NACOSEC haunted by illegal status

RELEBOHILE TSOAMOTSE

MASERU – Failure to establish the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) through an Act of parliament has come back to haunt the COVID-19 response body.

This after the secretariat was this Monday forced out of the Avani Maseru premises where it’s currently renting over unpaid rentals it owes the hotels now understood to run into millions of maloti. The legal notice establishing NACOSEC has been the subject interrogation by senior government officials who argued that the institution should not handle government money.

It was, as a result, not able access government money and has had to be absorbed by the Disaster Management Authority (DMA) as a legally instituted body to deal with disasters. Several attempts were made to secure NACOSEC’s autonomy but subsequent amended legal notices failed to empower it to handle government finances.

When NACOSEC sought to procure services around July 2020, Principal Secretary (PS) in the Prime Minister’s office, Kabelo Lehora, questioned its legality and asked if he would never be made to account for monies spent by this entity.

He wrote to the PS Finance and the Accountant General to advise on the financial implications of releasing funds to the NACOSEC.

“My office is aware that after the establishment of NACOSEC, it is seen to be advertising tenders and appointing personnel without informing the office of the Principal Secretary Cabinet (Admin). I am also aware that the legal notice No. 61 of 2020 establishing NACOSEC does not make any mention whatsoever of the office of the Principal Secretary Cabinet (Admin), who is currently Chief Accounting officer for Heads 009. The office of the Prime Minister,” read Lehora’s memo to PS Finance, in part.

It further stated: “Can you kindly advise on the financial implications of this legal instrument? Whereas COVID-19 funds have been allocated through a fund under the Office of the Prime Minister, does it not mean that nonetheless the Chief Accounting Officer of Head 009 will not account for expenses incurred by NACOSEC? What procurement regulations should NACOSEC follow?”

Since that time, NACOSEC was not allocated any funds but the secretariat, however, remained at the rented space at Avani Maseru.

They were previously housed at the ’Manthabiseng Convention Centre since its founding as the then National Emergency Command Centre – where they left under a cloud of controversy relating to the exorbitant rent the centre was paying to a company managing ’Manthabiseng at the time, at M53 000 daily.

Seven months later, the DMA still has not paid outstanding rent owed by NACOSEC at their new Avani offices, and both Avani and the NACOSEC have refused to reveal the exact amount owed.

NACOSEC’s Chief of Staff, Thabo Ntoi, told a media briefing this week that the secretariat owes rent from July last year when they moved in until Monday when they were kicked out. The two parties, however, reached an agreement that saw NACOSEC being allowed to continue using the premises the following day. “It’s true we were locked out of the offices on Monday but we were able to negotiate with the landlord and we are back at the offices and I am communicating from there now,” he said.

NACOSEC in August last year said the Avani rent deal was affordable and came with benefits like free electricity and internet. The institution had secured the deal after moving out of the ‘Manthabiseng Convention Centre in a move that was also necessitated by the fact that the Command Centre had defaulted on rentals.

The then NACOSEC’s Chief Executive, Thabo Khasipe, called Avani hotel’s rental deal cheaper as it came with benefits, they were charged per square meter at the rate of M72.61. In a previous interview with this publication, NACOSEC said it was occupying 5 160 square meters which translates to a monthly rent of M374 667. This means that over two and half million maloti is owed in rentals to Avani. If the Secretariat is to spend a year at Avani, the rentals would come to approximately M4 496 004.

At the time Khasipe bemoaned the fact that NACOSEC was unable to get its own account number to pay for services, including rentals and staff salaries. Public Eye at the time also spoke to NACOSEC’s legal office, Advocate Tlotliso Potlaki, who said after the institution’s legality was questioned, the government was to remedy the situation by suspending statute, regulations, rules or orders that would hinder, prevent or even delay action preventing NACOSEC from rapidly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Potlaki had this to say: “The law has to be amended, modified or be qualified pursuant to the minister’s emergency powers under Section 4 (a) of the Disaster Management Act read together with Emergency Powers Order of 1988, to ensure that any statute, regulations, rules or orders that hinder, prevent or even delay necessary action by the NACOSEC in rapidly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic is either suspended or amended in accordance with the law. “For as long as the declaration of a disaster induced state of emergency remains in force in Lesotho, the regulations shall apply and it is within the minister in the prime minister’s office rights to invoke these provisions under these circumstances and in law.”

Asked whether NACOSEC was to have its own account number under the new law, she said, “I believe that the envisaged amendments will strengthen the law to allow for the NACOSEC to operate as envisaged under the authority of the Task Force Sub-Committee of Ministers so that it can execute its mandate expeditiously.

“I must clarify that the NACOSEC is operating under the Disaster Management Act and the intention is not to create a parallel structure for purposes of combatting the pandemic but to rapidly respond to COVID-19 with the urgency it requires and without being subjected to bureaucracies ordinarily predominant in government.

“So, yes, I believe once the issue of legality has been resolved, as a structure or spending unit within the Disaster Management Authority, due processes will be followed to ensure that the NACOSEC is able to open its own account.”

 

 

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