Lesotho PM faces probe over Gupta mining links

Lesotho PM faces probe over Gupta mining links

Lesotho’s anti-corruption agency is scrutinising Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his son Potlako over “serious allegations of corrupt practices and money laundering” linked to the Gupta family, the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism (MNNCIJ) has learned. By LEKHETHO NTSUKUNYANE.

This follows a letter to the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences by opposition politician Bokang Ramatšella last month.

The letter, dated January 29 and addressed to the directorate’s director general, Borotho Matsoso, asks the directorate to investigate the premier and his son in connection with the Guptas’ acquisition of mining rights for Mothae Diamond Mine in 2015, under Thabane’s previous administration.

The directorate’s spokesperson, ’Matlhokomelo Senoko, confirmed to the MNNCIJ this week that the investigation was at a preliminary stage.

We have received (an expression of) concern from Mr Ramatšella, but I cannot reveal details,” she said. “A team was set up to determine whether the matter was suitable to be investigated by the directorate. The matter has passed that phase.

It is now at the preliminary investigation stage where some facts are being gathered. The next phase will be the actual investigation.”

Thabane’s senior private secretary, Lefu Manyokole, said this week they were not aware of these developments.

The matter has not come to the attention of the prime minister’s office. We would be able to comment on it if we knew about it,” Manyokole said.

The MNNCIJ understands that Ramatšella met Borotho and one of the directorate’s investigators on Tuesday last week.

An insider said it was concluded that the matter was sufficiently substantial for the directorate to investigate, and an investigator was assigned to it.

Ramatšella confirmed last week’s meeting but refused to divulge details. “I undertook not to discuss the issue with anyone,” he said.

In his letter, Ramatšella said he was submitting his request in terms of section 35 of Lesotho’s Prevention of Corruption and Economic Offences Act.

This provides that “if a person has reasonable grounds to suspect that a serious economic offence has been or is being committed, and that an attempt has been made or is being made to commit such an offence, he may lay the matter in question before the director…”

The allegations, he said, related to Thomas and Potlako Thabane’s “collusion/collaboration with the Gupta-linked shady letterbox Tequesta company and its suspicious acquisition of mining rights at Mothae Diamond Mine”.

In December 2017, a joint investigation by the Lesotho-based MNNCIJ and South Africa’s amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism unearthed documents showing that the government, through former mining minister Tlali Khasu, gave rights to the Hong Kong-based Tequesta Group to operate the Mothae mine. Tequesta’s sole director was the Guptas’ close business partner, Salim Essa.

At the time the rights – worth an estimated $8.5-million (R119-million) – were still vested in Canadian miner Lucara.

Thabane has denied any personal benefit from the Tequesta deal, insisting that he was motivated only by the desire to promote development in Lesotho.

However, there are claims that the Guptas offered to fund his re-election campaign before the fiercely contested February 2015 poll.

A senior government source told investigators that the controversial family had funded the campaign to the tune of R10-million.

Potlako denied any partnership, saying: “I’m a businessman and a politician as well – people come to me with proposals. They (Guptas) went to register a local company but nothing came out of it. They just talked … I think we wanted to be partners, but it never happened.”

Asked if the Guptas had offered to fund Thabane’s re-election campaign, he said: “We wanted (the Guptas) to. We made arrangements for them to provide funding. But then they suddenly lost interest. They never provided a cent.

They wanted a mine. The mine they were targeting they couldn’t get. After that, all communication stopped.”

Ramatšella complained in his letter that Thabane’s “alleged association with this shady company is… a serious indictment of the integrity of the person of the stature of the prime minister and his office”.

My belief is that the allegation should be thoroughly investigated to clear any doubts… or… pave the way for possible prosecution.”

Ramatšella pointed out that the #Guptaleaks made startling revelations in respect of two letters written to former mining minister Khasu.

The two letters appear to have been the first step in an audacious plan orchestrated by the Guptas and their business partner, Salim Essa, to seize the Mothae Diamond Mine in Lesotho with the help of the country’s political elite, presumably the Thabane family,” he said.

Leaked documents from the mining ministry indicate that as soon as the government had reached a shareholder’s agreement with the Hong Kong-based brass-plate company, Khasu signed a 10-year mining lease with Tequesta Group Lesotho.

The Gupta leaks went further to make “an explicit connection between Dr Thabane and the Guptas by telling us that in August 2014… Thabane appointed Atul Gupta as a special adviser and had granted him, Essa …. and a third Gupta associate diplomatic passports”.

These privileges were rescinded by Lesotho’s new prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, after the fall of Thabane’s government in 2015.

Attempts by the Guptas to vindicate their “rights” in respect of the Mothae mine also fell on stony ground.

Ramatsella said the lease agreement was additionally surprising because the right to mine at Mothae “unquestionably” still belonged to Lucara.

He also pointed out that the task of assessing applications for mining rights is normally carried out by Lesotho’s mining board.

A June 2015 memo from the mining board to the minister makes it clear that (the board) was not consulted.”

A draft of the licence found in the Gupta leaks suggests the Guptas were offered a highly favourable deal: a sales tax of between four and eight percent and a rental of $87,000 per year, only payable once the company showed a profit.

Ramatšella added there were allegations that the company was set up by the Guptas with the intention of circumventing legal and conventional obligations, including taxation, social security payment, VAT and wages.

Documents filed with the Lesotho’s ministry of trade and industry show that “the newly-minted Tequesta Group Lesotho was registered to an office linked to Potlako Thabane at the Thetsane Office Park, south of Maseru Mall”, he said.

The same records listed Potlako Thabane’s email address under Tequesta’s contact details.”

Ramatšella concluded: “I am aware that the prime minister ‘abhors corruption’, as he openly reiterates that in different platforms. In fact, the grand narrative of anti-corruption has become his metaphor for good governance and poverty alleviation.

However, this should be guided and tested by the cardinal principle that moes tam suspicione quam crimine judico oportere carere (I and members of my family should be as free from the suspicion of crime much as we are from the crime itself).”

Ramatšella has copied the letter to leaders of Lesotho’s opposition parties, the SADC Oversight Committee, the SADC Facilitator in Lesotho, the Lesotho Council of NGOs and the Christian Council of Lesotho. DM

This story was produced by the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism in Lesotho, in association with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism

A file picture dated 26 September 2013 shows Thomas Thabane, Prime Minister of Lesotho, speaking during the general debate of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA. EPA/STAN HONDA


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