PROMINENT lawyer, Attorney Tumisang Mosotho, launched an online petition on Saturday calling for the abolition of the M500 000 interest-free loans given to Members of Parliament (MPs).
Titled “Lesotho MPs loan scheme is legalised corruption by the elite”, the petition is hosted on the website Change.org and addressed to the government, National Assembly speaker and the MPs. The campaign’s target is to reach 500 supporters, and had garnered 346 endorsements at the time of going to press last night.
This comes after the Lesotho Times revealed last week that government had paid the M32 million members of the Eighth Parliament owed First National Bank (FNB) when their term of office prematurely ended in March this year following the 28 February 2015 snap elections.
The legislators qualified for M500 000 interest-free loans from the bank as part of their benefits, and were supposed to repay the money over five years. The government underwrote the loans and also paid interest on the MPs’ behalf.
Reads part of the petition: “The interest-free loan scheme designed for the sole benefit of Members of Parliament is nothing short of corruption.
“The scheme is against all known basic principles of morality, governance and legality. Members of Parliament are individually entitled to an interest-free loan of up to M500 000 and the government acts as the guarantor.
“This means the interest is paid out of taxpayers’ monies and in the event an MP fails on repayments, the capital amount is also paid out of the public coffers.”
The petition argues Lesotho can ill-afford the facility given its least-developed country status.
“This is happening in a least-developed country where more than half the population lives on less than $1 per day; a country that has the world’s (second) highest number of people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS,” it says.
“We elected the honourable members to parliament for (the) betterment of us all, not to enrich themselves at the expense of us all. THE INTERIM FREE LOAN SCHEME MUST STOP IMMEDIATELY!”
In an interview with the Lesotho Times on Tuesday, Attorney Mosotho said the petition would be distributed to development partners such as the United States and European Union embassies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund “upon reaching a satisfactory number of signatures from across the country”.
He said the Lesotho Times story compelled him to launch the petition against the “immoral” loan facility.
“Whenever we elect politicians, we give them a blank cheque. Our MPs must be accountable to us as the electorate, and government has to be accountable to us as the public,” said Attorney Mosotho.
“It is shocking that government paid the loans when there was no indication that the MPs could not afford to repay them. Almost half of the members of the Eighth Parliament were re-elected, so they should have paid the money.”
The lawyer further said there was “nothing special” about MPs to warrant the interest-free loans, adding the bailout was not budgeted for by government.
“How can we afford such a scheme in a country where the unemployment rate is skyrocketing?” he queried.
“We are struggling to repay our personal loans from commercial banks and there are so many cases in the commercial court where banks are suing defaulters over unpaid loans.”
Attorney Mosotho added: “We have students owing the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) but are unemployed due to lack of job opportunities, yet they are still expected to repay the loans.
“Why can’t we cancel their loans if we have money to pay for well-remunerated MPs?”
Meanwhile, some of the country’s political youth leagues have also expressed outrage at the bailout.
Lesotho Congress for Democracy Youth League spokesperson, Theko Tlebere, descried the move as “unacceptable and not in the interest of the general public”.
Tlebere added: “We are cognisant of the fact that this facility is not new, but it is the first time government has had to pay for the MPs’ loans.
“As the LCD Youth League, we believe the M32 million could have been used for development projects. Our impoverished youths could have been given start-up capital for various projects such as piggery and poultry rather than to pay the personal loans of MPs who are already well-paid.”
He further said government was not underwriting students’ loans even though most of them could not find employment.
“Young people are forced to repay their bursaries whether they get hired after completing their studies or after 10 or even 20 years. We, therefore, appeal to the MPs to pay back the money,” Mr Tlebere said.
“We also urge them to amend the law that makes the government a guarantor of their personal loans. This issue goes beyond political affiliation and is about taxpayers’ money.
“It should not be allowed to happen again. We are now in an era of coalition governments and cannot afford to always bailout MPs when parliament is dissolved before its five-year term.”
All Basotho Convention Youth League leader, Taelo Ntsokotsane, echoed similar sentiments, saying the decision to pay-off the loans set a bad precedent.
“MPs should repay the money because we cannot afford to set such a bad example. If it is allowed to continue, MPs will deliberately cause chaos in parliament for it to be dissolved early so that they don’t repay their loans,” Ntsokotsane noted.
He added if the MPs decide not to pay back the money, government should also cancel students’ NMDS loans.
“We would also demand a tax break for Basotho until the government uses our funds in a transparent and accountable manner,” Mr Ntsokotsane charged.
“We can’t continue to have MPs who siphon government funds for their enrichment and not serve the interests of the public.”
On his part, Basotho National Party Youth League Secretary, Joseph Letooane, said the decision to pay the MPs’ loans was “shocking”.
“The decision gives the impression that politics is about the enrichment of a select few crooks and not the development of the country and its people,” Letooane said.
“As the BNP Youth League, we resolved to tell the MPs in our party who benefited from the facility to repay the money.”
He also urged young people to unite in fighting for the development of Lesotho “to end the perennial abuse of public funds by government officials”.
Contacted yesterday, Democratic Congress Youth League Secretary-General Letuka Chafotsa said he would only comment after meeting his colleagues tomorrow.