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The great passport bonfire

Business

Staff Reporter

In a country where passports are as rare as honest politicians, the Auditor General (AG) ‘Mathabo Makenete has dropped a bombshell revealing that over 15,000 passports were destroyed in 2022, costing the government a staggering M3 million.

This revelation was made in Makenete’s report on the government’s financial statements for the year ending March 31, 2022, tabled in parliament last week.

The report unveils a damning picture of a government ministry that has outdone itself in bureaucratic ineptitude. The Ministry of Home Affairs, through the Department of Passport Services, is responsible for issuing travel documents in Lesotho.

According to Makenete, the ministry entered into a maintenance agreement with PANGEA Ngu (Ltd) that was supposed to include information technology (IT) skills transfer.

However, this arrangement, much like the ministry’s efficiency, seems to have been more of a suggestion than a contractual obligation.

Makenete indicated that section 3 of the agreement stipulated that PANGEA would collaborate with the Government IT personnel for the duration of the Agreement.

Her concern is the lack of skills transfer due to the absence of collaboration between the ministry’s IT personnel and PANGEA officers.

“Skills transfer was limited, and there was poor maintenance of the systems leading to dysfunctional printers and computers,” she stated.

She also lamented the lack of security arrangements, which stands in stark contrast to Section 5 (h) of the Public Financial Management and Accountability Act (PFMA Act).

She recounted how passports were observed being distributed from production to various destinations in unsealed boxes by a Passport Officer, who was not accompanied by any security personnel.

“The Department of Passport Services is responsible for preparing the revenue budget for passports anticipated to be printed in the upcoming year. Several passports, totaling 15,372, were rendered unusable due to a variety of reasons, including folded paper, chip errors, and data mismatches, leading to their mutilation,” Makenete said.

She added: “These mutilated passports had cost the government M3.6 million. If these passports had remained intact, they would have generated an estimated revenue of M2.1 million for the Ministry.”

According to the audit report, this loss was not reported to the Chief Accounting Officer (CAO) by the public officer or the finance officer. Consequently, the CAO did not report to the Principal Secretary (PS) of the Ministry of Finance, violating Section 89 (1) of the Treasury Regulations of 2014.

“I recommended that the ministry places IT personnel at the Passport Production Centre, PANGEA facilitates training of the ministry’s IT personnel to support the system, the CAO develops security guidelines for the delivery of passports from production to distribution sites, and the ministry complies with the loss report per regulation,” Makenete said.

In December last year, a local advocacy group, the Advocates for the Supremacy of the Constitution, also known as SECTION 2, wrote to the Minister of Local Government, Chieftainship, Home Affairs, and Police, Lebona Lephema, saying they were deeply troubled by the prolonged delays in issuing passports to the citizens and the unjust, discriminatory practices evident in the passport issuance process.

SECTION 2 said that the extended waiting period post-application and payment for a new passport signified a blatant disregard for the fundamental human rights of our people.

“The freedom to move and to leave one’s country is a basic human right enshrined in various international conventions, as well as in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Lesotho,” the letter read.

“These unwarranted delays effectively impede our citizens’ ability to exercise this fundamental freedom and pose risks to their right to life, especially for those urgently requiring medical attention abroad,” it added.

SECTION 2 also mentioned that in a climate of persistently high unemployment rates, it was imperative that the government facilitates, rather than hinders, the ability of the citizens to seek economic opportunities elsewhere, including in neighbouring South Africa.

It submitted that the delay in issuing passports not only exacerbated economic hardships but also pushed some individuals to resort to illegal border crossings, risking their dignity, safety, and lives.

“We implore you to urgently address this matter. SECTION 2 anticipates your immediate, tangible actions within the next 14 days to rectify this pressing issue” SECTION 2 said.

When the 14-day period for a response elapsed without any tangible actions or communication from the ministry of home affairs, SECTION petitioned the Law and Public Safety Portfolio Committee of the National Assembly to summon the ministry to appear before it at the earliest possible date.

“Given the urgency and the potential impact on citizens’ lives and rights, we implore the committee to expedite the summoning of the ministry for a thorough and transparemt inquiry into these pressing matters,” read SECTION 2’s letter dated January 12, 2024.

The Clerk of the National Assembly, advocate Lebohang Maema, responded on March 15 saying that the committee had a meeting with the ministry on February 5 and in the meeting, the ministry confirmed that the problem regarding the issuance of passports had been solved.

“The ministry further indicated that the problem emanated from the supplier who failed to deliver the procured passports. As the supplier was the middleman, the ministry has since procured passports directly from the manufacturer,” Maema said.

However, parliament later summoned the ministry, and it was confirmed that the problem of passport issuance still persisted.

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