Featured Image: Tefo Mapesela. Picture: Supplied
When the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism heard about a government minister who had prioritised the sale of M11-million’s worth of subsidised tractors and other farming implements for political leaders – including himself – they worked together to pull off the investigation in two days.
The team of Sechaba Mokhethi, Matiisetso Mosala, Billy Ntaote, Nicole Tau and Keiso Mohloboli each worked different aspects of “Minister, MPs in Govt Tractor Grab” published on MNN’s website on March 6 2021.
“‘Teamwork makes the dream work’ is what we will remember about the story,’’ said Mokhethi, who led the team. He is the managing director of MNN, named after the initials of three of the founding members’ surnames – Mokhethi, Ntaote, and Lekhetho Ntsukunyane (the fourth founder, Mohloboli, joined after they had registered the organisation).
“The collaboration was great because each person was given a task to follow in an area they were most familiar with, and had specific contacts. We also shared contacts in order to get the story done as fast as possible because usually it takes longer to cover all bases alone,” said Mokhethi.
They uncovered an internal memo that proved the government-owned equipment was to be sold at a reduced price for ‘’the private sector to participate fully in commercial agriculture in order to address food security issues in the country”. Initially envisaged to be organised through the Lesotho Post Bank , the Minister of Agriculture, Tefo Mapesela, sold it to beneficiaries who included other MPs, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Sephiri Motanyane, and President of the Senate, Mamonaheng Mokitimi.
Mapesela bought seven items for himself worth R490 811, and his deputy Likopo Mahase, three for M77 669.
Mapesela told MNN he saw no conflict of interest in setting prices and being a buyer. “I am a farmer in this country and there is no legal provision barring me from showing interest and eventually purchasing anything under this arrangement,” he said.
Although the initial info was leaked to MNN, it didn’t mean they could just go ahead and publish. They sourced the official documents relating to the parliamentary report on the policy for the disposal of the tractors and implements. And to ensure they had all the facts, they interviewed many people, including those implicated in order to give them the right to respond.
Not everyone was polite. The team wrote in the story that when they asked businessman Tšepo Mosito if he had had been selected for this discounted farming equipment because he was friends with Minister Mapesela, Mosito responded: “U mpotsa masepa, utla bona ‘mao (You are asking me shit. I will kill you).
Mokhethi said this had happened before but “usually it’s just extremely rude people who insult us”.
Shortly after the story was published, Mapesela was fired.
“The Prime Minister does not give reasons for firing ministers, but we believe our being the first to expose this corruption, clearly outlining how it was carried out, may have contributed to the minister’s dismissal as it came amidst public outcry,” said Mokhethi.
There were heated debates on social media platforms. The Development for Peace Education (DPE), a civil society activist organisation implicated in the tractor grab as its Coordinator, Sofonea Shale, had bought some of the subsidised equipment but denied any wrongdoing, ran an online survey to gauge public opinion on the sale. The results of the survey are unknown.
And the Minister’s reaction? “He divulged information about other corrupt deals of government officials fleecing the public in an attempt to dismiss the tractors’ grab as a common practice,” said Mokhethi.
Minister, MPs In Govt Tractors Grab
By MNNCIJ Reporters
Minister of Agriculture Tefo Mapesela sold government tractors and implements valued at M11-million to himself, other ministers, MPs, the Speaker of the National Assembly Sephiri Motanyane and President of the Senate Mamonaheng Mokitimi, an investigation has established.
The equipment was sold at a subsidised price, and people in leadership positions were favoured – despite a Cabinet decision that only farmers should benefit.
Well-placed sources in the structures of Mapesela’s party, All Basotho Convention (ABC), told MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism that he understood it was agreed that priority in the sales be given to the elite, most specifically MPs.
“I also heard from an MP that he was negotiating with Mapesela to buy a specific tractor and in response, Mapesela told him that he had already allocated that specific tractor to someone else,” said the source, who asked not to be named.
It was originally envisaged that the Lesotho Post Bank would organise the sales.
However, another source said: “The manner in which Mapesela allocated the tractors and implements to various warring groups in our party, in government, opposition and even NGOs, shows his intentions were to silence them and have them in his corner.”
MNN has established that other approved buyers include the minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Kemiso Mosenene, Minister of Finance Thabo Sophonia, Advisor to Deputy Prime Minister Sebonomoea Ratabane, Minister of Energy Mohapi Mohapinyane, Minister of Public Works Lebohang Monaheng, Deputy Minister of Health Nto Moakhi, Minister of Communications Keketso Sello and his Principal Secretary Tankiso Phapano.
Other beneficiaries are former minister of police Lehlohonolo Moramotse, Maama constituency MP Mankoe Maime, Lesotho Congress for Democracy deputy leader Tšeliso Mokhosi, the ABC district chairperson for Qacha’s Nek Bokang Matsipa, leader of Democratic Party of Lesotho Limpho Tau, Bobatsi constituency MP Sello Mooki and the ABC executive Sekhonyana Mosenene.
Speaking to MNN on whether he was selected because he is Mapesela’s friend, Tšepo Mosito insulted our journalist saying: “U mpotsa masepa, utla bona ‘mao (You are asking me shit. I will kill you). Mapesela said: “I don’t have friends”.
In November last year, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security department of crops services announced the sale of government-owned tractors and implements to the farming community.
The farmers were invited to apply and instructed to comply with strict criteria “due to limited quantity of the machinery to be sold”. The machinery was sold at a reduced price to meet the farmers halfway.
According to an internal memorandum by the ministry’s Principal Secretary, Nchakha Makara, of November 10 last year, the main reason for selling the property was “to assist and support the private sector to participate fully in commercial agriculture in order to address food security issues in the country”.
Seven days later, Mapesela informed parliament about the sale and assured the august house that the cabinet resolved that all government-owned tractors across the country should be sold to farmers.
Early signs of corruption
Hardly a month after the call for applications, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) received a tip-off from a farmer, whose name was not disclosed, complaining that the sale lacked fairness and transparency and that some farmers were not aware of its existence.
Speaking to MNN, DCEO investigator ‘Mabasia Molato said the DCEO wrote to the ministry’s Principal Secretary Makara on December 4 last year asking for the sale to be halted to allow the ministry to respond to the directorate’s queries.
DCEO raised a series of concerns, including why Lesotho Post Bank was not used as “an independent entity to sell the property to farmers, as previously anticipated”.
The anti-corruption director, Mahlomola Manyokole, then requested the ministry to “put the sale on hold until the Ministry had responded to our request”.
Molato said the ministry defied the DCEO and went on with the sale. “It, however, assured us that the sale would be transparent and in line with the [appropriate] laws and regulations,” she added.
The DCEO then backed down, according to Molato.
Shady selection of buyers
Instead of letting private sector take a lead in buying the machinery, MNN can reveal that Mapesela and his deputy, Likopo Mahase’s names topped the eventual list of approved buyers.
Mapesela and Mahase’s involvement comes in sharp contrast with Public Procurement Regulations, 2007, Disposal Procedures 59(2), that says public employees and public servants “involved in estimating disposal value or reserve price in an auction, may not be involved in subsequent stages of the disposal in any way”.
Despite this, Mapesela approved the prices and bought seven items for himself worth R490 811: a New Holland T6050, four-row maize planter; a 14-row wheat drill and heavy-duty disk. His deputy, Mahase, bought a Landini 7860 tractor; a furrow plough, and a seedbed cultivator, for a total of M77 669.
Mapesela said he saw no conflict of interest in setting prices and being a buyer. “I am a farmer in this country and there is no legal provision barring me from showing interest and eventually purchasing anything under this arrangement,” he said.
“I have eight new tractors that I bought with my hard-earned money. I can return this run-down government tractor if you think I am desperate. I can also give it to you if you want it,” he told MNN.
While there are some members of the public on the list of approved buyers, ministers, MPs and known politicians are dominant.
Speaking to MNN, one of the bidders who lost his bid to buy government-owned tractors and implements has accused Mapesela of hijacking the sale to further his own political interests.
He alleged Mapesela sold the tractors and implements to bidders from Mokhotlong, a constituency that he represents in parliament, to keep his grip on the constituency seat ahead of national polls next year.
Mapesela denied this. “Are farmers of Mokhotlong not eligible to show interest and apply for the purchase of equipment from my ministry?” he asked.
It was also alleged that Mapesela sold the machinery to politicians to lobby support for his faction in the ABC that is currently riddled with infighting by factions vying for control.
However, Mapesela said the selection was made by a panel made up of the director of crops, the procurement manager and the principal secretary, stressing that he was not personally involved in the process.
Mapesela has been a benefactor of Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, who rallied support for Majoro to stay in office amid calls for his removal by the pro-former premier Thomas Thabane’s faction.
Mapesela is set to meet a stiff competition in the ABC primary elections in Mokhotlong from former First Lady ’Maesaiah Thabane, a bigwig in the rival faction, who recently moved to position herself as the next MP for the constituency by transferring her membership from Abia to Mokhotlong.
MNN has reliably been informed that the selection of buyers was led by Mapesela and few officials from the ministry, and that he is alleged to have selected key civil society activists such as Sofonea Shale of Development for Peace Education, a renown NGO, to silence them.
Speaking to MNN, Shale denied the claims, saying: “I don’t know how it was decided who gets what and how, but what I can tell is that it was not a fantisi [auction] and was never planned to be one. From day one, I heard Mapesela consistently saying they are deliberately avoiding fantisi because the powerful normally block opportunities for others.”
After his appointment, Shale said Mapesela called farmers to the ‘Manthabiseng Convention Centre, where he told them that machinery would go to them. Shale attended as one of the farmers.
He added: “The Honourable Minister elaborated that this is due to thinking of government that it has to empower not compete with farmers”. Like other farmers, Shale said he had applied.
After a long wait and having heard Mapesela’s statement on one of the local radios, Shale said that he visited the Ministry, where he learned “that majority of items I had requested had been granted. Then I started the process of mobilising funds”.
MNN learnt the DCEO has relaunched investigations into the ministry’s sale of the machinery and met to discuss the sale on Friday last week.
Investigator Molato said they had received fresh reports after the ministry published names of the approved buyers. “We have been told that the sale was not transparent hence investigations have been reopened”, Molato said.
The ministry has also received a complaint about the sale.
In a letter addressed to the Principal Secretary of agriculture on February 24, Hlalele Hlalele, a farmer from Ha Ratlali Qomoqomong, requested a detailed explanation of why he had not been selected for the purchase of agricultural implements and tractors.
In the letter, Hlalele said he made several attempts to get an explanation but had not succeeded in finding out what methods of evaluation were used to determine successful applicants.
Speaking to MNN, Hlalele said he had only received a verbal response that was not convincing.
Efforts to talk to Principal Secretary Makara were futile, as he did not answer our calls.