Covidgate: DCEO probes inflated payments to suppliers

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  •  health ministry allegedly asks PM’s office to pay M7, 9 million for M97 000 worth of services.

Pascalinah Kabi

LESOTHO’S Coronavirus (Covid-19) response appears to have been haven of unbridled looting and corruption over the past few months. This amid new revelations that health ministry officials have been pressuring the prime minister’s office to pay its suppliers grossly inflated amounts running into millions of maloti for goods and services procured for the fight against the deadly pandemic.

Payment requests submitted to the cabinet’s principal secretary, Kabelo 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.

All this according to authoritative government sources. The Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) is now probing massive corruption.

The Lesotho Times has established that the Mahlomola Manyokole-led anti-corruption body sprung into action after Mr Lehora turned to it after sustained pressure from Health Ministry officials for him to approve the suspicious payments to suppliers.

Mr Lehora refused to comment on the issue.

“Please allow me not to comment on this issue,” Mr Lehora said in a brief response to the Lesotho Times yesterday.

However, authoritative government sources yesterday confirmed that the DCEO has been asked by Mr Lehora to investigate the matter.

The prime minister’s office is responsible for the payment of all goods and services procured for the fight against Covid-19 under the now disbanded National Emergency Command Centre (NECC).

The prime minister’s office established a central Covid-19 procurement unit tasked with procuring goods and services on behalf of all government ministries and departments. This was to enable it to fully account for all the monies spent for Covid-19 purposes.

But even after the establishment of the procurement unit, the health ministry continued to independently procure goods and services on its own.

“Now it wants the prime minister’s office to pay its suppliers. But its payment advices to Mr Lehora have serious discrepancies as the figures supplied by the ministry differ hugely with those billed by the suppliers,” a government source said yesterday.

Another government source said Mr Lehora was forced to turn to the anti-graft body after health ministry officials refused to explain the discrepancies and kept insisting that he pays the suppliers.

“Instead of clarifying how the discrepancies came about, the health ministry officials kept pressurising him (Lehora) to approve the payments. They even told the suppliers to engage PS Lehora as he was the one refusing to approve their payments.

“If you look closely on those payment advices, a transfer letter from the ministry of health asks PS Lehora to approve a M7, 1 million payment to a food supplier yet the accompanying documents from the supplier indicate that the ministry was only billed M29 000.

“In another case, the health ministry demands the approval of a M7, 9 million payment yet the accompanying invoice from the supplier bears a much smaller figure of only M97 000 for cleaning material,” the government source said.

This publication also saw a copy of the letter Mr Lehora wrote to the DCEO director general, Adv Manyokole, requesting his advice on how to deal with the matter.

Part of Mr Lehora’s letter to Adv Manyokole reads, “I hereby request your office to advise on the legal implications whereby cabinet has to pay for goods and services which have been procured by the Ministry of Health whereas other government ministries have procured through the Prime Minister’s office procurement unit”.

“Furthermore, the Ministry of Health was made aware of the same issue but nonetheless, they continued with procurement regardless. It is against this background that my office seeks your advice on the issue in question,” Mr Lehora states in his letter dated 12 August 2020.

DCEO’s spokesperson ‘Matlhokomelo Senoko yesterday said she would not comment on any of their investigations.

Mr Lehora wrote similar letters to 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 wants their assistance in dealing with the matter.

The health ministry’s senior officer, Tumisang Mokoai, yesterday said his ministry had requested the prime minister’s office to approve payments to suppliers totaling M7 million.

He however, denied that the figures had been grossly inflated, saying the money was for all the suppliers.

“The payment you are referring to is based on the invoices that were submitted by the suppliers,” Mr Mokoai said.

“There are no discrepancies. That M7 million is the total amount of money needed to pay all our suppliers.

“The M7 million is stated in a cover letter of invoices submitted by all suppliers. But I cannot deny that there are some people who are stalling this process because of personal interests. They are looking at ways in which they can personally benefit from this.

“Some are even capitalising on the mistakes that were committed during the procurement. It is wrong for civil servants to stall this process because you cannot feed people from April until now without receiving any payment from the government.”

He said his ministry intervened after some of the suppliers experienced problems in getting their payments from the government.

“Some of these suppliers were woken up in the middle of the night and asked to immediately supply people with food. While there were some challenges in procuring their services, we need to pay them. A lot of suppliers are losing their assets to loan sharks who lent them money to supply us with food and accommodation at the quarantine facilities.

“It has taken us this long to pay them because of squabbles between civil servants.

These suppliers are in serious financial distress and need to be paid as soon as yesterday.

“It is unfair on them because they worked and continue to work even under the challenging circumstances. Some have had to close shop because of lack of money. It is a sad story because this money is going straight to loan sharks,” he added.

The latest revelations are not surprising given that the country’s Covid-19 response has been dogged by allegations of serious looting and corruption during the short-lived tenure of the NECC. Earlier this month, the Lesotho Times reported that the NECC had already gobbled M161 million out of the M698 million budget set aside by the government to fight Covid-19 by the time it was disbanded in June 2020 by Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro.

It has since been disbanded and replaced by the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC), in terms of the Disaster Management Act (DMA), and reporting directly to Dr Majoro.

Dr Majoro appointed Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) Commissioner General Thabo Khasipe as the chief executive officer of NACOSEC.

The NECC had been set up in March 2020 by then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane as an inter-ministerial committee to spearhead the fight against Covid-19.

It later emerged that it spent more than M10 782 618 of the Covid-19 funds on food for its staffers and millions more on other items bought at highly inflated prices.

The story of Lesotho’s NECC mirrors that of South Africa’s Covid-19 procurement scandal, wherein dubious and incompetent entities with connections to politicians and influential people, have been corruptly awarded projects worth millions at the expense of experienced companies with proven track-records.

The scandal dubbed COVIDGATE by some South African media is now the subject of investigations by that country’s crime busting unit – the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

Other African countries like Zimbabwe and Uganda have also reported corruption in the use of Covid-19 funds. Zimbabwe has since fired its health minister Obadiah Moyo over scandals relating to the procurement of goods and services for the Covid-19 response.

Uganda this week recalled its ambassador to Denmark and her deputy, after the pair were recorded apparently plotting in a Zoom meeting to steal funds meant to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

During the meeting, a video of which circulated on social media, the Ambassador Nimisha Madhvani, her deputy, Elly Kamahungye, and other staff members are heard devising a plot to share out money which was meant to aid stranded citizens.

They appear to suggest that instead of registering the money for COVID-19 use, it should be apportioned as an allowance over eight days for the diplomats.

“Give yourselves $4000,” deputy ambassador Kamahungye is heard saying.

Nimisha herself suggests that staff members should “find a way” to use the money.

Uganda’s foreign ministry’s permanent secretary, Patrick Mugoya, on Monday pledged a full investigation into the matter.

 

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