MASERU — Opposition parties want Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to probe allegations that some of his ministers benefited from the block farming loan scheme.
The parties say they want Mosisili to investigate allegations that some of the ministers who were appointed as mentors for some farmers who benefited from the government-guaranteed loans from Standard Lesotho Bank ended up as the major beneficiaries.
The allegations are contained in a letter written by former trade minister Mpho Malie to the Standard Lesotho Bank.
The letter was copied to parliament’s public accounts portfolio committee and the central bank.
The government had to pay M74 million to the bank after most of the farmers continuously defaulted on their loans.
In the letter Malie queried why the bank had continued to give more funds to farmers and mentors who had defaulted on their previous loans.
Although it doesn’t mention names and provide concrete evidence to back the damaging allegations, Malie’s scathing letter seems to have been targeted at Finance Minister Timothy Thahane and Forestry Minister Ralechate ‘Mokose who were some of the mentors.
Both have vehemently denied allegations that they benefited from the scheme, insisting that they were merely assisting the farmers with procurement and bookkeeping.
Thahane said he had not “touched a cent” from the scheme while ‘Mokose said he “had not taken anything from the fund” and had been pushing some of the defaulting farmers to settle their loans with the bank.
Thahane appeared before the public accounts committee last Thursday to explain his position and circumstances surrounding the scheme.
In that meeting he is understood to have told the MPs that while some farmers had not paid their loans due to drought and other problems this did not mean funds were looted or embezzled as Malie had alleged in his furious three-page letter.
But even that explanation seems not to have calmed nerves among opposition parties that are now calling for a full probe into the whole scheme.
The Basutoland African Congress, a small party with two compensatory seats in parliament, this week wrote to the public accounts committee requesting it to urge Mosisili to conduct a probe into Malie’s allegations.
The party’s secretary-general, Mohoplo Macheli, on Monday told the Lesotho Times that it was very important for the government to take Malie’s letter seriously.
“The public accounts committee should urge Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to urgently launch a probe into the allegations made in Malie’s letter,” Macheli said.
“The culprits need to be brought to book. Malie’s letter rounds it all off and it shouldn’t be undermined by those whose mandate is to deal with issues addressed in that letter.
“The patriotic concern displayed by Mr Malie deserves applause and attention. Defaulting farmers have violated the agreements reached for parliament to approve the block farming project in the first place.”
“There were also no investigations launched into the magnitude of the drought people are using to justify the non-payment.”
“It is not enough for the minister to say (he) did not receive any money with his hand and therefore does not owe the government any money,” Macheli added.
“They cannot just claim to have not taken any money. They need to be cleared by the director of public prosecutions after a series of investigations by the auditor-general as well as the director of anti-corruption (unit).
Only then can their story hold water.”
The whole block farming system must be audited, he said.
“Malie’s letter says the identification of potential farmers would be done by mentors. But what criteria were used to identify them? Is it not the reason why the government guarantees were used to shield those people from paying back what they owed?”
The BAC, he said, has also written letters to the director of public prosecutions, director of the anti-corruption unit and the office of the auditor-general.
The Basotho National Party (BNP) leader, Metsing Lekhanya, said they supported the calls for an investigation into the scheme.
“The BNP is in support of the BAC proposal. The prime minister should call for an investigation over the allegations in Malie’s letter,” Lekhanya said.
“The ministers in question should be suspended so that they do not interfere with investigations and witnesses as they are senior government officials who might intimidate those handling investigations.
“Standard Lesotho Bank should also be held accountable for the role the bank played.”
Senkatana Party leader, Lehlohonolo Ts’ehlana, said they were also pushing for an audit of the scheme.
“Senkatana is in full support of the call for the prime minister to launch an investigation into the alleged fraud committed using state funds,” Ts’ehlana said.
“This is the greatest challenge for Mosisili. He has to make it clear where he stands as this country’s leader.
“Because the ministers in question are senior government officials, they should be suspended in order not to harass junior government officials tasked with the responsibility of conducting investigations.”
The All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader, Thomas Thabane, on Tuesday said he preferred to reserve his comment as he was “watching on as ministers turn their waist-coats inside out” as the allegations begin to surface.
Last week, the Lesotho Times visited some of the beneficiaries of the scheme in Mpharane.
The farmers said they had been hit by drought but they had negotiated with the bank to get more funds while servicing their previous loans.
The group of 407 farmers who were mentored by Thahane said they were expecting a bumper harvest this year that will help them catch up with their loan repayment.
Government official spokesperson and Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Mothetloa Metsing said there was no need for the government to launch an investigation into the role of mentors in the administration of Block Farming funds.
“There is no need for the government to launch an investigation into the matter because opinion is that mentors have done nothing wrong,” Metsing said.
“There was never a point where mentors got any money from the scheme. This is our view unless somebody proves otherwise.
“We are saying this because the mentors’ roles were simply to mobilise farmers and facilitate for them to get agricultural inputs through their local resource centers.
“Their other role was to sign when their blocks had been supplied with inputs for the sole purpose of transparency.
“The inputs were given to farmers by suppliers. The suppliers were the ones with the power to claim money from the bank.”