By Thoboloko Ntšonyane

MASERU – The high-ranking officials from the Lesotho Defense Force (LDF) and the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) have this week revealed surprising turn of events before the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that is currently seized with investigating the alleged irregularities related to the funds earmarked for the COVID-19 in 2020.

They were to answer on the allegations that the security institutions had allegedly consumed food to the tune of M16 million during the height of COVID-19 days in 2020 and 2021.

These investigations have been triggered by the findings of the Auditor-General’s report that has unearthed irregular expenditures of funds allocated to assist the country in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

To contain the spread of the fatal COVID-19, then the government led by Prime Minister Motsoahae Thabane mounted the National Emergency Command Center (NECC) to coordinate all activities related to the pandemic as well as advise the government on the mechanisms to fight this disease. NECC was disbanded when Thabane stepped down making a way for Dr Moeketsi Majoro who set up the National COVID-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) now defunct.

NACOSEC also had a similar role as the NECC but was led by the people outside of the public service, unlike the NECC whose chairperson was then Minister of Communications, Science and Technology, Chief Thesele Maseribane.

According to the report ‘On the Consolidated Financial Statements of the Government of Lesotho for the Year Ended 31 March 2021’, a staggering sum of M16, 249, 749.00 was “spent on dry Russians and lunch for LMPS and LDF officers while on COVID-19 operations”.

The Auditor-General also said she was perturbed by the inconsistent prices of the meals, while the determined standard price at NECC was M100.00 per meal used by all caterers, she said some caterers charged meal prices ranging from M150.00 to M200.00.

The report further unearthed the overpayments made to four suppliers. It says the four of them owed M279 500.00 but the invoiced amount was M416 000.00 which translates into M136 500.00 overpayment.

M22, 443, 781.00 was spent for the provision of lunch meals for officers who were stationed at ‘Manthabiseng Convention Centre since the COVID-19 outbreak. These officers include officers from the security institution, LMPS, LDF, National Security Service (NSS), Cabinet Staff, Drivers, among others.

The procurement officer who was involved, Lillane Qhobela had a tough time convincing the Committee as he allegedly issued the tenders without having the unit prices of items.

He also said he was instructed on the question of the inflated meal prices.

The Auditor-General further says she “failed to understand the reason this expenditure was incurred on security officials, as there are dedicated expenditure votes for meals in their respective ministries when they perform the same core business of security function in the country”.

Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police (SACP) Ezekiel Senti told the Committee that they did not engage in any buying of the food items, but rather furnished the procurement officers with the list of food items the police will eat while they are on duty.

He said the police officers were assigned to duty stations where they would not even be able to buy food nor come with lunchboxes at work.

The LDF’s Major-General Ramanka Mokaloba told the Committee that as members of the security institutions, they were only to provide the specifications of the food needed by the army officers deployed in different areas to enforce the regulations during that period. This was in reaction to the sentiments that they issued directives as regards to the usage of funds to buy the food items.

He also took a swipe at Parliament saying it should ensure that the army is well taken care of and adequately catered for in order to protect the county. Under normal circumstances, he said those food items ought not to have been purchased as they ought to be readily available as and when required by the army officers.

The Committee had called the officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Disaster Management Authority (DMA) to furnish it with the explanations on how the funds were used and also address the queries raised by the Auditor-General in the report.

At one point, Major-General Mokaloba said they declined a salary of M90 000.00 per month when “recruited” to go to Avani Maseru where NACOSEC was operating, saying the clinics and hospitals required oxygen supply. 

SACP Senti also echoed similar sentiments saying some people took advantage of the pandemic and saw it as a means to line their pockets instead of appropriating funds to the intended purpose which is to fight COVID-19.

“The declaration of State of Emergency on COVID-19 by the Right Honourable Prime Minister [Motsoahae Thabane] in terms of Section 8 of Disaster Management Act 1997 was a commendable move to contain the virus with a view to protect the nation support the economy and strengthen the health care systems to cope with the pandemic.

“I noticed with dismay that despite the good intention of the Right Honourable Prime Minister, the bulk of public funds was not used at critical events or activities aimed at the lives of citizens. The bulk of expenditure was mainly on food and other activities not addressing the pandemic,’ further reads the Auditor-General’s report in pertinent part.

Major-General Mokaloba told the Committee that the food would be brought by two catering companies while at the NECC in ‘Manthabiseng Convention Centre, and they raised alarm, appropriate action to alleviate such practice needs to be taken.

He also appealed to PAC to consider the safety of the officers who are summoned before it citing that there are some deep issues that are yet to be uncovered by the Committee which may affect highly placed officials.