THIS week we put Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Lesao Lehohla (pictured) in the HOT SEAT to answer questions about the chaos at the country’s borders, the passport backlog and crime in the country.
We ask him about what the government is doing about the police force that has become notorious for torturing suspects to get evidence. He also talks about allegations of corruption that have rocked the Passport Services Department.
Below are excerpts of the interview:
SE: Are you satisfied with the progress that your ministry has made towards reducing the huge backlog in the passport office so far?
Lehohla: I am happy with the progress. The important issue now is to deal with multiple applicants because for as long as we have that problem the passport office will continue to be overwhelmed.
The other problem is that although the production has improved we still have passports piling up because people are not collecting them.
That’s because the passports have not been sorted properly according to the applicants’ area and village.
This disorder has in the past made it easier for passport officials to dismiss applicants by telling them that their passports are not ready when they are actually somewhere on the shelves.
That also seems to have helped corrupt officials at the passport office to demand bribes so that they can look for the passports.
SE: How are you dealing with corruption in the passport office?
Lehohla: We are working on that. The immediate remedy is to involve the local councils and we have done that.
Once we speed up the process of issuing passports and then improve the distribution by sorting them according to areas and villages there will be no room for unscrupulous officials to demand bribes.
A number of people have been arrested for the scam.
The bigger problem we have is that our community is making it easy for corrupt officials to take them for a ride.
They will never report corrupt officials. They talk about corruption at the passport offices in vague terms and when such matters are taken to the police the investigations crumble because there is no strong evidence.
SE: Well, that’s probably because the police are notorious for not protecting the confidentiality of their sources.
Lehohla: Yes, this dishonesty permeates our public services and that has compromised the maintenance of public order.
SE: Does Lesotho have the capacity to produce passports on time?
Lehohla: I don’t see why not. The issue here is problems started when the passport services were centralised. The idea behind centralising the services was because we wanted a secure system.
But that created problems because we implemented the system half-heartedly. The government has now made a decision to build a secure passport production facility in Mohale’s Hoek.
We believe that if we get the right calibre of people in that facility we will have an efficient system.
SE: When will this facility start operating?
Lehohla: We should see ourselves happy by early next year or just before the end of this year.
We have had people coming in to show us how the system will work and how it will curb fraud. It’s wonderful technology because people will be able to make their applications in post offices and online.
We are building towards an e-passport. We want our systems to be of international standards.
SE: Three weeks ago there was a story in the press that South Africa had offered to make passports for Lesotho. Was there any discussion between the two countries on that issue?
Lehohla: It’s not that they offered and we rejected the idea. No. We need to look at these issues as a process rather than an event.
As you are aware the person credited for that story is South Africa’s minister of international affairs. I am working with my counterpart (South Africa’s minister of home affairs) and she has suggested that we can have a system where our people can cross the border biometrically (an automatic identification system that uses fingerprints or the iris).
You will recall that the British government imposed visa restrictions on Lesotho and South Africa. That was an indication that our two countries have the same problems.
In fact they have a bigger problem than ours. We are working together to deal with these issues.
The important issue is that our systems at the borders should be compatible.
SE: But the situation at the border has not improved dramatically. There are still long queues every day.
Lehohla: I would like to believe that there are other reasons why the situation has not improved as fast as people would want.
The football (World Cup) spectacular in South Africa contributed to that and before we could settle government workers in South Africa went on strike.
I am sure now that the strike is over we are going to have more clarity on what needs to be done.
We agree that it’s not right for people to spend a long time at the border. I will be happy if the problems are sorted before Christmas.
SE: The police have time and again been accused of human rights abuses. Every week we read stories of people suing the police for torture. What is the government doing about this?
Lehohla: I think that culture is a challenge for the police. They seem to be unable to get evidence without resorting to unlawful means.
That is unfortunate. It is not compatible with the values of a free society. The idea of torture is not consistent with our constitution.
SE: Could be it that our police lack proper training?
Lehohla: The sky is the limit when it comes to training. We need to train our people to adhere to standards.
SE: Maseru has become an unsafe place to live in because of crime. Every week people are being killed and women are being raped. What is the ministry doing about crime in this country?
Lehohla: It’s a disturbing and an unfortunate trend that needs to be addressed urgently. I have instructed the police directorate to have a statistical analysis of crime in this country. Homicide is clearly on the rise and that concerns us.
If I look at the trends I get the feeling that perhaps Maseru needs to be policed differently so that we free the police to do more productive work to fight crime in other parts of the country. We are strongly considering introducing CCTV in the streets of Maseru.
A big problem that we face in the fight against crime is the illegal ownership of firearms. The supply of these arms does not seem to dry up. We need a strategy to deal with illicit firearms. But this will be a huge challenge because our borders are so porous and the guns keep coming into Lesotho.
SE: You talk about installing CCTV in Maseru. Is this something that is already part of a solid plan or it’s just an idea that you are considering?
Lehohla: Consultations have been ongoing. What we are looking at now are the resources for that project. The mapping exercise has already been done. Once we have Maseru under camera our police will be able to deal with other areas in the country.
SE: Does Lesotho have enough police officers?
Lehohla: Certainly not. We still need to train more police officers. But at the end of the day it’s not about how many police officers you have but their quality. We need to ensure that our police officers are up to scratch.
The mobility of our police force is also important. We need to equip our police with enough vehicles so that they can react immediately to crime or they have routine street beats to prevent crime.
- Next week Deputy Prime Minister Lehohla speaks about the factionalism in the Lesotho Congress for Democracy and the succession debate in the ruling party. Does he have ambitions to lead this country? What does he think about the opposition’s fight over proportional representation seats? For answers to these questions read Part 2 of this interview in the Sunday Express next week.