THE Ministry Public Works and Transport has launched an investigation into the awarding of a M2 million deal to controversial Israeli firm Nikuv International Projects to produce drivers’ licenses without following tender procedures.
Public Works and Transport Minister Tsoeu Mokeretla yesterday told the Lesotho Times he had tasked his Principal Secretary (PS) Tlohelang Aumane to probe the deal in which 65 000 drivers’ licences should be produced by Nikuv and the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Nikuv, which was contracted by the Lesotho government to introduce electronic national documents, was convicted and fined by the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on 15 December 2016 for bribing Lesotho’s former Home Affairs PS Retšelisitsoe Khetsi to influence the awarding of the M300 million tender.
The Israeli firm was controversially awarded the lucrative contract to computerise the country’s border-control system and produce electronic passports, birth and death certificates and national Identity Documents (IDs) without an open public tender in 2012.
As part of a plea deal, the court fined Nikuv NIS 4.5 million (about M16.4 million) for bribing Mr Khetsi.
In addition to the fine and forfeiture of assets, the company was ordered to cooperate with law enforcement authorities in Lesotho investigating the case, as well as revise its internal policies in order to prevent future cases of bribery. The Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences has since initiated investigations into the controversial awarding of the M300 million tender in 2012.
The drivers’ licences deal was unearthed after the reshuffling of eight PSs last month that saw former Public Works PS, Majakathata Mokoena-Thakhisi, being swapped with Mr Aumane, who was in the Development Planning ministry.
Mr Mokeretla said Mr Mokoena-Thakhisi was the architect of the opaque deal meant to clear a drivers’ licences issuance backlog from 2014.
The minister said he had no personal interest in the awarding of the tender but tasked Mr Aumane to look into the deal with Nikuv and the Home Affairs ministry because he did not know anything about it.
“I did not know anything about this arrangement between my ministry, Home Affairs and Nikuv. There is no contract whatsoever between the ministries,” he said.
“I should also mention that I tasked the new PS to find out what transpired as I didn’t know anything. For Nikuv to print drivers’ licenses, there should be a clear contract between our ministry and the company.”
The minister said his intervention was intended to unearth facts and resolve the irregularities.
“Our legal section also indicated that the Public Works ministry doesn’t have a contract with Nikuv and I don’t know how they are printing drivers’ licenses for us,” he said.
However, impeccable sources told this paper, jostling for the tender began before Mr Mokoena-Thakhisi was moved to the Public Works ministry last July, with his predecessor ‘Malerato Khoeli also having an interest in awarding it to Muvoni Biometrics and Smart Card Solutions allegedly linked to her son in law.
The sources further claimed that Mr Mokeretla and Ms Khoeli were keen to discredit Mr Mokoena-Thakhisi since they wanted the deal to go to tender.
Ms Khoeli, who is now the Health ministry PS, has, however, vehemently denied the claims, saying they were made by her detractors.
Another company that vied for the tender, Q7, successfully challenged the awarding of the tender to Muvoni Biometrics and Smart Card Solutions in the Commercial Court last September, with the court granting an interim interdict for the awarding of the tender.
On 9 February 2017, Justice Lisebo Chaka-Makhooane ruled that the tendering process for clearing the drivers’ licenses backlog should start from scratch. However, the sources said the Public Works ministry had continued with the arrangement with the Home Affairs ministry and Nikuv until the reshuffling of Mr Mokoena-Thakhisi late last month.
The sources said Mr Mokeretla had since halted the production of the drivers’ licences, adding that Mr Aumane and Ms Khoeli had also conferred over cancelling the Nikuv deal.
Contacted for comment, Mr Aumane said when he was appointed to the Public Works ministry, Mr Mokeretla and Traffic Commissioner Lesupi did not know about the deal involving Nikuv and the Home Affairs ministry.
Mr Aumane said he had since learnt that the Q7 and Muvoni Biometrics and Smart Card Solutions were no longer being considered by the ministry for the tender under Mr Mokoena-Thakhisi’s watch.
“I discovered that these companies were set aside by the ministry. And it was decided that the backlog of drivers’ licenses should be cleared by Nikuv and Home Affairs Ministry,” he said.
“However, the surprising thing is that the minister and the traffic commissioner insist they know nothing about this arrangement entered into by my predecessor.”
Mr Aumane also indicated that clearing the drivers’ licenses backlog remained a priority for his ministry.
“Clearing the backlog is actually our priority right now. However, whatever solution we take should be cost effective and spearheaded by the ministry,” he said.
“The Department of Traffic should also be fully involved as they are the agency that issues licences. Furthermore, we need to know all the other issues relating to data protection and security.
“We would also want to indicate to the tendered company what kind of reports we would like to have through the Department of Traffic.”
He said they also wanted the drivers’ licenses system to be linked to the national identity registration system.
“I must indicate that a single identifier is very close to my heart, so linking with national IDs and other government departments is the best option. But we have procedures to follow, among them procurement procedures,” Mr Aumane said.
“I want to clarify that through this other option, the ministry has not been engaging Home Affairs but Nikuv.”
The PS further said that he was still studying how his predecessor engaged Nikuv and the Home Affairs ministry and had no knowledge about costs of the arrangement.
Contacted for comment, Mr Mokoena-Thakhisi said he had initiated a drivers’ licences project with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Mr Mokoena-Thakhiso said the M2 million project was cheaper than the “dubious” M9 million tendered for clearing the driver’s licences backlog.
“There were attempts to use a more expensive and dubious direction which I stopped as it would have exposed us to litigation. The only operational programme is with the Home Affairs ministry. Anything else would be illegal,” he said.
Ms Khoeli scoffed at allegations she was angling for the deal, saying were unfounded lies made by her detractors.
She said contrary to the assertions of her detractors, the meeting with PS Aumane was over the demolishing of Queen Elizabeth II Hospital of which she needed the input of the Public Works ministry.
“We intend to demolish the Queen Elizabeth II hospital and that was the issue of discussion. There has been a budget for demolition without any progress in the past and the money ended up being reallocated.
“We want to make progress on the matter. However there cannot be anything happening anytime soon as the officials are now talking about the need for an Environmental Impact Assessment before anything else happens,” Ms Khoeli said, adding that she would not be deterred from visiting government officials on ministry business because of “gossipers”.
Ms Khoeli also denied allegations she was pushing for the tender on behalf of her son in law, saying she had her hands full with Health ministry issues.
Mr Aumane also vouched for Ms Khoeli, saying their discussion was related to the demolition of the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital.
“The Health PS came to my office with two other officials and I was with my two colleagues from the ministry,” he said.
“The topic for that meeting was the demolition of Queen ll. Before that meeting was over, some people had already posted on Facebook that we were discussing the drivers’ licences issue.”
For his part, Home Affairs Principal Secretary Borenahabokhethe Sekonyela said they collaborated with the Public Works ministry to ensure drivers’ licences would have the same information as national IDs.
“When we came together it was with the intention of linking up their systems with our IT system so that drivers’ licenses could reflect the national identity numbers of all citizens,” he said.
“The actual administration of the work is under the Public Works ministry.”
Mr Sekonyela said contrary to the Public Works ministry’s claims, there was a written agreement for the collaboration. He said the clearing of the drivers’ licenses was long overdue, adding that they expected to finish next week.
“We hope that by next week we would have cleared that backlog,” he said.