Thahane threatened us: farmers

MASERU — A group of block farmers claims that Finance Minister Timothy Thahane has threatened to sue them if they don’t repay the government-guaranteed loans they have received over the past three years.
Thahane’s threat, the farmers said, came after they dragged the government to the Ombudsman asking him to compel the Ministry of Agriculture to pay them for the tractors, planters and other equipment it hired from the farmers during the farming season.
The Ministry of Agriculture hired equipment from the farmers for its tillage programme around the country.
They said the ministry has continuously refused to pay them.
But other farmers were paid in November for the same services, the farmers say.
The farmers had earlier told Thahane that they would not be able to service the loans they got through Standard Lesotho Bank because the government had not yet paid them for the equipment it hired from them during the just-ended farming season.
The government guaranteed the bank loans to the block farmers and when they failed to pay it settled with the bank directly as the guarantor.
This means that the block farmers now owe the government.
In his discussions with the farmers Thahane is understood to have told the farmers that there was no link between the government’s failure to pay them for the hired equipment and their failure to service their loans.
During Monday’s hearing the farmers told the Ombudsman Sekara Mafisa that Thahane had told them in a meeting on April 14 that if they don’t withdraw their case against the government, he would force them to pay their loans.
“Minister Thahane said our committee should tell all block farmers who had approached the Ombudsman to withdraw their case or else they would bleed from nostrils,” said Ramasana Ramasana, a member of a committee representing block farmers.
“The minister said we would not be able to stop him because we were poor and did not have money.
“Wanting him to be precise, I asked him if he wanted us to withdraw the case from the Ombudsman and he agreed adding that this would smoothen our working relationship with him,” Ramasana said.
“He said by bringing the matter to the Ombudsman we were exposing the ministry (of agriculture) and the bank.”
Ramasana told the Ombudsman that Thahane had indicated that he might start attaching their property if they don’t start servicing their loans by July.
Most block farmers have been battling to service their loans since 2006.
The loans run into hundreds of thousands of maloti.
Some have however continued to add to their debt burden by getting more loans from the bank to fund their farming operations. 
There have been allegations that some of the farmers had not used the loans for agricultural purposes.
The farmers said Thahane got angry when they took the case to the Ombudsman.
They claim that the minister said he would “punish” them.
Thahane however told the Lesotho Times this week that when he said he would collect debts from defaulting block farmers it was not a threat but a promise.
“It was not a threat but the plain truth as they know it,” Thahane said.
Thahane said he met their committee and told them to make arrangements to pay their loans “or else I will start collecting debts”.
He however denied telling the farmers to withdraw their case from the Ombudsman.
“That I did not say,” he said.
“I have a responsibility to collect that money from them. It should be back in the government’s bag. All they have to do is outline how they are going to pay back their loans and that will be all,” he added.
On allegations that the government owed the farmers for the hired equipment Thahane said: “It is the Ministry of Agriculture that decides who should be paid. I do not have anything to do with that. The block farming scheme is a project of the Ministry of Agriculture.”
During the hearing the farmers alleged that Thahane had told them that the Ombudsman’s recommendations would not change anything because “the Ombudsman is just like a mere news reporter whose word one could opt not to heed”.
They said Thahane told them that even if they win their case that would not stop him from calling the loans.
The general secretary of the national block farmers’ committee, Lephoto Taoana, told the Lesotho Times that he believed “Thahane had played a divide-and -wule game on their committee in an effort to make them withdraw our case”.
“As we speak now, some members of the committee led by our chairman agree with Thahane that this matter should be withdrawn from the Ombudsman,” Taoana said.
“When we were at his offices on April 14, Thahane left us for a while to give us time to talk among ourselves and that was when we realised that we were two factions,” he said.
“We learnt there that while we were fighting to be paid the Ministry of Agriculture had paid some farmers from Leribe district.”
The chairman of the national block farmers committee, Litsoane Lits’oane, said he did not sanction the move to involve the Ombudsman in the dispute.
 “They went there in their personal capacities and they are not representing our committee there,” Lits’oane said.
“There are other members of the committee, including me, who did not support the move to go to the Ombudsman.”
Lits’oane said those who were paid qualified to be paid because they were paying their loans.
Mafisa told the Lesotho Times in an interview that if it was true that Thahane said his recommendations would not have any effect on him it was “contemptuous”.
“If it’s true he said that, it is contemptuous to a constitutional office which has the power under the law to make recommendations,” Mafisa said.
“This is the office which should be supported by the same minister.”
The Lesotho Times in February reported that at least a hundred farmers had failed to repay their loans amounting to over M74 million over the past four years.
The block farming scheme was a government plan started in the 2006/07 season to improve the country’s food security situation.
The scheme fell into trouble after farmers failed to repay their loans.

Comments are closed.