Bongiwe Zihlangu & Caswell Tlali
MASERU — Court of Appeal President Michael Ramodibedi stormed out of a meeting on Monday after Prime Minister Thomas Thabane had ordered him to resign. The which meeting was also attended by Law and Constitutional Affairs Minister Haae Phoofolo and Justice and Human Rights Minister Mophato Monyake was described as tense by those privy to its details.
Sources close to the meeting said when Justice Ramodibedi entered the meeting Thabane started by asking him how the courts were doing. The source said Justice Ramodibedi had explained that the Court of Appeal had almost completed its cases for the April session when Thabane “got to the real agenda of the meeting”. “The prime minister said he had called Justice Ramodibedi not to discuss the courts but his resignation,” the source explained.
“He then said Justice Ramodibedi should hand in his resignation because there is a perception that he was also responsible for the mess in the judiciary”. Thabane told Justice Ramodibedi that Chief Justice Mahapela Lehohla with whom Justice Ramodibedi fought over seniority for years had agreed to retire. He is currently on leave pending his retirement in August.
Thabane is said to have told Justice Ramodibedi that he should follow Justice Lehohla’s footsteps and leave the bench. Justice Ramodibedi is said to have then told the prime minister that he was not going to resign because he had not done anything wrong. Justice Ramodibedi, the source said, told Thabane that the constitution was clear that no man or authority can order a judge to resign.
According to the constitution a judges can only be removed through impeachment on grounds of failure to perform duties and misbehaviour.
They can only be removed upon recommendation of a tribunal set up by the King. Justice Ramodibedi is said to have told Thabane that he was not going to be made a “sacrificial lamb” for the indiscretions of the chief justice. “When Thabane insisted that he hands in his resignation Justice Ramodibedi walked out of the meeting,” the source said.
This paper understands that after an altercation ensued between the PM and the judge, Thabane immediately ordered Police Commissioner Kizito Mhlakaza and Monyake to withdraw all official cars and drivers assigned to Justice Ramodibedi with immediate effect. The sources said Thabane also issued an order through the finance ministry for the treasury department to withhold any moneys owed by the government to Justice Ramodibedi.
“The PM wants Justice Ramodibedi to get the message loud and clear. The PM is adamant that if it means if he has to use a cab to move around, let it be,” the source said on Friday. When contacted for comment on Friday, Mhlakaza denied any knowledge of being given orders by the PM to withdraw drivers from Justice Ramodibedi. However, Monyake was more forthcoming, telling this paper yesterday that he had not been instructed by the PM to do anything but that any decision taken by his ministry against Justice Ramodibedi would simply be “to normalise the situation”.
“You will know that Court of Appeal sits in sessions and its president is at work only when the court sits,” Monyake said. “So, it has always been a practice to give the Court of Appeal President the official car only as and when he is at work not when he has completed his official duties in the country,” he said.
Monyake said the former Justice Principal Secretary Retselisitsoe Masenyetse “wrongly assigned an official car to the Court of Appeal President for his permanent use”. “We are only normalising the situation,” he said. Monyake said it is well known that Justice Ramodibedi “is not a salaried person in Lesotho and is paid per job done, so he is only entitled to the official car when he is in Lesotho”.
“He is a permanent judge of the High Court in Swaziland where he has a car permanently assigned to him,” he said.
A source at the Palace of Justice told this paper last night that Justice Ramodibedi had written to Thabane to reiterate that he won’t be resigning. He said the judge is also planning to challenge the prime minister’s decision to withdraw his official vehicles. “In the next few weeks there is likely to be a court challenge to that decision. Justice Ramodibedi is seething with anger and he is prepared to fight the executive to the bitter end.”