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ABC dialogue in false start

…as warring factions trade accusations

Ntsebeng Motsoeli

THE much-anticipated negotiations to end the infighting in the Thomas Thabane-led All Basotho Convention (ABC) failed to kick off on Thursday amid indications of logistical bungling and bickering between the two warring factions, the old national executive committee (NEC) and the new NEC.

It had been anticipated that the old and new ABC NECs would begin negotiations on Thursday in line with the court ruling by the Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase but this did not materialise. Yesterday, party sources said the talks had still not begun and it was still unclear on which day they will now get underway this week.

According to a letter written by the secretary general in the old NEC, Samonyane Ntsekele, the meeting should have been held on Thursday but as one ABC source explained, the meeting did not take place because of logistical bungling in the secretary general’s office.

“There was a lot of bungling and disagreements between the two factions as to when to start,” said one ABC source who spoke on condition of anonymity after the party officials were gaged by Justice Mahase’s court order from speaking to the media.

“The bungling is even reflected in the date that the letter announcing the commencement of negotiations was written. The letter is dated 8 March and it is announcing the start of talks on 7 March,” the source added.

Efforts to obtain comment from Mr Ntsekele and his counterparts in the new NEC were fruitless with both sides pleading silence due to the court order.

“We cannot comment on the details of the negotiations at all. It has been agreed that no ABC member speaks about the details of the negotiations. We cannot even say if they have started or not,” Mr Ntsekele said.

The newly elected spokesperson, Montoeli Masoetsa, also declined to speak to this publication when contacted for a comment.

However, this publication understands that the negotiations did not kick off because the two factions could not agree on procedural issues to guide the talks.

One source told the Sunday Express that the new NEC had strongly objected to what it considered to be the deliberate flouting of the court order by the old NEC. Among other things, the new NEC is said to be unhappy with the fact that they were not co-signatories to the ABC letter announcing the negotiations. They say the issuing of the letter which only had Mr Ntsekele’s signature was proof that the old NEC was side-lining them in violation of Justice Mahase’s order. Part of Justice Mahase’s order issued on Wednesday states that “during the settlement negotiations, neither party shall address the media about the party affairs and they shall issue a joint press statement before close of business on 7 March 2019 informing the general membership of the 1strespondent (ABC) about the decision to hold settlement negotiations”.

Commenting on Mr Ntsekele’s letter which was issued on 8 March, one source said, “the old NEC has acted against the court order that representatives from the two parties append their signatures to the joint statement”.

“The 8 March ABC statement was only signed by a representative from the other side (Mr Ntsekele),” the ABC member said.

Justice Mahase gave the newly elected and outgoing ABC NECs until 19 May 2019 to resolve their differences which threaten to split the party and possibly bring down the current coalition government.

Justice Mahase issued a court order after the two ABC factions consented to talks aimed at reaching an out of court settlement. Should they fail to agree, the factions will return to court for a full hearing of an application against the election of the new NEC.  A verdict will then be delivered on 29 March 2019.

The two factions have been locked in a bitter struggle which has seen the old NEC refuse to hand over power to the new NEC voted into office at the party’s elective conference early last month.

The old NEC alleges that the elections which ushered in National University of Lesotho Vice Chancellor Professor Nqosa Mahao and former Constitutional Affairs and Human Rights Minister Lebohang Hlaele as deputy leader and secretary general respectively were marred by vote rigging.

Mr Hlaele, Prof Mahao and the rest of the newly elected NEC have not been able to assume office after their election was challenged by three ABC legislators Habofanoe Lehana (Khafung), Keketso Sello (Hlotse) and Mohapi Mohapinyane (Rothe).

The trio allege that the polls were marred by gross irregularities which made it impossible to achieve a credible outcome. On Wednesday, Justice Mahase issued an order giving the warring factions until 19 March 2019 to resolve their squabbles.

She also reviewed her earlier ruling (rule nisi) which barred the new NEC from assuming office and permitted the old NEC to continue running party affairs until the finalisation of Messrs Lehana, Sello and Mohapinyane’s application for the nullification of the election of the new NEC. But the old NEC is restricted to making administrative decisions only.

“By consent of all parties, the rule nisi issued by this honourable court on 13 February 2019 is hereby reviewed and…the parties shall hold negotiations and conclude such negotiations on or before 19 March 2019 and the Assistant High Court Registrar, Realeboha Makamane, shall mediate such negotiations,” Justice Mahase ordered.

“During the settlement negotiations, the outgoing NEC shall only make bare administrative decisions on behalf of the first respondent (ABC).

“During the settlement negotiations, neither party shall address the media about the party affairs and they shall issue a joint press statement before close of business on 7 March 2019 informing the general membership of the 1strespondent (ABC) about the decision to hold settlement negotiations.”

The order also enjoins the factions to discuss and agree on the agenda of their talks “with the aid of the mediator (Mr Makamane) prior to the first mediation sitting.”

“By consent of all parties, the rule nisi is extended to 20 March 2019 at 9:30am for substitution with the final settlement terms.

“Alternatively, if the negotiations have collapsed or failed by 19 March 2019, then the matter shall be heard on 20 March 2019 at 9:30am and this honourable court shall issue and deliver its judgement on 29 March 2019 at 9:30am.”

The outgoing NEC also agreed to suspend its planned disciplinary measures against Mr Hlaele and other members of the new NEC pending the outcome of the negotiations.

Mr Hlaele was recently slapped with a letter by the old NEC requesting him to show cause why he should not be suspended from the party.  The show cause letter against Mr Hlaele stems from an accusation that he “fraudulently” authorised the appointment of K.J. Nthontho Attorneys to represent the ABC in the case in which Messrs Lehana, Sello and Mohapinyane are seeking the nullification of the results of the party’s 1 — 2 February 2019 elective conference.

Should the negotiations succeed, they will bring to an end the infighting which has threatened to split the ABC and even bring down the government. The ABC is the main partner in the governing coalition that also includes the Alliance of Democrats, the Reformed Congress of Lesotho and the Basotho National Party.

Besides the lockout of the new NEC from the party offices in Maseru and the court challenge, the acrimony between the two sides has also led to sensational claims by Mr Hlaele that some ABC officials were using the State House, the official residence of the Prime Minister in Maseru, to plot his assassination. Mr Hlaele is the son in law to the Prime Minister and ABC leader Thomas Thabane. He is married to Dr Thabane’s daughter, Advocate ‘Mabat?oeneng Hlaele, who is representing her husband’s side.

Another source who spoke on condition of anonymity said the negotiations could start this week.

“The negotiations might start next week. However, the two factions are yet to set the agenda,” the source said.

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