A GROUP of “concerned citizens” told the Senate Petition Committee this week that the government’s decision to pay off M32 million members of the Eighth Parliament owed a local bank was “inexcusable” and that the money should be repaid.
The M32 million emanated from the M500 000 interest-free loans the legislators were entitled to as part of their benefits and supposed to repay over five years. The government underwrote the loans and also paid interest on behalf of the MPs.
However, after their term of office prematurely ended following the 28 February 2015 snap polls, the MPs requested government to write off the debt, arguing they no longer had an income to service the loans.
The Ministry of Finance then paid M32, 229, 284.92 million to First National Bank on 27 April 2015, and invited individual MPs to discuss how they would repay government the money before abandoning the exercise.
Following the bailout, many civil society groups and political party youth leagues expressed outrage over the move, describing the MPs’ loan scheme as “legalised corruption by the elite”.
The nine concerned citizens appeared before the Senate Petition Committee after lodging a petition which was submitted to Senate President, Chief Seeiso Bereng Seeiso, National Assembly Speaker Ntlhoi Motsamai and Finance Minister Dr ‘Mamphono Khaketla.
One of the petitioners, Lerato Pekane, told the committee the MPs’ loan facility was “tantamount to political corruption”.
“We have realised that the payment was made without the MPs pronouncing their inability to repay the loans they took from the commercial bank,” said Mr Pekane.
“We understand the government functions as a guarantor in this scheme but our concern is that these funds were not even budgeted for.
“They appear to have been a gift to the MPs from the government, and if they cannot be repaid as we ask, then the tax laws should be applied to this ‘gift’. All we see here is a scheme that amounts to political corruption.”
Another petitioner, Selimo Thabane, chipped in saying the government and legislators had “misplaced priorities” by focusing on the bailout and not Basotho’s welfare.
“Any government and its MPs who are patriotic would get their priorities straight and focus on how the economy of this land can be improved to ensure that Lesotho does not always appear at the bottom of all economic performance rankings,” Mr Thabane said.
“The bailout is a sign of misplaced interests and priorities. It left many people wondering whether our MPs value the poor people in the villages who voted for them.”
He added: “We have also learnt that this shameful settlement was not only arranged for Eighth Parliament MPs who failed to make it into the current session but also for legislators who went on to the Ninth Parliament.
“The beneficiary MPs received another M500 000 loan from the same scheme. Such conduct from our MPs and the government is disgraceful to say the least.”
Mr Thabane said while MPs were enjoying the “free ride” at taxpayers’ expense, some students were unable to further their studies at institutions of higher learning because the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) had no money.
“Why do we have students who qualified to enrol at tertiary schools seated at home when the government can afford to pay M32 million?” he queried.
“Why can’t the government also give unemployed Basotho loans to start small businesses?
“We call upon the government to act upon this issue. That money should be paid back and used elsewhere for the betterment of this country.”
Following the presentations, Senate Petition Committee chairperson and Leribe Principal Chief, Joele Motsoene, assured the petitioners their concerns would be investigated.
“We will follow the due processes and address your concerns. We will also invite the Ministry of Finance to come address this committee on this issue openly in your presence so that we can have a resolution on the matter,” said Senator Motsoene.