THE writing-off by the government of M43.54 million members of the Ninth Parliament owed when their term of office prematurely ended in June this year has been met with condemnation from critics who describe the scheme as “legalised corruption” by the legislators.
The legislators qualified for M500 000 interest-free loans from Nedbank Lesotho as part of their benefits, and were supposed to repay the money over five years starting from March 2015.
The Ninth Parliament was elected during the 28 February 2015 snap elections which also brought to power a seven-party coalition government led by former premier Pakalitha Mosisili.
The government underwrote the loans and also paid interest on the legislators’ behalf.
However, the legislators’ terms came to a premature end after a 1 March 2017 parliamentary no-confidence vote on Dr Mosisili’s government prompted the holding of snap polls on 3 June 2017.
The vote was sponsored by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s All Basotho Convention, Alliance of Democrats, Basotho National Party and Reformed Congress of Lesotho who went on to form government after the polls.
Prior to the no-confidence vote, Dr Mosisili had warned legislators that they would be saddled with huge loan debts to pay off without any government bail-out if they succeeded in ousting his government.
However, the legislators went on with the vote, having been reassured that their loans would be paid off once a new government was elected.
The Lesotho Times has seen a memorandum issued by Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro which states that, at its special meeting of 13 July 2017, cabinet approved: “The write-off of the disbursed outstanding debt to the members of the Ninth Parliament amounting to M43, 547, 948.49 and that the government of Lesotho pay to Nedbank Lesotho this amount on their behalf.”
Whether the government had only written-off the debts of legislators from the Ninth Parliament who failed to get reelected is unclear as Dr Majoro was unreachable yesterday.
However, the previous government’s M32 million bailout for legislators encompassed those who failed to make it to the Ninth Parliament and the reelected MPs.
Following the bailout, many civil society groups and activists have expressed outrage over the move.
Attorney Tumisang Mosotho, who was at the forefront of criticising the previous government for writing-off legislators’ loans, told this publication he opposed the move on principle and not on which regime was in power.
Atty Mosotho, who launched an online petition against the scheme last time, said: “It should be clear that we are not attacking the man but we are attacking the principle, we are attacking the issues.
“Our campaign was based on matters of principle and we once again stand firm in saying this is wrong, no matter who is in government.”
He said Lesotho could ill-afford to continue with the scheme given its status as a least developed country.
“We can’t afford this scheme with all the challenges we are facing. And, we can’t have people telling us that they deserve such loans because they fought to oust the previous regime. Once they say that, it means no one cares what the voters want anymore and their contribution to usher in a new government has been forgotten.”
Atty Mosotho also stated that the bulk of the legislators were able to repay the loans without the need for a bailout.
“The government has no grounds to pay the loans on behalf of the MPs as they are still capable of servicing them on their own because most of them returned to parliament,” he said.
“What is the legal, moral, ethical justification for doing that and where does that money come from because it was not even reflected in the national budget that there would be such an expenditure?”
The lawyer also asserted that Lesotho had unemployed graduates who were still indebted to the National Manpower Development Secretariat and couldn’t afford to settle their loans even though they were still expected to do so.
“If the government has so much money, why can’t it just cancel those loans as well?” he said.
University of Lesotho Student Representative Council Secretary-General Thato Ponya also slammed the move, telling this paper they were yet to hold a meeting to come up with a position.
“The MPs are getting these loans and yet they are already earning much more than the rest of the working citizens,” he said.
“The move defies logic considering that graduates and other people are still expected to service their loans.”
Mr Ponya said the scheme should be discontinued as part of the envisaged reforms.
“This scheme should be stopped, and anyone who wants to take a loan should apply for one on their own without the government being the guarantor. These are loans meant for personal enrichment and not for the people,” he added.