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Unsung hero or political animal?

The Ombudsman, Sekara Mafisa, has been in the spotlight after he released a report on the block farming scheme in which he accused some ministers of looting the agriculture fund. In turn, he has been accused of playing political games. He has also been accused of overstepping his jurisdiction. Yet this was not the first time he was eliciting the wrath of government ministers. Some say he is overzealous. This week the Sunday Express put Mafisa, whose contract as the ombudsman comes to an end on Friday, in the HOTSEAT to talk about his somewhat controversial tenure. Below are excerpts from the interview:

 SE: Does it not frustrate you that some of the recommendations you make, especially those against the government, are never implemented? 

 MAFISA: It is frustrating that people don’t understand the role of the ombudsman. The ombudsman is seen as an intruder. When you have people who believe that the ombudsman is an intruder and not an ally then you have a serious problem. The responsibility of this office is to ensure that people are treated fairly and responsibly in their dealings with the government. The ombudsman seeks to help in cases where people have suffered injustice or they have gotten a raw deal. Our major problem is that we don’t have implementing powers as an institution.

 SE: Which government departments and ministries would you say have become notorious for ignoring your recommendations?

 MAFISA: Well, let me not name them now. There will be a time when I will name and shame them but I will not do that in this interview.

 SE: Do you already have a list of those institutions that you are going to name and shame?  

 MAFISA: Yes, I am already compiling that list. I will name and shame them when the time is right.

 SE: Let’s talk about the recent recommendations that you made on the block farming issue. Some people say you misdirected yourself when you talked about what people owed when the case before you was about the government not paying for the equipment hired from farmers under the programme.

 MAFISA: That was a public inquiry. We realised that the problems in this scheme went deeper.  People must remember that agriculture is a very important sector in Lesotho. Anything that goes wrong with that sector concerns us all. We then decided to widen the inquiry into the sector to get to the bottom of the matter. We also invited people through the radio. We also used other media. I did not misdirect myself. I could have handled the inquiry by dealing with only those farmers that had launched their complaint but I decided that we should broaden it because it concerns many people. 

 SE: Finance Minister Timothy Thahane, whom you criticised in your report and accused of having benefited from the scheme, recently said that your office did not have the power to investigate ministers and other statutory officers.

 MAFISA: He is wrong to say that. What I cannot investigate is the cabinet as a whole and not a single minister. If you read that report you will realise that I was not investigating ministers. I discovered during the hearing that some ministers had become mentors. I discovered that these mentors had signed for loans on behalf of some of the farmers. They had signed on behalf of some farmers despite the fact that those farmers had not given them permission to do so in the form of a power of attorney or any document. These are the facts.

 SE: Given the challenges that you mention, do you have confidence that your office is playing its role in the society? 

 MAFISA: The ombudsman’s office is performing a very useful role in this democratic dispensation. This office provides an avenue through which people can question the government. Through this office they can peep into the operations of the government they elected and demand answers. But, as I said, there are still people who don’t understand the role of the ombudsman. They just don’t understand it. That is why we have ministers claiming that the ombudsman cannot investigate a minister. That is why some of them shamelessly undermine the ombudsman. I just wish that they understood that the ombudsman is not an enemy but an ally.

 SE: Forestry Minister Ralechate Mokose recently said the report you issued on the block farming scheme could have been motivated by your political ambitions. He said you were tarnishing his image so you could boost your own political career. What is your response to that allegation?

 MAFISA: It is nonsensical to say that I am fighting political battles. Is it a lie that some ministers have signed for the loans on behalf of some farmers? I did not take that information from the sky. I relied on the information provided from the Ministry of Agriculture. Sekara Mafisa did not create that list. The bank itself said so. I used official information.

 SE: You still have not answered his allegations that you are targeting politicians so you can get a political position.

 MAFISA: This has nothing to do with politics. Those people who are saying that are using politics to explain the problem away because such political talk is easy to swallow. It is a good story to people who cannot evaluate things logically. These ordinary people who are being fed such lies are not being told about the evidence that exists in this case. The facts are very clear. The report says some ministers who were mentors signed for the loans on behalf of some of the farmers. That is why the loans reflect against their names. The rules say that you cannot sign on behalf of someone who has not given you authority to do so. The fact that these are banking transactions makes the transgression even worse.

 SE: So you deny that allegation?

 MAFISA: Precisely. It’s really nonsensical for anyone to make that allegation. Minister Mokose’s constituency is Kolonyama and I come from Mphosong constituency. The people of Kolonyama don’t know me. There is a long distance between these constituencies. Now tell me, how do I benefit from tarnishing the image of a politician whose constituency is very far from mine? I will never stand for elections in Kolonyama. It would never make sense because the people there don’t know me. I am not a fool. He is pulling me to a very low level to which I don’t belong. Minister Mokose is not a threat to me and I am certainly not a threat to him. Well, let me say that I don’t know whether he thinks I am a threat to him or not.    

 SE: Do you intend to run for political office?

 MAFISA: I might intend to do that but this has nothing to do with the job of the ombudsman. That matter has no place in the issue at hand. 

 SE: Is your office well resourced?

 MAFISA: That is one of the problems that we face as an office. The budget is always very low. Even when we make motivations for more resources we never seem to get them. Even when parliament has approved our budget those people at the Ministry of Finance just cut it as and when they want. These are some of the things that we are battling against because they impact on the independence of the of the ombudsman’s office.

 SE: When does your contract expire?

 MAFISA: Next Friday.

 SE: And are you staying on?

 MAFISA: I am not one of those people who want to be pushed out. I am not a person who wants to overstay his welcome. I have always said that I want to serve two terms.

 SE: Are you staying on or you are going?

 MAFISA: I am finished. I no longer want to remain in this job. In fact, the correspondence on that issue started even before I started investigating the block farming scheme. I said I no longer want to continue. I am retiring. 

 SE: What will you do after you leave office on Friday?

 MAFISA: I don’t have plans as yet. I want to work for the community but I have not settled for anything yet.

 SE: Does that mean you could be considering running for political office in 2012?

 MAFISA: Politics is not a priority at the moment. I am a lawyer so I might want to go and revive my practice. My heart is however in community projects. I must however say that I am not ruling out going into politics.

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