Thahane to be charged
MASERU — Water Affairs Minister Timothy Thahane is expected to be charged on Monday for corruption, fraud and abuse of office in connection with the block farming scandal.The charges will make Thahane the first incumbent minister to be indicted for corruption since the return of democracy in 1993. The charges are a culmination of an investigation the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) has been conducting into the block farming scandal since the beginning of the year. Thahane, a former finance minister and director at the World Bank, was supposed to be arrested at the Moshoeshoe I Airport on Monday upon his return from an official trip.
But for some unknown reasons the DCEO investigators were not at the airport. Instead Thahane, who already had information on his impending arrest, handed himself to the DCEO on Monday afternoon. This was after he had received confirmation from Government Secretary Motlatsi Ramafole that the DCEO wanted him. At the DCEO Thahane was interrogated for about three and half hours.
He was confronted with a huge body of evidence that the anti-corruption unit had gathered over the past four months.
On Tuesday, Thahane confirmed the imminent charges against him.
“Tell them (readers) that you asked me and I confirmed that I was interrogated by the DCEO from 4pm to 7.30pm,” Thahane said in an interview.
The interrogation was conducted by three investigators, Thahane said.
“They told me that they were going to charge me with conflict of interest, fraud and abuse of office”.
He said during the interrogation he discovered that the DCEO had already interviewed several people in connection with the block farming scheme in Mpharane.
Thahane was the mentor for a group of farmers who benefited from the scheme in Mpharane.
“The DCEO had already interviewed a civil works company called Matete Construction which we worked with,” he said.
“They had also interviewed Omnia Agency which supplied us with fertilisers. Several other farmers whose business plans I helped prepared were also interviewed.”
The investigators also had documents from the banks.
Thahane also revealed that he was supposed to be charged today (Thursday) but had asked the DCEO for some time to find a lawyer.
“I said on Tuesday its cabinet meeting so they must allow me to attend it and on Wednesday it’s a public holiday. So I asked them to allow me to search for a lawyer on Thursday,” he said.
“I am therefore expecting them to charge me on Monday.”
He is expected to appear in the magistrate’s court.
Thahane said during the interrogation “I told them (investigators) everything because I have nothing to hide”.
His main concern, he said, was the corruption charge.
“The charges of conflict of interest and abuse of office are subject to argument because they depend on interpretation. What I am going to fight against is the corruption charge. That one, they have to prove it.”
The charges against Thahane are centred on allegations that he illegally benefited from the M74 million loan scheme that was supposed to help poor households boost their food security.
Under the scheme launched in the 2006 farming season farmers were supposed to get government guaranteed loans from Standard Lesotho Bank.
That meant if the farmers failed to repay their loans the government would pay the bank.
Thahane, who was finance minister at that time, was one of the MPs and ministers who were appointed as mentors for the farmers that got the loans.
Others were the then and forestry minister Ralechate Mokose who is now the secretary general of the main opposition Democratic Congress party and Ramootsi Lehata who was the deputy minister of agriculture.
The block farming scandal, as it has been dubbed by the media, started unravelling in 2010 when former trade minister and Lesotho Congress for Democracy stalwart, Mpho Malie, wrote to Standard Lesotho Bank complaining that some of mentors had illegally benefited from the loans meant for farmers.
He said instead of helping farmers the mentors had ended up being the main creditors of the scheme and they had failed to repay their loans.
Malie also alleged that the mentors could have laundered some of the money.
The mentors, Malie said, had abused the scheme for several seasons.
Malie is now a political adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing.
Sekara Mafisa, the then ombudsman, investigated Malie’s claims.
His report alleged that Thahane did not pay the M3 423 777 he allegedly borrowed during the 2006/2007 farming season.
It also alleges that in the 2007/2008 summer cropping season Thahane borrowed M11 576 348 – and only repaid M2 343 877 with the remaining M9 252 476 being carried forward.
The report further alleges he still also owed M4 855 598 for the 2007/2008 winter cropping season.
It puts Thahane’s alleged liability at M17 531 851 before interest. This, according to the report, means that for the 2006/2007 farming season Thahane borrowed 66 percent of the annual block farming national budget.
In an interview after the ombudsman’s report Thahane denied that he had benefited from the scheme.
His only role, he said, was to mentor the farmers, help them manage their books and get training.
“I am not a block farmer. I am a farmer and a member of the association of Temo-‘Moho-Mpharane Leribe,” he said.
“I have not borrowed any money from the scheme. I do not owe anything to the government.”
“As a farmer I pay for my own inputs and operations,” he added.
“Those farmers do not handle money. I do not handle the money as a mentor”.
“Everything is done through the bank and the suppliers.”