Govt has no desire to root out corruption: Mochoboroane

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MOVEMENT for Economic Change (MEC) leader, Selibe Mochoboroane, says the rampant corruption and abuse of public funds are a result of lack of political will to build capacity among anti-graft bodies. Mr Mochoboroane, who is also Development Planning minister says Lesotho has overtime lost billions of maloti to projects that never took off. Some which were never completed or some that never existed, but contractors were paid, nevertheless.

In an interview with the Lesotho Times (LT)’s Special Assignments Editor, Bongiwe Zihlangu, Mr Mochoboroane said his party had identified tools with which to fight corruption if it is elected into power in general elections later this year. Among these is strengthening laws, capacitating anti-graft bodies like the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO), introducing the Asset Forfeiture Act as well as the setting up of an Economic Crimes Court to speed up corruption related trials. Excerpts:

LT: Shortly after you returned to cabinet in 2017, you were tasked with touring failed government projects which had nevertheless cost the fiscus millions. You promised to issue a report on the same. What were your

Mochoboroane: When you take a trip down memory lane to look at how government business has been conducted from the one-party governments to today’s coalition administrations over the years, you will realise that there is no accountability. Nobody cares or follows up to see if projects are implemented. I wasn’t tasked by anybody. It was just my conscience telling me to embark on that journey.

When I read the ministry’s mandate and the logbook to establish how many projects it had undertaken, I was given a report but the results on the ground told a different story. It was then that I decided to go on a tour of the areas where the projects were supposed to be, to determine their existence. As such, I was compelled to use two components of the Development Planning ministry namely the project management unit and the monitoring and evaluation unit. I asked these units to ascertain whether projects being funded using public funds in fact existed and whether proper procedures were followed in awarding them.

I must point out that I had noticed during my tenure as the chairperson of the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), that public funds are disbursed for projects that have not followed proper procedures. For example, the infamous Frazer Solar project. When you try to establish if there was a concept note on the project presented before the Private Sector Investment Committee to determine if such a project would be viable, you draw a blank. When you try to establish whether there was a feasibility study conducted by the Ministry of Energy and Meteorology to test the project’s viability, sustainability as well as costing; you draw yet another blank. There’s absolutely nothing.

And history tells you that most of such projects were riddled with corruption as costs were inflated. While some of these projects take off but are never completed, others never get off the ground. That is why when I first arrived at this ministry, I swiftly asked to be given a list of such projects so that I could go to the ground to establish where they were and how much they had cost the government.

Before I did that, I summoned principal secretaries and other senior government officials for more information… I studied all the available documents about these projects before launching my ground tour. Sadly though, information was sketchy, with the civil servants I was working with informing me that they had not the slightest clue of some of the projects because they were new in the ministries.

I divided the projects into three different categories. Firstly, I engaged on a tour of areas where there were projects that had been in the works for more than five years. Some of them had been kicked off but were never completed, like the one which was launched with a loan from the Exim Bank of India. The project consisted of a consignment of machinery for sewing, baking, embroidery etc. There were just so many machines to serve different purposes.

The funny thing about these machines was that we took a loan without securing space where these machines would be housed. Neither did we have personnel trained to operate the machines. That then means government had to service the loan despite that the machines were not being utilised to generate income. The machines were at Mt Moorosi, Pela-Tsóeu and Thaba-Tseka. The machines had deteriorated in quality as they were left exposed to external conditions. They were not housed properly….

It was only after I arrived there and started asking questions that plans were made to construct suitable structures to house the equipment and for their operationalisation. Still, those machines are yet to be commissioned because we must find skilled personnel to operate them and, also to establish if they are still in good shape.

This is a huge cost to the government. It means that there was no planning at all. The Development Planning ministry only learnt about the existence of the machines when the time to service the loan came. Only then did they appear in the project book. The government has lost M700 million in procuring the machines. Imagine what those funds could do in the lives of ordinary Basotho had they been utilised properly.

Other projects had been paid for but there was no evidence of their existence on the ground. For instance, we had to visit purported office complexes in different places but there were no such structures although contractors had been paid under the pretext that they had completed construction. Upon follow-up, we discovered a syndicate of companies perpetrating all this corruption… Behind them was a Chinese tycoon named Jan Xie (John). And yes, there is a report to that effect.

LT: Why do you think there is such negligence in the utilisation of public funds? What could be the remedy?

Mochoboroane: As a country, we are very poor in the management of state resources. It is because there is no accountability. Even with the Prime Minister himself, there are no mechanisms that can lead to him being held accountable for the abuse of public funds under his watch. In the same breath, the level of accountability in relation to our cabinet ministers and principal secretaries is very low. We have a crisis on our hands.

LT: You were previously the chairperson of the PAC and you made waves unearthing corruption in the civil service. How do you think the committee has fared since your departure?

Mochoboroane: Institutions like the DCEO, the Ombudsman and parliament require the buy in of the head of government for them to function properly. If there is no political will to fight corruption, we’re doomed. Even when those structures try using the little resources availed to them to execute their mandates, they will not succeed if the premier does not show interest and crack the whip.

During my tenure as PAC chairperson, it was a struggle to get things done because there was conflict between the committee and the government. It was so bad that government would complain that parliament, through the PAC, was plunging it into unnecessary debt because of court cases emanating from the PAC’s work. Instead of government availing resources for the PAC to pursue corruption related cases, it instead attacked the committee for executing its mandate.

The PAC ended up opening its sessions to the media because we believed that if perpetrators of corruption were exposed, it would instil fear and thus curb the scourge. But government was also against that. There was no political will to fight corruption.

Coming to the performance of the current PAC, I suspect that they have been demoralised by the government’s disinterest. Again, the PAC needs a tough approach. I might have pushed harder yes but recommendations made by the PAC in an environment where there is no will to fight corruption are as good as meaningless. It is the PM’s responsibility as head of the executive to ensure that those recommendations are implemented. Only a few were pursued, such as the cancellation of M500 000 loans for MPs. On the other hand, cases that related to the misuse of funds allocated to the police by the IEC to maintain law and order as well as foster security at polling stations during the 2017 elections and other cases have not been investigated. ……There was no way such cases could be taken to court when the premier was disinterested, and nobody seemed to have the appetite to act. To date, there has never been any disciplinary action taken against the suspects who are police officers. And there was no way the police would investigate cases against their own. The police are the only authority that can pursue the investigations of those involved in corruption. In this case, they could not investigate themselves.

LS: You recently took to social media where you said Lesotho had lost billions of maloti to corruption and the abuse of state resources. You said the corruption is so bad that the country had been placed in the red zone among other highly corrupt countries in the world. Tell us more.

Mochoboroane: Lesotho ranks 38th on the list of the most corrupt countries under the International Corruption Index. According to the 2021 report, we are in the red zone among the most corrupt countries in the world. This means that we are a highly corrupt country.

It’s not only the International Corruption Index that identified Lesotho as a corrupt country. Even the PAC in its report during my tenure between 2018/19) noted that at least M2 billion cannot be accounted for as a result of corruption. The Auditor General’s report for the 2019/20 financial year also revealed that there was M3 billion in public funds that could not be traced. Those are undeniable signs of corruption. It says we are a corrupt nation with a corrupt government and are in desperate need of remedies to curb the corruption.

LT: What are your recommendations on ending corruption?

Mochoboroane: The MEC has established through research, that corruption takes root from within ruling political parties. Ruling political parties are a fertile ground for corruption. I realised that back in 2009 when I was the then secretary-general of the former ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). I was invited by the Communist Party of China to attend a seminar by the Chinese Political School, where we were taught how the Chinese fought corruption using internal party mechanisms.

When we were busy here in Lesotho with the PAC, our neighbour South Africa was also busy with the Zondo Commission. And the most prominent people involved with the corruption – the Guptas – were members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). When you went to Zimbabwe, the most corrupt people were prominent members of the late former president Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF. Malawi and Zambia were no different. Here in Lesotho, when corruption began to rear its ugly head, it was through the block farming project. There was abuse of resources in the then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s office where things like gas were procured at ridiculous prices. Even Ntate Mosisili himself admitted that if there was anything that his government had failed to do, it was uprooting corruption.

So as the MEC, our take is that laws must be beefed up to capacitate the DCEO to seize unlawfully acquired assets through the Asset Forfeiture Act. We also propose the establishment of an exclusive Economic Crimes Court to speed up corruption cases and help curtail the vice.

 

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