News Without Fear or Favour

Govt denies NACOSEC overspending

Pascalinah Kabi

THE government has denied overshooting the Covid-19 budget, saying by December 2020, it had only spent about M341 million of the initial M698 million set aside to fight the pandemic.

Addressing the media yesterday, Dr Majoro’s press attaché, Mosito Moqhekoana, said the Ministry of Finance had released only about M403 million to the Office of the Prime Minister, through the Disaster Management Authority (DMA), to spend on Covid-19.

Of that M403 million, about M341 million had been used thus far.  About 293,8 million of the M341 million had been spent on “key issues” like purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) and paying private facilities which were used as isolation centres for Covid-19 patients.  The remainder had been used to pay the salaries of support staff and other operational expenses like fuel and telephone bills.

Mr Moqhekoana, flanked by the Principal Secretary for Cabinet Administration, Kabelo Lehora and other government officials addressed the media in the wake of last week’s story in the Lesotho Times quoting a preliminary report by the  Auditor General Monica Besetsa which said the Covid-19 budget had ballooned from M698 million to M1, 5 billion “due to extra expenses to pay for operational costs of NACOSEC” and not necessarily interventions required to contain the deadly pandemic.

Under a section of her report titled “Budget for NACOSEC”, Ms Besetsa says,

“NECC had an approved budget of M698 million. The proposed budget escalated to M1, 5 billion due to extra expenses to pay for operational costs of NACOSEC.

“This takes Covid-19 issue out of context of being an emergency, disaster and pandemic, hence a need for the involvement of parliament in this kind of establishment,” said the report.

The NECC was the National Emergency Command Centre (NECC) originally established by former premier Thomas Thabane to fight Covid-19. It was disbanded by new Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro in June 2020 after he assumed office a month earlier. The NECC, headed by Communications, Science and Technology, Minister Thesele Maseribane had been rocked by allegations of profligacy and mismanagement.   It was then replaced by NACOSEC, a move equally dubbed illegal by the auditor-general.

The AG audited NACOSEC affairs from June 2020 to August 2020. Her report was presented to the government in September 2020 but was never made public. The Lesotho Times managed to obtain a copy last week.

The AG said in her report that the government could end up failing to contain the virus because funds earmarked for interventions to stop the spread of the virus were instead splurged on operational costs. The operational costs include grossly inflated allowances for NACOSEC staffers, some of whom were ill equipped and ill-qualified for the task at hand, the report further said.

“NACOSEC was established to provide professional support in respect of the national Covid-19 pandemic response. The audit noted some irregularities regarding appointment of staff at NACOSEC… Scrutiny of the positions of these individuals does not show expertise that will provide professional support specifically related to Covid-19.

“Officers deployed at NACOSEC are given contract appointments ranging from four to six months starting from July 2020. Contract appointments attract benefits such as gratuity payable upon termination, increasing expenditures for the government. Some employment contracts stipulate monthly honorarium payable to the value of M20 000 per month. This is against the government policy that states that honorarium should not exceed M5000 payable once on completion of such special assignment.

“Some of the human resources’ expertise deployed at NACOSEC resemble those that already exist within DMA or other ministries of which the Minister has the powers to transfer in case of an emergency. These include finance, procurement, legal and other support staff that NACOSEC is engaging at a cost.

“For example, there was the recruitment of a chief finance officer at the cost of M70 000 per month, medical aid cover and a cellphone allowance of M1500. The chief finance officer could have been transferred from one entity within government to give necessary support without extra expense to the government.

“It therefore remains a concern as to whether the government will achieve its mandatory role to prevent the spread of the virus and protect Basotho across the country and to support the economy and strengthen the health care systems to cope with the pandemic,” the  report titled “Preliminary Report on the Audit of Government Response to Covid-19 Pandemic” said. It was presented to the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Kemiso Mosenene, on 23 September 2020.

The direct inference from the report was that the NACOSEC budget had escalated to M1,5 billion because of the body’s need to pay for its operational expenditures as reported in the Lesotho Times last week.

However, Mr Moqhekoana said this was not the case. He denied that NACOSEC had overshot its budget and wasted money on salaries and allowances for staffers.

“As we speak, we have an approved budget of M698 million set aside for the fight against Covid-19,” Mr Moqhekoana said yesterday.

“The approved budget was intended to cater for all Covid-19 expenses until the end of October 2020. Until end of October, of the approved M698 million by the parliament, the Ministry of Finance released M403, 514, 064 to the Prime Minister’s Office for the Disaster Management Authority.

“However, the money that had been spent by the end of December (2020) is M341, 848, 040.78. This means we are still consuming part of the approved budget of M698 million which was estimated to have lasted the country by end of October. The Office of the Prime Minister belongs to the masses and people were confused at the reports that NACOSEC has already consumed M1, 5 billion. Those reports are untrue because only M403 million has been released to the office of the Prime Minister and it has only used M341 million (of that).

“Allow me to clarify that there are always two components in every disaster project. The first and main component is to ensure that people are nursed back to good health administering medicine and giving them oxygen where there is a need. But there are things that need to be done for the main issues to be addressed. This means we will have to fill up cars with petrol, pay salaries and other office expenses.

“I want to indicate that of the M341, 848, 040.78 which has already been expended, M293, 813, 559.43 was spent to pay for the main component of nursing people back to good health, to pay for quarantine facilities and others. These other things (like) petrol, telephone consumed the remaining balance on the money that has already been expended. This means 86 percent of M341, 848, 040.78 was spent on key issues in the fight against Covid.

“I must indicate that this money is inclusive of paying both permanent and temporary health professionals. This means only 14 percent was used to pay other employees who are not Ministry of Health staffers because there will always be people who will support health professionals. This is also inclusive of petrol, telephone, printing and other expenses,” Mr Moqhekoana said.

On his part, the Principal Secretary for Cabinet Administration, Kabelo Lehora, said the Office of the Prime Minister was not in a position to confirm or deny the findings of the AG.

He said the office was only concerned with the approved budget of M698 million.

“We cannot confirm or deny that budget because we know nothing about it. On the second question of NACOSEC monthly spending on salaries, rentals and stationery, we came here to respond to the overall spending of the approved budget to this day. It is therefore not easy for us to give details of how much each department has used to this date. I believe that the report can be prepared and only submitted by the right people.

“The office of the Prime Minister has its own figures and so does the Lesotho Times. The Office of the AG will issue a report on the matter and we will see who is right,” Mr Lehora said.

On her part, NACOSEC’s chief legal officer, Tlotliso Polaki, attacked the Lesotho Times and this reporter, accusing them of practicing “irresponsible journalism”.

“I want to appeal to you, media practitioners to learn to be responsible. It is not right that NACOSEC is always being unnecessarily attacked over baseless accusations in the media. What people are not aware of is that these people are hellbent on defaming NACOSEC to ensure that the nation does not trust NACOSEC.

“There is no way people can believe the hard work that the NACOSEC is putting in as long as there is irresponsible reporting. It is wrong, it is defamatory and very irresponsible for a journalist to give this kind of report without doing a verification of facts that she has published. We are there to help. We can give you all the answers if you need them.

Adv Polaki later withdrew her statements after this reporter asked her not to shoot the messenger (the reporter and the newspaper) which had only reported on the AG’s document as per duty but instead direct her angst to the Office of the Auditor General itself  which had issued the report, if at all it was incorrect.

The Lesotho Times had only interpreted the report which clearly stated that the budget had escalated to M1,5 billion because of operational expenses which needed to be paid.

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