Ministers audit King’s birthday bash

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Pascalinah Kabi

THREE senior ministers have resolved to institute an urgent audit of the His Majesty King Letsie III birthday celebrations amid suspicions that the event could have been used by some government officials to pilfer millions of maloti from the state coffers.

This was said by Tourism minister, Motlohi Maliehe, who told the Lesotho Times that he and Ministers Moeketsi Majoro (Finance) and Tsukutlane Au (Home Affairs) had decided to investigate the preparations for the King’s birthday.

Mr Maliehe spoke to the Lesotho Times on the sidelines of King Letsie III’s 55th birthday celebrations in Butha-Buthe on Tuesday. The celebrations were overshadowed by a nasty and embarrassing fight that erupted over lucrative catering tenders for the event.

The fight pitted caterers from the Butha-Buthe against the Home Affairs ministry, with the former accusing the ministry of deliberately overlooking them for the lucrative catering tender in favour of caterers from other districts including the wife of Alliance of Democrats (AD) legislator Thuso Litjobo — ‘Masenate Litjobo.

Ms Litjobo is from the Maseru district. This did not go down well with Mr Maliehe and fellow ministers and legislators from the Butha-Buthe district.

Mr Maliehe successfully teamed up with Gender minister Mahali Phamotse as well as former Health minister Nyapane Kaya to force the Home Affairs ministry to reverse its decision to award the tenders to caterers from outside Maseru in violation of a 2015 government resolution that such tenders should be awarded to the businesses from the host district.  The King’s birthday celebrations are rotated among the country’s 10 districts.

The catering tenders were subsequently awarded to the Butha-Buthe caterers at the eleventh hour. This was despite that the ministry had already awarded the key catering tender of M414 000 to the wife of the Alliance of Democrats (AD) legislator Thuso Litjobo — ‘Masenate Litjobo of Ha Rona Catering on 13 July 2018. The tender would have enabled Ms Litjobo to serve 200 VIPs.

A breakdown of the M414 000 catering tender shows that a meal for each of the 200 VIPs cost a staggering M2 070 — an amount which is way more than what a factory worker takes home on a monthly basis.

A general worker and the machine operator trainee who have been employed for less than 12 months each earn M1238 monthly while the machine operator (sewer) earns M1331. A general worker who has been employed for more than 12 months earns 1372 while the machine operator earns 1456.

The main catering tender was subsequently awarded to Butha-Buthe businesswoman Matšeliso Mokuoane of Rhythm and Blues Catering Services. Ms Mokuoane was also given a job to rent out her tent to the ministry.

However, the tent job was engulfed in controversy as another white tent belonging to a “Maseru businesswoman” was also mounted at the Pitso Ground.

Sources privy to the tender scandal said the tent belonged to Ms Litjobo and she would still be paid for it by the Home Affairs ministry even if the tent was not used.

The cake tender, which was initially awarded to Maseru businesswoman Khauhelo Mofolo, was eventually given to Bolaoane Mpakanyane of Katleho Foods.

“All the demands of the Butha-Buthe businesses were met and I am happy that the district legislators fought for the people and won,” Mr Maliehe said.

“If we hadn’t fought with everything that we had, the people of Butha-Buthe would have been cheated out of an opportunity to benefit from the birthday celebrations. I am so proud of the Butha-Buthe people because they were purposely frustrated to paint them as failures. The menu was given to them at the last minute but they delivered.

Mr Maliehe’s efforts were acknowledged and praised by one of the Butha-Butha caters, Bolaoane Mpakanyane, who was subsequently awarded the cake tender.

“I received a call from PS Home Affairs on Wednesday night instructing me to start baking His Majesty’s cake and that is all Ntate Maliehe’s doing. He fought for us like a true Butha-Buthe compatriot voted into power to speak for the voiceless. He earned my trust,” Ms Mpakanyane this week told the Lesotho Times.

Mr Maliehe however said, his and Messrs Majoro and Au’s “eyes had been opened to the deeply rooted corruption surrounding His Majesty’s birthday celebrations”.

“As we were preparing for this event, Ntate Au told me that when he asked about the exorbitant tender prices, he was told that this year’s public address system was the cheapest as that of last year and the year before cost M600 000 and M850 000 respectively.

“We have decided, together with the Finance and Home Affairs ministers, to urgently institute an audit into the preparations for the King’s birthday because there is a clear indication that government is being defrauded millions of maloti. There is a lot of corruption going on behind closed doors in the name of our King’s birthday,” Mr Maliehe said.

The catering war pitted colleagues from the governing coalition — Messrs Maliehe, Kaya, Tlokotsi Monyooko and Moshe Leoma (all from the All Basotho Convention- ABC) and Dr Phamotse (AD) against Ms ‘Machabana Lemphane-Letsie who is the secretary general of the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL).

Last week Ms Lemphane-Letsie told this publication that they overlooked the Butha-Butha businesses because they submitted exorbitant tender bids which cost far more than what other competitors from other districts submitted.

Asked if the fight over the King’s birthday tenders had not caused friction among the coalition partners, Mr Maliehe this week said that he was more concerned about rooting out corruption in government and this was not “an exercise of making and maintaining friendships”.

“I really don’t care about (coalition) relationships right now because anyone who is made to vomit what they had already consumed through corruption will never find it to be a nice thing to do. What matters to me right now is that people of Butha-Buthe got what is rightfully theirs and those who tried to sneak in didn’t succeed.

“However, relations between the Home Affairs minister (Mr Au) and I are very good and we got along so well when preparing for the birthday celebrations. He (Mr Au) doesn’t have any problems with me because his hands are clean. The only corrupt people in that (Home Affairs) ministry are people serving under him,” Mr Maliehe said.

Although the catering proceeded smoothly on the day of the celebrations, there was however, some drama and confusion with regards to the sitting arrangements for the VIPs.

The arrangement was that the VIPs would be accommodated in two places — the first being a thatched podium which accommodated Their Majesties, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, senior government officials and diplomats.

Senior security personnel and other government officials were expected to sit in a white tent which had been erected as the second sitting arrangement.

However, the seats ran short within 30 minutes of the arrival of the VIPs who were supposed to sit with Their Majesties.

United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS country representatives were sent from pillar to post as they could not be accommodated.

The three country representatives had to endure the ignominy of standing between the two sitting arrangements for 10 minutes before they were rescued by one of Their Majesties’ senior protocol officers who directed the junior officials to take some chairs from the tent and place them in the thatched podium.

The trio were not the only ones who were affected as Mining minister Keketso Sello, Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) Commissioner Thabo Khasipe, legislators and principal secretaries were also sent back and forth between the thatched podium and the tent.

So chaotic was the situation that the principal secretaries had to be asked to give up their seats to ministers and diplomats.

Several principal secretaries who spoke to the Lesotho Times on condition of anonymity blamed their Home Affairs counterpart Ms Lemphane-Letsie for the chaotic arrangements.

“I refused to vacate the seat. I couldn’t be forced to give up the seat because of my colleague (Ms Lemphane-Letsie) who failed to effectively carry out her mandate. She was busy fighting for the tenders and forgot to secure enough seats for the invited guests and their spouses as per the invitation cards,” said one principal secretary.

“Some of our colleagues suffered because the sitting arrangements were neglected by those who were fighting for tenders,” another principal secretary said.

Another principal secretary who was forced to stand in the crowd was heard saying, “This is what happens when a principal secretary busies herself with tenders instead of ensuring that VIPs are well taken care of”.

However, the tender and seating drama did not deter the guests and the ordinary citizens from joining His Majesty to enjoy the 55th birthday celebrations.

Various groups kept the guests entertained with their musical performances and acts.

The crowd was also treated to riveting entertainment by a 520-man joint parade featuring members of the Lesotho Defence Force, Lesotho Mounted Police Service and the Lesotho Correctional Service.

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