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Rushed airport contract scrapped

SA’s Acsa appointed amid fears that Moshoeshoe I could fail looming audit

Billy Ntaote

The Lesotho government appointed South Africa’s state-owned Airports Company of South Africa (Acsa) as its adviser and supervisor in a hastily launched M500-million airport rehabilitation project – in breach of procurement regulations.

The Transport Ministry was subsequently forced to withdraw the tender, and admitted that it’s been illegally awarded.

It appears that the sudden rush to rehabilitate Moshoeshoe 1 International Airport was because the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is planning to inspect the airport within a few months, Lesotho Times reported, and there are fears that the facility will not meet international standards.

One aviation industry source said the airport might even be closed to international flights.

MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism learned that Acsa was awarded the four-year contract in December last year by Transport Minister Tšoeu Mokeretla without a tender process. Mokeretla denied this.

MNN was told that the award was later withdrawn and replaced by a “selective tendering process” that started on February 12, with a few companies exclusively invited to bid, including Acsa.

Civil Aviation Department director Motsoaole Lesupi confirmed that the ministry had already engaged Acsa before having to retract its decision and begin a tender process.

“Yes, our eyes were on Acsa because its status had already positioned it to where we were saying: ‘They are ready to go,’” he said.

Lesupi admitted that the ministry had ignored aspects of the law and regulations governing procurement when it awarded the contract.

“We looked at the law and said to ourselves we are going to engage Acsa. Our impression was that the law provides for what we wanted to do.

“We acknowledged we were wrong. We had to look at companies that already existed and check whether they would make a better offer than Acsa,” said Lesupi.

He said the current tender process has not reached evaluation by the tender panel and “we cannot even guarantee that Acsa will win”.

Minister Mokeretla, when contacted for comment, said the accusations levelled against him were false and that the tender process was ongoing.

An aviation expert who refused to be named said “if we fail to meet ICAO standards at our next audit, we risk Moshoeshoe I being blacklisted and no international flight will land here”.

The source told MNN that the current tender still excluded local companies from contesting, and that it had never been advertised, as required by public procurement regulations.

“The time-frame given for submission is short, just six working days,” the source said. “Even if we had known about the tender, time was just too limited.

“Seemingly the time was limited and the terms of reference omitted crucial aspects of a tender document to give Acsa a chance to be the only company to make a comprehensive and winning proposal.”

Lesupi responded that the ministry is acting out of urgency to avoid being blacklisted by the ICAO. It felt Acsa was well placed to move swiftly as a consultant.

Mosheshoe 1 has three months or less before it is audited by the ICAO. It must show that progress has been made in addressing critical aviation problems or risk blacklisting.

MNN has learned aviation problems the airport face includes a cracked runway that also has no aviation lights, toilets and lift are non-functional and its roofing is leaking and has many other security challenges to meet ICAO standards.

“Fact is ACSA has already done some work for us, we were acting on reason that ACSA is way ahead than any other company on these issues.

“Other companies are yet to make studies and other things. Remember we are acting to ensure that the airport does not get closed,” Lesupi said.

ICAO’s online Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme showsLesotho was last audited in 2007 and that in terms of its “effective implementation” score in various categories it falls below global averages.

Lesotho rankings against global averages scores

The project calls for consultancy services for the supervision of improvements at the airport. The consultants must also assist the ministry in preparing tender documents, running the tender process, evaluating bids and supervising the works.

The terms of reference state that the consultants will “manage project implementation and report on engineering, construction management, legal, financial, environmental and social”.

Acsa does not have a clean record as far as corruption is concerned. Its chief executive, Bongani Maseko, and other executives were suspended over the mismanagement of funds and graft allegations.

The source alleged that after appointing Acsa, Mokeretla, ended having to change course and open a tendering process. They also complain that the process was exclusive to a small number of undisclosed companies, and that this worked against them.

The source said there are local companies that could have found suitable international partners if the project had gone to open tender.

The MNN Centre has seen the terms of reference, which were published on February 12. The tender closed six working days later on February 19.

“I hear complaints, but we acted within the confines of the laws. If they are dissatisfied, they must go to court,” said Mokeretla.

See: Terms of reference for Moshoeshoe I international Airport rehabilitation.

Acsa’s relationship with Lesotho aviation authorities

Lesupi saidrelations with Acsa are so good that the company has provided services to Lesotho free of charge.

Lesupi said the ministry had asked the South Africans to investigate what needed to be rehabilitated and at what cost.

He said “when our aviation fate is now hanging in the balance, they gave us a report on what to do and the associated cost estimates”.

He said Acsa had been engaged before the looming ICAO audit became an issue.

“At the time, we were telling them we want to bring Moshoeshoe I up to international standards.

“And today we have a report that details the required rehabilitation and financial estimates for the rehabilitation of the airport.

“We did not have any budget to engage them as paid consultants, so they assisted us free of charge,” Lesupi said.

Lesupi said he had to report back to his superiors in the presence of Acsa’s team, as they had to explain to government why construction of a one-kilometre runway would cost M80 million.

“There was a time when we made a presentation to the Ministers and they were shocked by how exorbitant aviation costs are.

“To explain the importance of aviation to an impoverished country like Lesotho is hard. Acsa helped us convince our superiors that the airport repairs needed to be funded before ICAO said it is coming for an audit,” said Lesupi.

“Acsa also helped us source quotations and worked out the estimated costs for rehabilitation, as they are in this business of running airports.”

Pending audit by ICAO

Commenting on the ICAO audit, Lesupi, said he had told the former transport minister, Keketso Sello, in 2019 that the organisation was planning to visit Lesotho.

He said he had told Sello that given the state of aviation in the country “we are going to fail and if we fail, that airport may face blacklisting”.

“I got a positive response – maybe it was the fear that Lesotho might face bitter consequences.

“Before my arrival in that office, there had been recommendations to the government that the airport should be repaired, and the response was always that it would be. But it didn’t happen for years,” he said.

Lesupi said the airport was now in such a critical state that “there are no functional toilets, the runway needs repair and there are many other issues including a leaking roof and safety issues.

Moeketsi Majoro, formerly the finance minister and now prime minister had urged Sello to take a strong team and go and plead with the ICAO “to be lenient on us”.

“We told them that we now have a professional service provider’s report from Acsa of what needs to be done and the costs, and we need to move swiftly.

“So, the question that came was, what are you doing to rehabilitate the airport to meet ICAO standards.

“We made the promises to ICAO, so the important thing was to act fast to save the situation.

“We thought that because Acsa deals with airports we can easily engage them to help on this project. They had already started doing the work for us and knew what was needed,” Lesupi said.


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