MASERU — Former Home Affairs Principal Secretary Retšelisitsoe Khetsi has appeared in court over allegations that he accepted M5 million in bribes from a controversial Israeli firm, Nikuv International Projects Limited (Nikuv), which was awarded a multi-million dollar project to produce Lesotho’s first-ever identity document (ID) and electronic passports (e-passports) without a competitive bidding process.
Khetsi is accused of accepting US$508 018.62 (about M5 million at today’s exchange rate) in bribes from his co-accused Motsotuoa ’Makoa who allegedly worked as an agent of Nikuv.
The contract was awarded in March 2012 amid widespread concerns that it was highly unacceptable and diabolic for those in power then to award such a lucrative contract, worth about M300 million (at today’s exchange rates) without an open, transparent and public tender process.
At least 10 reputable international companies had responded when the Millenium Challenge Account (MCA), the American funded donor agency, had originally handled the ID component of the project and floated various tenders.
This was before the then government of Pakalitha Mosisili, which had been separately handling the e-passport component, withdrew the ID project from the MCA, forfeiting the funding it would have received for part of the project.
The government then combined the ID project with the e-passports and subsequently awarded it to Nikuv without a competitive bidding process, amid allegations that bribe money had changed hands.
The Ministry of Home Affairs, then under the leadership of Lesao Lehohla as Minister and Khetsi as principal secretary, scrounged for reasons to justify why it had opted to award the project without a bidding process as required under Lesotho’s Public Procurement Regulations of 2007 which require purchases above M100 000 to be put out to open tender with a few exceptions justifying selective tendering.
One reason advanced by Khetsi and Lehohla then to justify bypassing the tender process was that the project was urgent and the law empowered them to by-pass a tender process were certain specialised services were offered by few suppliers.
However, neither reason held any water as the printing of e-passports and IDs is a cut-throat business done by a plethora of companies with varying reputations.
In fact such tenders are among the most competitive with countries that have opted for electronic passports like Kenya recently attracting a number of reputable responses.
It has now emerged that buckets of money could have changed hands in Lesotho’s case with Khetsi being arraigned before the courts this week charged with bribery and corruption.
Khetsi stands accused of violating the Penal Code Act of 2010 by allegedly accepting M5 million in bribes from Nikuv. He is alternatively charged under the Prevention of Corruption and Economic Offences Act of 1999.
’Makoa, working as Nikuv’s agent, stands accused of facilitating the payments to Khetsi to induce him to irregularly and unlawfully facilitate the granting of the contract to Nikuv in violation of the Prevention of Corruption and Economic Offences Act.
The two appeared before Senior Resident Magistrate Celestina Murenzi who granted them M10 000 bail each.
The court also ordered Khetsi and ’Makoa to report to the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) offices every last Friday of the month between 8:00 am and 12:00 noon.
Murenzi further ordered the pair not to interfere with the investigations and crown witnesses.
He remanded them to November 26.
Since the coalition government came into office in June last year, Nikuv became a subject of investigations that have sucked in several current and former government officials, all alleged to have been bribed by the company to facilitate the awarding of the ID contract.
Nikuv itself has since been spared prosecution after agreeing to have its officials turn into state witnesses. At one stage the company’s officials skipped the country to evade prosecution. They returned to continue with the project after the coalition apparently decided that jettisoning Nikuv would cost money since the Israeli company had been paid substantial amounts already.
Khetsi had been pushed out of his job after the coalition came to power and after he had allegedly failed to explain to new Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo why he had signed the National ID contract with Nikuv two months before it was approved by cabinet.
As the Principal Secretary and Chief Accounting Officer in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Khetsi is accused of unlawfully and intentionally abusing the functions of his office in the performance of his duties, in violation of the Procurement Regulations No.1 of 2007.
According to the charge sheet, he abused his powers with the purpose of obtaining an undue advantage for Nikuv with the intention of facilitating the granting of the contract for the production of the national IDs and passports.
’Makoa is equally accused of contravening the Prevention of Corruption and Economic Offences Act by facilitating the alleged bribe payment to Khetsi. The exact date or dates when the monies were allegedly paid to Khetsi are not mentioned in the charge sheet.
Previous media reports have suggested that as much as M30 million in bribes could have been paid to various top officials and politicians in exchange of the granting of the contract to Nikuv during the then government’s opaque selective tendering process in which only five invited companies participated.
In fact, it has been suggested that unnamed government officials induced Nikuv to overcharge the government by more than M30 million, the same figure said to have been paid in total bribes.
Whether or not successful prosecutions follow, the ID contract deal probably ranks as an example of one of the most brazen acts of corruption by officials of the previous government as there was no credible justification of avoiding a competitive bidding process.
Nikuv, the company at the centre of the allegations, has fast gained international notoriety for its unsavoury shenanigans in the various African countries in which it has established a presence.
It was recently enmeshed in allegations that it helped Robert Mugabe’s long reigning regime in Zimbabwe rig July general elections in that country through careful manipulations of the national voters roll.