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Hippo snubs Co-op Lesotho over bribe claims

BILLY NTAOTE and MPHO THAA THAA

A deal to amend a 25 years sub-lease agreement of a prime land owned by Co-op Lesotho located in Botha-Bothe town acquired by Hippo Transport for M700, 000.00 has backfired after the sub-lessee abandoned signing amendment deal.

The MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism has learned the Cooperative has now given Hippo Transport to vacate the land by the end of January 2019 following a decision to nullify the 25 years sublease.

In 2015, Hippo Transport Services (PTY) LTD owned by Leribe magnate, Mohopoli Monokoane, entered into a Memorandum of Agreement sub-lease with the Cooperative Lesotho for 25 years.

The land in question was according to the sub-lease agreement supposed to be for “Hippo or its nominees to use the premises or any portion thereof as a depot and developing the premises by construction of office and residential accommodation and storage facilities for the use by Hippo or for renting purposes”.

But the new Chief Executive of the ailing Cooperative Neo Theoha, on a mandate to revive the cooperative, wants the 2015 sub-lessee agreement amended.

This, following a Coop Lesotho’s board meeting of 23rd November 2017 whose minutes seen by the Centre indicate a resolution was made that “the cooperative’s contract with Hippo Transport is about a prime site that we need to make sure we get a good deal out of it”.

The resolution, the Centre has learned came two years after a decision was made to sub-let the land to Monokoane, but the Cooperative’s leadership felt the agreement was not beneficial towards the drive for the revival of the cooperative.

Theoha told the Centre in an interview that the decision came after numerous meeting held in the presence of the Sub-lessee.

Theoha said after much deliberations, about the cooperative’s new demands, Monokoane ended being arm twisted to amending the Memorandum of Understanding  to add to the 25 years sublease another 15 years in exchange for payment of M1 million and remitting 25 percent of any proceeds from the development that the Sub-lessee would erect on the site.

In an unfortunate turn of events, the Centre understands the amendment deal collapsed after the Cooperative’s board decided to rescind the deal following Monokoane alleged disappearance reported by the Theoha at a time he was scheduled to seal the revised terms of the sub-lease agreement.

Nonetheless, when contacted for comment, Monokoane corroborates Theoha’s story but reveals a new twist which details why he snubbed signing the revised sub-lease agreement.

Monokoane alleges following the meeting with the Cooperative’s board, Theoha secretly said he single headedly runs Coop Lesotho and Monokoane should entice him with a “bribe” for the sub-lease agreement review to be done in his favour.

According to Theoha, initial sub-lease agreement with Monokoane was initiated by the Commissioner of Cooperatives Maphamoli Lekoetje on behalf of the cooperative in 2015.

Theoha argues that Lekoetje is a government employee who had no legal right to make such decisions on behalf of the cooperative.

The Centre heard how the Lekoetje amid being the Cooperatives regulator by virtue of being the Commissioner of Cooperatives allegedly negotiated and authorised the sub-lease agreement with Monokoane’s Hippo Transport for the Cooperative site Botha-Bothe in stark breach of ethical and legal conduct expected from her office.

The Centre has established that to seal the deal, Monokoane paid M100, 000. 00 as first instalment in cash and later on he delivered cheques to the value of M600, 000.00 paid later to make M700, 000.00 for the 25 years sub-lease agreement.

Theoha told the Centre Lekoetje did not represent the best interests of the Cooperative when she agreed to M700, 000.00 in exchange for a 25 years sub-lease agreement.

“If it was a monthly payment, it would be too low an amount for such a sub-lease for prime land. It only equates to a meagre M2, 300.00 monthly for the 25 years to use the land,” said Theoha.

The Centre heard how the first trench of payment amounting to M100, 000.00 was used to finance an International trip to the International Cooperative Alliance Conference for Ministry of Trade and Industry, Cooperatives and Marketing and the Cooperative’s officials.

Later on, Theoha said when he was employed by the Cooperative, he learned that some of the Ministry’s officials paid back the money but save for Lekoetje.

“According to Coop Lesotho’s records Commissioner Lekoetje, has not refunded us the M20, 000.00 used to fund her trip to the International Cooperatives Alliance Conference,” said Theoha.

Theoha further claims that immediately after the Cooperative received the cheques for the M600, 000.00 from Hippo Transport, or about that time, the then Cooperative’s Manager was suspended for not cooperating with forensic auditors conducting an audit instituted by the Commissioner.

“When we received the M600, 000.00 cheques from Hippo Transport, it is shocking that on the same week the Commissioner suspended the then manager Mr Thabo Shale for alleged failure to comply with auditors.

“But, when he returned to work, the cheques were missing from the safe and there was no trace of funds ever being deposited into Coop Lesotho’s Bank accounts.

“These M 600, 000.00 still not accounted for to date,” said Theoha.

Contacted for comment, Lekotje dismissed the accusations levelled against her by Theoha as unfounded attacks by a person who does not have first-hand knowledge of what transpired.

On the M20, 000.00 Lekoetje told the Centre she deposited the money into the bank account of the Co-op Lesotho.

“The deposit slip was given to an officer of the Cooperative at that time. If it is no longer there in the files, please ask them to give you the print out of the bank statement of that time. It should show the names and or sources of money deposited in the Bank Account,” said Lekotje.

She also argues she never intervened in the work of the Cooperative as a regulator but only received reports from officers undertaking an inquiry and those helping revive the cooperative in her dealings with the cooperative.

On the unaccounted for M600 000.00 Lekoetje said if her suspension of the manager was to facilitate stealing the cheques, what should be asked is whether the said cheques presence was ever reported to the Commissioner.

“I was never told where they had been kept,” said Lekoetje.

She further said “the keys of the safe were kept by both Manager and one Officer of the Cooperative, this officer is the one who opened the safe and she gave the officers doing the inquiry needed documents, question is how then did I access those cheques?”.

“The cooperative officer who had access to the safe served the Inquiry officers with required documents, but handed over the cheques to the Commissioner for her to steal! Does that make sense? To me it doesn’t.

“So maybe you have to approach these officers who did the Inquiry and the one who opened the safe about whether it is true that the cheques were handed over to me and by whom.

“For the entire month I was performing my duties as the Commissioner in my office. I went to Co-op Lesotho the first day to introduce the Commission to the staff of Co-op Lesotho as I always do with other Cooperatives,” said Lekotje.

Lekoetje further said when the then suspended Manager returned from suspension it must be clear to whom he reported the missing cheques.

“He would not report them to the Commissioner because she was a suspect, but why didn’t he report the matter to the police, or the members of the cooperatives who could have advised him to report the matter to the police and or to the Minister of Small Business Development, Cooperatives and Marketing or Principal Secretary who could have reported to the matter to the police and DCEO for crime investigation?” said Lekotje as she argued her innocence.

Contrary to what Theoha argues, Malineo Mosoeunyane, one of the senior officer seconded to revive the Cooperative, told the Centre Lekoetje was never involved in any of the operations or sale of properties made on behalf of the Co-op Lesotho during its revival.

“All we did was to report to her on our daily progress on the duties she had allocated to us.

“And on the allegedly missing cheques which were received after the sale between Hippo Transport and Co-op Lesotho, it must be clear that the commissioner got insider information that the former CEO was conducting unethical practices at Co-op Lesotho.

“Hippo Transport paid out five cheques amounting to M 99 000, 00. Only three cheques were obtained.

“We asked the account clerk about the missing two cheques, she then explained that they had been borrowed by Ntate Shale and Ntate David.

“It is unknown to present what they had used the money for, only rumours that it was used as part of per diem. However she did explain that the rest of the cheques through the former CEO’s instructions would be deposited into the bank the following day,” said Mosoeunyane.

But, Theoha adds that the incident has since been reported to the Directorate for Corruption and Economic Offenses (DCEO) to investigate what happened to the M600, 000.00 worth cheques, but no progress has been made on the case.

He further alleged “Hippo Transport officials and owner are also holding back something on this issue”.

“Hippo is also not cooperating with the DCEO on cheques and who cashed them at the bank. And to date he has also refused to cooperate with us on this investigation”.

Theoha said the Cooperatives’ board wants the agreement with Hippo quashed after Monokoane did not show up to sign the revised sub-lease agreement.

He argues the board further hold a strong view that the initial sub-lease was negotiated and authorised by a person who does not have a legal right to hold any office within the Cooperative.

He also notes that the site in question was at the time the sub-lease agreement was signed still bonded to a debt with the old Lesotho bank.

Theoha said when Cooperative attempted to correct the sublease, it engaged Monokoana of Hippo to talk about the developments expected to be made on the site in line with the initial sub-lease agreement.

Theoha said Monokoane then brought to the Cooperative’s board designs/drawings of a nice complex as the proposed development on the site in Botha-Bothe but continued to insist on the 25 year sub-lease length.

“We asked him to add M1 million and 25 percent for extra 15 years on the sublease. But he never showed up to seal the deal on 16th of October 2018.

“We were agreeing after a lengthy process. And he agreed to our demands and all that was left was for him to come sign the deal.

“But he never showed up. Now the board has made a decision to cancel the lease.

“We have given him a notice until 31st of January to vacate the land and in 3 months’ time we need the land back. We are have now nullified the 25 years sublease,” said Theoha.

Theoha said the Cooperative is now preparing for the January 31st date to ascertain how “we’d be resolving the M700, 000.00 in exchange for use of our land to reconcile who owes the other here”.

Contacted by the Centre for comment Monokoane said Theoha had the whole history of how he acquired the 25 years sub-lease all wrong and even tried to extort him at a time he had agreed to have the sub-lease revised.

“Between 2015 and 2016, Coop Lesotho asked me to borrow them about M600, 000.00 when they were going through a financial crisis.

“In exchange, they sub-leased to me for 25 years their site in Botha-Bothe, there were no other conditions. They approached me because I was already using their land in Botha-Bothe.

“When Neo Theoha became the CEO, he told me, I had signed a contract with the wrong people. He demanded to have a meeting with me. I found his approach very unprofessional so I did not obliged to his demands.

“However, through the intervention of Ntate Leuta, Cooperative’s board member, I eventually met with Neo Theoha,” said Monokoane.

He said Theoha demanded that the terms of the contract must be re-negotiated.

Monokoane said some of the demands by Theoha were that he should erect some infrastructure on the site.

“I did not have any objections to his suggestion however because the contract had already run down for two years, then I asked him to formally write down to me his requests as the new CEO through email. He showed no interest of writing such a letter and ultimately did not.

“I prepared a proposal on what I wanted to do on the land and on the agreed date presented before the board,” said Monokoane.

The Centre heard how Theoha allegedly cornered Monokoane at the end of the presentations to extort out of him favours amounting to a bribe in order for him to fast track the completion of the revised sub-lease agreement.

“At the end of the meeting, Neo Theoha walked me out of the meeting and showed me the developments they were making on their site along the Main North 1 road telling me he is the one who makes things happen within the Cooperative as the CEO as the board was like a toothless bulldog.

“Then he asked me to help him establish a personal project he was working on in the Thaba-Tseka district as I was already established in the district. In exchange he would legally help me correct the sub-lease he argues I acquired from people who did not have a right to issue it to me.

“I did not agree to his proposal. And that’s how far I went with Co-op Lesotho. In fact I told him we will meet in court if they hold a view that I acquired the 25 year sub-lease illegally,” said Monokoane.

On accusations that he failed to help the cooperative with information regarding the persons who deposited the Cheques he paid to the Cooperative, Monokoane said he released all necessary information to the DCEO and complied with all information requests.

“I also gave them copies of the cheques I had drawn for them when paying for the sub-lease,” said Monokoane.

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