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MPs walk out over Land Bill

Bongiwe Zihlangu

 

MASERU — There was mayhem in parliament on Friday when opposition lawmakers walked out in protest against the second tabling of the controversial Land Bill 2009.

The opposition MPs said it was premature to discuss the Bill because it was still “fraught with errors”.

Led by All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader Thomas Thabane, the opposition decided not to be part of the proceedings.

Only two opposition lawmakers — Lekhetho Rakuoane of the Popular Front for Democracy and Senkatana’s Lehlohonolo Tšehlana — did not join the walkout.

Besides the ABC, the other opposition parties that protested against the Bill included the Marematlou Freedom Party, Lesotho People’s Congress, Alliance of Congress Parties and the Lesotho Workers Party (LWP).

Just before Friday’s parliamentary session started at 9am, opposition MPs had met to plan their course of action in response to the tabling of the Bill.

The opposition parties resolved to walk out if their proposal to have the tabling of the Bill postponed on the basis that it was not “urgent” was not accepted.

They said there were more pressing issues that needed the assembly’s attention than the second reading of the Land Bill 2009.

The opposition MPs instead wanted to discuss the 2010/2011 budget.

LWP deputy leader Sello Maphalla told the Sunday Express shortly before the walkout that the Land Bill was flawed.

He said more public consultations were needed before the Bill could be tabled in parliament for the second time.

“We believe the Land Bill 2009 is not a priority at this point,” Maphalla said.

“It is being discussed prematurely. It needs to be amended as it is fraught with errors.

“There are more pressing issues like the adoption of the national budget for the 2010/2011 fiscal year.

“We plan to propose that it be delayed and for the budget to be adopted for the sole purpose of service delivery to the public.

“If they do not agree to delay the tabling of the Land Bill, we will walk out of parliament.

“Now is the time to talk about the budget and not the Land Bill.”

The opposition has, since the Land Bill was first tabled in parliament in September last year, accused the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party of trying to railroad the Bill through the legislature at the behest of foreign funders.

The drama on Friday started when LCD MP Hlompho Ntšekhe, who chairs the prime minister’s and ministry departments cluster portfolio committee had tabled the Bill.

The committee is dealing with the Land Bill.

Rakuoane then seconded Ntšekhe.

It was at this point that Thabane raised his concerns about the Bill.

The ABC leader said there was need to take the Bill to the public for further consultation.

He said the committee tasked with that responsibility had not done enough to educate Basotho about the Land Bill.

The leader of the Batho Bathong Democratic Party, Geremane Ramathebane, then called for a point of order before announcing that the opposition was leaving the august house.

Immediately after Ramathebane’s announcement, opposition MPs filed out of parliament, led by Thabane.

However, the opposition’s walk-out did not stop the discussion of the Bill which is set to continue tomorrow.

Contacted for comment later on Friday, Thabane defended their action, insisting the government had not taken their advice on the “dangers” of the Bill seriously hence their walkout.

“We have long been telling the government about the dangers of the Bill,” Thabane said.

“We have made several attempts to warn the government about the sensitive nature of land issues and that they should tread carefully when dealing with such matters.

“We do not deny the fact that there are no clear laws governing the allocation and use of land in Lesotho.

“But the problem lies in the manner in which the whole thing is being handled. They are in too much of a hurry to pass the Bill. There needs to be thorough consultation with the public.

“Things should be done step by step, lest Basotho end up with no land to call their own.”

Basotho National Party leader Metsing Lekhanya justified the opposition’s walkout “because we know for sure the Americans are putting pressure for the Bill to pass”.

“We are aware the Americans have dispatched consultants to Lesotho to advise and pressurise the government to pass the Land Bill 2009,” the former military ruler said.

The opposition has in the past accused the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an American aid agency, of making the passing of the Land Bill a prerequisite for aid.

“We will continue walking out of parliament for as long as it takes,” Lekhanya said.

“The Land Bill 2009 in itself defies the constitution which says land shall be owned by Basotho only.”

Ramathebane also defended their walkout, adding they would not be bullied into rubberstamping the Land Bill 2009 into law.

“We will not be bulldozed into becoming part of the Land Bill 2009 debate because the public was not properly introduced to the Bill nor were there any extensive consultations,” he said.

“Forget about the fancy cocktail parties that were thrown for the purpose of discussing the Bill.

“They did not go to the 80 constituencies where the people are.

“They did not even go to the churches to introduce the Bill to the people.

“This Bill is in violation of people’s rights because land is all we have as Basotho to sustain our lives.”

Ramathebane accused the government of trying to push the opposition aside and “entering into business with foreigners”.

“This government would rather push us aside and enter into business with foreigners,” he said.

“When we face the threat of losing what is rightfully ours, it is our right to become angry.

“They want to speed up the passing of the Bill because of pressure from the Americans.

“They are willing to violate parliamentary protocol for the sake of passing the Bill.”          

Meanwhile Tšehlana, a member of the prime minister’s and ministry department cluster portfolio committee, said he did not join his opposition peers because “Senkatana had resolved to be part of the debate to the letter”.

“We made a resolution at our national conference last month that we would religiously engage in the debate concerning the Land Bill 2009 right to the very end,” Tšehlana said.

He condemned the walkout as “shameful”.

“It is sad that they walked out because our committee has included in the Bill some of their suggestions,” he said.

“Walking out on the debate will have no bearing on the passing of the Land Bill 2009.

“If the parliamentary quorum sees it fit to pass the Bill, it will do so regardless of what the majority says or does.”

Tšehlana chastised the opposition for not proposing a motion on Friday before the walkout.

“They did not follow the correct procedure,” he said.

“They should have first proposed a motion to have their suggestion to have the Bill postponed heard.

“It would have been sensible to leave after their motion had been rejected.

“But they opted to leave without making a strong argument as to why the Land Bill should be postponed.

“Thabane did not raise any fundamental issues. As for Ramathebane, he was of the view the opposition was being oppressed but could not say how.”

Ntšekhe yesterday slammed the opposition as “ill-informed”.

“Their opinion about our conduct is ill-informed,” Ntšekhe said.

“It is just a tactic to demean our work. But then again, it is the norm for the opposition to discredit government efforts.

“We conducted extensive public consultations nationwide and engaged with people responsible for land affairs.

“We even called for the public to submit their suggestions to be included in the Bill. Out of the about 58 suggestions that were submitted, I can vouch that 30 or so of them are directly from the public.”

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