place. The honourable prime minister was not well. I found ‘M’e Maesaiah nursing him. I went there as Chalane Phori the contractor not the minister,” Mr Phori said.

He said has been a contractor with 20 years and his company operates as a sub-contractor working under companies such as Matekane Group of Companies and TIM JV which was formed by Toloane Matekane after the latter branched out of the Matekane Group.

He said he declared his assets when he was appointed Small Business Minister in 2017 and it was therefore important for people to understand that he is both a minister and a businessman.

“When Ntate Toloane Matekane branched out to form his own company called TIM, he introduced me to a company called UNIK and we worked there together. In 2017, we tendered for the Maputsoe road construction job through UNIK and we had the highest score.

“The contract was however, awarded to a company which came fifth and we don’t know why. I was a minister but still I didn’t complain. We have also tendered for the Mpilo job but we were not awarded the contract despite that we were number one. What annoys me here is the element of corruption that I have picked; that element of corruption made me to go to State House,” Mr Phori said.

He produced a document which appeared to show that UNIK’s tendering price for the Mpilo job was M348 322 542, 52 million while that of another company, Shanxi Construction Company, was M379 036 817, 98. He said Shanxi was the Local Government ministry’s preferred bidder for the Mpilo tender.

He said this forced him to go to State House to ask Dr Thabane to intervene because his company was being victimised for the second time by the same ministry in two years.

“I am an ABC member. I decided not to go to the media but to go to the leader (Dr Thabane) because the ABC is part of the coalition government. What I expected to do? I wanted the leader to intervene and order those people to do the right thing. What they (Messrs Tšooana and Maboee) are saying is partly true because in the meeting the leader ordered us to go and do the right thing,” Mr Phori said.

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