News Without Fear or Favour

COVIDGATE!!!

  • wasteful NECC gobbles M161 million in just four months
  • with a whooping M10 million spent on food for officials

Pascalinah Kabi

THE National Emergency Command Centre (NECC) had already gobbled M161 million out of the M698 million budget set aside by the government to fight the deadly Coronavirus (Covid-19) by the time it was disbanded in June 2020, the Lesotho Times has established.

A sizeable chunk of that money was not spent on core activities aimed at fighting the pandemic, which had infected 726 people and killed 21 by yesterday, but on luxuries like food and other items bought at highly inflated prices.

The story of Lesotho’s NECC seems to mirror 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).  It has already sucked in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson Khusela Diko and ruling ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule whose two sons have been awarded lucrative Covid projects.

In Lesotho’s case, the extravagant NECC spent more than M10 782 618 on food for its staffers drawn from different ministries at a time health staff were going with no personal protective equipment (PPE) and there was almost no visible campaign effort to educate Basotho on the ravages of the virus. Other money was spent on purchasing office equipment and other related items at grossly inflated prices.  A sign of reckless, if not corrupt extravagance, was the purchase of just four 9 kg gas cylinders and four heaters at a highly inflated cost of M184 550 yet these items would at most have cost less than M5000. All these expenses are contained in a payment request submitted by the NECC to the Ministry of Finance.  The Lesotho Times was given a copy of the request this week.

The NECC was set up in March 2020 by then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to spearhead the government’s response to Covid-19. It was established as an inter-ministerial committee comprising of the ministries of Health; Tourism, Environment and Culture; Communications, Science and Technology; Social Development and Water.

It was chaired by communications minister Thesele Maseribane. It was disbanded in June 2020 by new Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro who had succeeded Mr Thabane the previous month.

It has since been restructured and renamed 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. Mr Khasipe’s appointment was widely commended as he is known as an astute, hands on professional who will most likely deliver on NACOSEC’s mandate in place of dithering politicians.

The disbandment of the NECC followed widespread condemnation that it was an extravagant institution, not focused on the core mandate of fighting Coronavirus but, providing a leeway for corrupt politicians and officials “to eat”.

A leaked April 2020 NECC document showed that instead of focusing on the core work of fighting Covid-19, the NECC was more concerned with the well-being of its officials with scarce funds earmarked for such superfluous aims as morning tea, lunch and dinner for personnel.

According to the document, tea, lunch and dines were budgeted at M180 each for the 70 persons at the NECC. Other extravagant and inflated expenses included that of a non-contact thermometer budgeted at a staggering M500 000 yet the most expensive one costs no more than M7000.

Although the NECC’s former chairperson, Chief ‘Maseribane, tried to explain at the time that the leaked document represented only an estimate not final budget, it had already sat the cat among the pigeons. Chief Maseribane could not adequately explain why even an estimate budget, which should mirror a final budget, could so extravagantly inflate the price of such a simple item.  The “thermometer episode” illustrated that the NECC was unfit for purpose resulting in its inevitable demise.

What was not known until now is that before it was disbanded in June 2020 and before all the controversy about its inflated and inexplicable costings, the NECC had already spent big.  The government is now saddled with the NECC’s M161 million expenditure matrix.

And despite Chief Maseribane’s earlier attempts at exhorting the NECC’s frugality, new information obtained by the Lesotho Times this week paints a completely different picture. It confirms the NECC as a profligate entity on an unguarded spending spree before it was disbanded by Dr Majoro.

According to the confidential payment schedule submitted to treasury, the NECC’s bill to suppliers total M161 228 638.

Of this amount, food suppliers are owed M10 782 618, as per the total tabulation by the NECC itself, while M1 382 940 is requested for fuel and transport supplies.

Water tanks for 769 schools cost M13 053 843; stationary for the NECC cost M76 279; name tags and stickers for the NECC cost M25 940; health suppliers and quarantine facilities cost M132 119 218 and M863 574 was allegedly spent on the construction of a Covid-19 testing laboratory facility.

Other expenses are for office equipment (M2 224 619), four 9 kg gas cylinders and four heaters (M184 550) as well as batteries for loud speakers used to spread Covid-19 awareness in the districts (M412 245).

The prices appear grossly inflated because the retail price for a 9 kg gas cylinder is M195.  A gas heater costs anything from M800 to M3500 depending on the specs.  This means that four 9 kg gas cylinders could have been purchased at 780. The heaters could not have cost more than M1000 each. The most expensive industrial heaters could have cost a maximum 14 000 for the four. How the NECC could thus spend a whooping M184 550 on such simple items is totally incomprehensible.

“Even if they were purchasing heaters for the heating system of an Airbus A380, they surely could not have cost so much…It seems like looting writ large,” said an official who requested anonymity.

Finance Minister Thabo Sophonea would neither confirm nor deny that his ministry had been asked to pay the NECC’s suppliers. He would also not say how much the NECC owed its suppliers to date.

“These are the issues to be dealt with by the prime minister’s office. They should be dealt with by the DMA which is the department in charge of the Covid-19 response,” Mr Sophonea told the Lesotho Times this week.

The DMA’s acting chief executive officer ‘Mabatlokoa Molai told the Lesotho Times that processes to pay the NECC’s suppliers had begun though she said she did not have specific figures requested for payment. Ms Molai said the suppliers would only be paid if they produced proof that they had indeed provided goods and services to the NECC.

“Yes, the accounts department is paying suppliers as we speak. Suppliers are only paid if they produce proof that they carried out the work. The payments are being done from the M700 million that was budgeted for Covid-19,” Ms Molai said.

Asked about the seemingly extravagant items like the hefty M10 million payout to food suppliers when frontline health workers were ever grumbling about not having personal protective equipment (PPE), Ms Molai said “people who were dedicated there (at the NECC) from March could not do their work on empty stomachs”.

“I don’t know the total amount of money spent on food. Our finance director Sehlomeng would be in a better position to give you the figures. Please call her,” Ms Molai said.

Ms Sehlomeng’s phone rang unanswered when this publication called her on Tuesday and yesterday.

However, the payment request shows that 17 catering companies supplied food and drinks for NECC staffers, security officers and two unnamed officers who distributed PPE in Semonkong, Mafeteng and Butha-Buthe.

Eleven of these companies do not even appear on the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s online companies’ registry.

The eleven are Blessing Catering, Dickies Catering, Malentsoe’s Catering, Farm Cut Catering, Blue Birds Catering, Arizona Food and Beverage Catering, Mount Crest Guest House, Majara’s Catering, Litebza’s Catering, Aloes Lancers Gap as well as Anwary Rite Value Distribution and Wholesales.

On 9 July 2020, Blessing Catering billed the NECC M150 500 for “lunch for 215 LMPS members while on Covid-19 duty from 6 July to 12 July 2020”.

On 15 June 2020, Dickies Catering billed the NECC M13 400 for “lunch packs for NECC staff on duty in the field”.

Dickies Catering supplied “82 packs plus 52 lunch packs from 27 April to 3 May 2020 to officers delivering PPE to districts and security officers” (sic).

On 6 July 2020, the NECC was billed another M10 000 by Dickies Catering for “100 extra lunch (packs) for NECC staff on duty from 27 April to 1 May 2020”.

Dickies Catering sent another M21 000 bill for the supply of “lunch and soft drinks for 21 officers” on 5 June 2020.

Malentsoe’s Catering charged the NECC M2200 on 5 June 2020 for “lunch for NECC staff in Semonkong, Mafeteng and Butha-Buthe”.

On 6 July 2020, Farm Cut Catering charged the NECC M56 000 for “dinner for 80 LMPS members on Covid-19 duty from 29 June to 5 July 2020”.

On 6 July 2020, Blue Birds Catering submitted a M105 000 bill for “lunch for 150 command centre personnel on duty from 29 June 2020”.

Two days later, Arizona Food and Beverage Catering billed the NECC M64 000 for “lunch for 100 command centre personnel on duty from 6 to 10 July 2020 and lunch for 70 people on 11 and 12 July 2020”.

Mount Crest Guest House sent a M2320 bill for “accommodation and meals for two officers distributing PPE in Mokhotlong on 9 and 10 July 2020”.

On 9 July 2020, Majara’s Catering submitted a M56 000 bill for “dinner for 80 LMPS members on Covid-19 duty from 6 July to 12 July”.

Litebza’s Catering submitted five bills to the NECC on 5 June 2020. Dinner for LMPS officers from 13 to 19 July 2020 was charged at M56 000; lunch for LMPS officers from 20 to 26 July 2020 cost M182 000 and dinner for LMPS officers from 20 to 26 July cost M56 000.

The payment request also shows a M5, 5 million bill owed to unnamed caterers who provided food to the command centre and another M276 500 for food supplied to the LMPS on the NECC’s behalf.

Aloes Lancers Gap billed the NECC M85 860 for meals and accommodation, among a host of other food related costs.

Anwary Rite Value Distribution and Wholesales allegedly supplied the NECC with tinned fish and beef; milk and peanuts for the LMPS officers, army officers and DMA staff on 26 May 2020. It has billed the NECC M3 145 180 for the supplies.

Anwary was also contracted to supply the NECC with seven laptops and two desk top computers on 16 April 2020 and these were billed at M114 341.

The company also supplied the NECC with “17 fogging machines for the Lesotho Correctional Service” at a cost of M335 782. Fogging machines are used to disinfect premises.

On 26 May 2020, Anwary billed the NECC M42 731 for 1200 batteries for loud speakers to be used in the districts. It was billed another M42 731 for an unspecified number of batteries for the loud speakers.

On 6 July, the company supplied the NECC with a printer and shredder for M28 999, 99. It sent another M63 579, 18 bill for a “Lexmark tonner for the Mohale’s Hoek District Command Centre”. It also billed the NECC M6 649, 75 for stationary.

Different companies have billed the NECC M13 million for the supply of 769 water tanks. The tanks have a capacity of 10 000 litres each.

Bid Z Industries billed the NECC M4, 6 million for 258 tanks for schools in Mafeteng, Quthing and Mohale’s Hoek.  AA Building Material and Furniture charged M3, 3 million for 270 tanks for schools in Mokhotlong, Qacha’s Nek, Maseru and Thaba-Tseka.

Mathabo Trading charged M5 million for 241 tanks for schools in Butha-Buthe, Berea and Leribe.

Phone calls by this publication to different hardware stores this week revealed that on average a 10 000 litre water tank costs M12 000.

However, the NECC bought a single tank for M17 859 from Bid Z Industries, another tank for M12 545 from AA Building Material and another for M20 990 from Mathabo Trading.

A Ministry of Education and Training official, Mary Mokemane, said “80 percent” of the 786 water tanks had been distributed to different schools across the country.

“Schools in dire need of water were asked to register with the district education offices to benefit from this (water tanks) project. I am told that 80 percent of those tanks have already been delivered to those schools,” Ms Mokemane said.

There is now also the revelation that a company linked to an infamously corrupt Chinese national, Jan Xie, also called John, was being paid about M53 000 per day in rentals for the NECC’s use of the Manthabiseng Convention Centre, a government facility whose management was outsourced to the company in question, J & M Properties.  How the NECC could have agreed to such a huge rental package, over which the government is now being sued, is also another incomprehensible strand in the whole saga. But at least Xie has publicly confessed he has a number of politicians in his pocket and regularly bribes them to get his way.

The revelations of the NECC’s extravagance come barely two weeks after the auditor general’s office said it had begun auditing the government’s Covid-19 budget.

In a letter to the principal secretary for cabinet administration, Kabelo Lehora, last week, Monica Besetsa, from the auditor general’s office said the “comprehensive audit” was aimed at establishing whether all the information provided by NECC tallied with its activities and financial transactions.

‘Matšepo Mohau, the information officer in the office of the auditor general, later confirmed to this publication that they had begun auditing the Covid-19 budget. She however, said the audit was a confidential matter for the time being.

While the NECC officials ensured they were adequately supplied with food at their operational venue at Manthabiseng Convention Centre or wherever they travelled, hospitals and other health facilities experienced shortages of basic PPE, not to mention intensive care unit (ICU) beds for Covid-19 patients.

Health professionals were to later embark on a two week long strike to protest the government’s failure to award them risk allowances and the PPE to shield them from the deadly virus. The strike began on 13 July 2020 and only ended on 25 July after the government agreed to give the health workers allowances ranging from M2000 to M3500 per worker per month. The government has also started distributing PPE to the health workers.

It is only now that the health sector’s problems are receiving urgent attention after the appointment of Mr Khasipe as chief executive officer of NACOSEC.

 

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