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Reforms gridlock

by Sunday Express
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…DC joins LCD in reforms boycott plan

’Marafaele Mohloboli

THE Democratic Congress (DC) has joined the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) in threatening to derail the much-anticipated multi-sectoral reforms over what the biggest opposition party describes as the government’s attacks and meddling in the affairs of the judiciary.

This follows last week’s call by Law, Constitutional Affairs and Human Rights Minister, Lebohang Hlaele, on Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara to either resign or face an impeachment tribunal for alleged corruption over her controversial M27 000 per month house rental deal.

Cabinet has since approved a draft roadmap meant to kick-start a multi-stakeholder process to agree on the implementation of a raft of constitutional, security sector, public service, media and governance reforms aimed at achieving lasting peace and stability crucial for socio-economic development in Lesotho.

LCD leader, Mothetjoa Metsing, has already stated that he and other opposition leaders in exile will boycott the reforms process unless the Southern Africa Development Community ( SADC) which recommended and is leading the reforms process guarantees their security. Mr Metsing dispatched an undated letter to the government last week explaining that he would not return to Lesotho for the proposed Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Reforms because he viewed the   government’s invitation for his participation as merely a ploy to “lure” him to his death.

Addressing a press conference at the DC’s Puma House head-office in Maseru on Friday 15 December 2017, the party’s women’s league leader, Pontšo ’Matumelo Sekatle, said her party was unlikely going to participate in the reform process because the government was “undermining the independence of the judiciary”.

The DC’s stance comes against the backdrop of last week’s comments by Minister Hlaele, calling on Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara to resign or face an impeachment tribunal for alleged corruption.

Justice Majara has come under criticism for renting a house owned by her colleague Justice Teboho Moiloa.

The High Court has been accused of flouting procurement regulations and conflict of interest regulations since the house belongs to the chief justice’s colleague.

The chief justice is legally entitled to a M4 000 monthly housing allowance. The M27 000 being paid for her rented house is thus about seven times more than her legally allowable limit.

An audit report on the judiciary by the Ministry of Finance’s internal audit division has recommended a review of Justice Majara’s rental deal.

The report directed the High Court Registrar, who is its chief accounting officer, to recover from Justice Majara the equivalent monthly reimbursements of M23 000 that were being paid for the house on her behalf.

It remains unclear if the money has been repaid.  The audit report did not indicate for how long Justice Majara rented the house nor quantify the sum to be recovered.

In addition to the damning revelations in the audit report, Justice Majara has also been accused of appointing Justice Moiloa to act in her position when she was away on several occasions, even though there were other more senior judges.

“The only advice that I have for her is to go,” charged Mr Hlaele in response to the allegations against Justice Majara.

“She should resign. Otherwise, she will be put before a tribunal to face harsh punishment for stealing people’s money. It is a punishment befitting her actions because she has called it upon herself.”

But the DC has not taken kindly to the government’s stance against Justice Majara, describing it as a direct attack on the independence of the judiciary.  Dr Sekatle, a DC veteran who heads the Democratic Congress Women’s League (DCWL), said she could not see how her party could cooperate in the envisaged reforms when the judiciary was “under attack”.

The government’s spokesperson, Joang Molapo, who is also the Minister of Communications, dismissed Dr Sekatle’s claims, saying Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s coalition remained committed to the rule of law and judicial independence. An opinion expressed on the chief justice’s conduct did not amount to meddling or persecution of the judiciary, Mr Molapo said.

“This government adheres to the rule of law and knows the importance of the rule of law and therefore an opinion does not constitute meddling of any sort.

“The opposition is making an issue out of nothing in order to be seen to be doing their part and to try and achieve relevance as the opposition. What the minister (Hlaele) said was just an expression of opinion and not meddling with the judiciary in any way.”

Dr Sekatle nonetheless insisted that Mr Hlaele’s utterances were unacceptable as they had the potential to influence and compromise the administration of justice.

“It is very unfortunate and demeaning to hear a whole minister attacking the Chief Justice on accusations of corruption and incompetency while he is supposed to be protecting her as His Majesty’s servant.

“Minister Hlaele’s utterances and accusations will not only drag the Chief Justice’s name in the mud but even his own as the remarks are not ministerial and show lack of respect for women,” Dr Sekatle said on Friday.

She said it was unfortunate that the government had  not supported the Chief Justice’s candidature at the International Criminal Court (ICC) early this year. Justice Majara  lost in her bid to be appointed to the ICC bench.

“In well governed countries we have seen governments lobbying for their candidates and not fighting against them. Our suspicion is that the government must have done something to make her lose in the race to be in the ICC.

“This is a direct attack on the Chief Justice as a woman and on the judiciary. Listening to the Minister’s utterances, we gather he has no idea how judges are appointed and how the courts of law operate. The appointment and removal of the judiciary is done strictly in legal ways and they can’t just be politically wished away as Hlaele and his government want to do.”

She said the attacks and the recent protests against Justice Majara over her alleged role in frustrating the re-appointment of Professor Kananelo Mosito as President of the Court of Appeal showed the “heavy-handedness” of the Thabane coalition in dealing with perceived opponents.

“We should all recall that when Professor Mosito was removed from the Presidency of the Court of Appeal he was never insulted by anyone, nor were protests lined up against him. Instead legal means were used to remove him,” Dr Sekatle said, adding that her party was equally surprised by the “silence” of the law society and civil society organisations when the judiciary was “under siege”.

Mr Molapo, on his part, maintained that the government would not shy away from taking to task anyone who opposed its efforts to appoint the President of the Court of Appeal in a transparent manner.

“We are genuine when we say we have a manner in which we want the appointment of the President of the Court of Appeal to be done and we will not hesitate to point fingers at people who want to frustrate this process. That also does not constitute meddling with the judiciary,” Mr Molapo said.

Dr Sekatle said she did not therefore see her party  participating in  the SADC led reform process given what she described as “the current situation in the country where the government seems to be attacking the judiciary and meddling in its independence.”

The government recently moved to breathe life in the lethargic SADC led reform process after cabinet  approved  a proposed roadmap for reforms.

Dr Sekatle was nonetheless adamant that the DC would not cooperate but instead report the Thabane coalition to SADC, the African Union and to the rest of the world  for “ undermining the judiciary as well as women in general”.

“Day by day the government’s decisions are astonishing and scaring us because week in and out there are new reports of women and child abuse. We are prepared to fight for every vulnerable woman and child in this country regardless of their political affiliation.

“We also urge other opposition parties not to take part in the reforms as long as the status quo remains and some opposition leaders remain in exile,” Dr Sekatle said.

Her threat to boycott the reforms follows a similar stance by Mr Metsing, who last week rejected the government’s invitation to a Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Reforms saying it was a ploy to “lure” him to his death.

Instead, the former deputy premier has called on SADC to initiate and mediate talks with the government over his and other exiled leaders’ return to “ensure transparency and honesty”.

Mr Metsing’s comments are contained in a letter he wrote to Government Secretary, Moahloli Mphaka, in response to the latter’s invitation to the exiled leaders to the Multi-Stakeholder Forum scheduled for this month.

In the invitation letter, issued on 15 November 2017, Mr Mphaka assures the exiled leaders of “maximum” security upon their return.

Mr Metsing, his LCD deputy Tšeliso Mokhosi and Democratic Congress (DC) deputy leader, Mathibeli Mokhothu, fled to South Africa separately in August this year alleging plots to assassinate them.

However, the government has since rubbished the allegations, saying the government would not achieve anything in persecuting the opposition.

The cooperation of the government and the opposition, among other stakeholders, is seen as crucial for the SADC led multi-sectoral reforms to succeed. Moreso because some of  the envisaged constitutional reforms will require special parliamentary majorities to be instituted.

Meanwhile, Lesotho Council of Non-governmental Organisations (LCN) Director, Seabata Motsamai, has dismissed the DCWL’s assertions that civic groups have been silent  while the government interferes with the independence of the judiciary.

“We are not quiet. It is just that to avoid being seen as if we are meddling in politics we have decided to focus on the outcomes of the envisaged reforms….. If the outcomes will foster democracy and the rule of law, then it is the only way in which we are all going to heal and come to terms with the fact that we all need one another in the shaping of a better Lesotho for all,” Mr Motsamai said.

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