Lesotho’s great car ‘con’

2016-08-14 15:08

Youth leaders and business directors involved in a bid for a government fleet tender in Lesotho have fled the country amid allegations of corruption

Three youth leaders of Lesotho’s ruling Democratic Congress (DC) and a Lesotho-based fleet management company have accused the country’s finance minister of soliciting a R4 million bribe for a major government contract.

Finance Minister Mamphono Khaketla denied the allegation, but said she could not answer questions because the case was before the courts.

The DC youths and six directors of Lebelonyane – a Lesotho company and partner of South African logistics giant Super Group – fled to South Africa this week after being questioned by police at the Maseru Central Police Station.

They said they were told their lives were in danger.

Speaking from the Free State, Lebelonyane director Letsatsi Mabona said police interrogators wanted to know who had leaked a report by a government evaluation team that recommended his company for a R70 million-a-month contract to manage the government fleet.

Despite the recommendation, Lebelonyane did not win the tender.

Last month, the government announced that the existing contract, held by another South African company, Bidvest, had been extended for four years.

In response, DC Youth League president Thuso Litjobo called a media conference at the party’s offices in Maseru, where they revealed the leaked recommendation and denounced the minister – a senior member of his own party – alleging that she had demanded R4 million from Lebelonyane to ensure it won the contract.

Mabona and fellow Lebelonyane director Matsikane Khali repeated the bribe allegation in a telephonic interview this week.

“We were summoned to the minister’s house in Maseru by a representative of hers. Three Lebelonyane directors went,” said Mabona.

The representative told them that because of the contract, they would soon be millionaires and demanded R4 million for the minister.

“When we refused, the representative then took us to another room, where we met Dr Khaketla. She said if we didn’t agree to her request, we must know that we were never going to get the tender.”

AmaBhungane has seen the report of the evaluation panel, which lists the three bidders – Lebelonyane JV, comprising Lebelonyane and Fleet Services Lesotho, a wholly owned subsidiary of Super Group; Fleetmatics Vehicle Management Solutions Lesotho; and Seahlolo Transport Logistics, in partnership with Avis Fleet Services.

It also assesses them according to exacting criteria.

The bid panel report concludes:

“The recommendation of the evaluation team is that the government of Lesotho fleet service tender – 7/2015/16 – be awarded to Fleet Services Lebelonyane JV.”

In a telephone interview on Friday, minister Khaketla said it was not true that she had asked for a bribe.

Asked why the government overruled the evaluation panel, she said:

“I’m in a meeting; I don’t have time to answer your questions. You expect me to talk to you without making an appointment. But anyway, you are forcing me to go into issues that are before the Lesotho courts.

“What the youth leaders didn’t tell you is that I am charging them with defamation. I won’t discuss the matter because it is sub judice.”

The exact nature of the deal between the Lesotho government and Bidvest remains unclear.

Asked about the Lesotho government’s announcement a month ago that the “temporary” Bidvest contract, signed after the change of government last year, would be extended for four years, government spokesperson Khotso Letsatsi said this applied only to a small part of the fleet management deal relating to trade-ins.

He said that in future, the government would take responsibility for procuring half the 1 200-vehicle fleet, while the other half would be rented from private individuals.

Last week, he told the Lesotho Times that the government had signed a contract with Bidvest and was receiving the first batch of vehicles under the deal.

Letsatsi said the government asked the minister’s accusers to provide evidence to back up their claim, but they failed to do so.

He also denied that the Lebelonyane officials were arrested, saying police merely questioned them about evidence.

Repeated attempts on Thursday to get clarification and comment from Bidvest were unsuccessful.

AmaBhungane was passed through three company officials before being promised a written statement, which had not arrived by Friday evening.

Attempts to contact Super Group for comment also failed. Numerous calls to the corporate headquarters went unanswered.

DC Youth League secretary general Chafotsa Letuka said he and Litjobo were subjected to a police interrogation on Tuesday.

He said the officers wanted him to disclose how he was able to access a confidential finance department evaluation report.

“I am not working for Lebelonyane and don’t know why the police associated me with the leak of a confidential government report,” Letuka said, adding that the document had gone viral.

Mabona confirmed that he and his fellow directors skipped the country on Wednesday.

“We were informed by local intelligence that Dr Khaketla made a special request to the police that we be arrested and held over the weekend, if necessary,” he said.

“On Monday, when I was called to the police for questioning, heavily armed police surrounded my office and others escorted me to Maseru Central station.

“During the interrogation, Khali says he was shown a knobkerrie by police, who told him that people’s lives had ended because of it,” Mabona said.

Lesotho police commissioner Molahlehi Letsoepa did not respond to requests for comment.

Letsatsi, the government spokesperson, said he had no idea why the DC youth leaders and Lebelonyane directors had skipped the country, because no one had threatened them.

Litjobo, the youth league president, said he refused to leave Lesotho:

“I’m not scared and will not be intimidated by threats. Anyone who wants the government fleet evaluation report will find me at my house in Ha Thamae [in Maseru],” he said.

Litjobo said it was shameful that the police intimidated people who could be used as state resources to put a stop to corruption.

Youth leaders Moeketsi Shale and Motlalekhotso Matheso had gone into hiding in Lesotho.

– Additional reporting by Drew Forrest

The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB supporter to help it do more. Sign up for its newsletter to get more.

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