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War of words erupts

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Ntsebeng Motsoeli

 MASERU — The ombudsman has launched a scathing attack against Finance Minister Timothy Thahane in the latest twist to the block farming saga that is quickly degenerating into a cold war.

Sekara Mafisa, the ombudsman, says Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili must clip Thahane’s wings after he allegedly “intimidated” farmers who had complained to the public protector about the management of the block farming scheme.

The ombudsman is an official appointed by the government to investigate individuals’ complaints against public authorities.

The ombudsman — known as the public protector in neighbouring South Africa — can recommend remedies and summon or institute legal proceedings against offenders.

Mafisa alleges that Thahane had threatened to sue farmers who approached the ombudsman to intervene in their dispute with the government.

The farmers wanted the public protector to compel the government to pay for their machinery which the government had hired to assist block farmers under the scheme.

In a report released on Friday, Mafisa alleges that Thahane called the farmers and told them to withdraw their complaint or he would sue over the loans they owed the government under the block farming scheme.

Thahane was a mentor to some of the block farmers who took the case against the government to the ombudsman.

Mafisa said he gathered this from some of the farmers who were giving evidence during the case’s hearing.

He said Thahane met the farmers in April and told them that if they didn’t withdraw their case he would take them to court to force them to repay their loans.

Mafisa said the minister allegedly told the farmers that they would be in trouble because “they were poor and had no money”.

Thahane yesterday however refuted the allegations.

“There was a joint meeting that involved the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture and the farmers,” Thahane told the Sunday Express.

“In that meeting I said farmers who do not repay their loans will be taken to debt collectors.

“It was not a threat but a statement of fact . . . I deny the ombudsman’s allegations that that was a threat to the farmers.”

Mafisa said Thahane had told the farmers that it would not help them pursuing the case because even if the ombudsman’s office were to make recommendations he would not comply with them.

“The acts of interference with and contempt of the work of the ombudsman by Hon Thahane are a real threat to the credibility of the ombudsman institution in Lesotho’s young democracy,” Mafisa said in his report.

“It is my hope that the Right Honourable the Prime Minister protect the image of the government he is leading by doing something about the conduct of Hon. Thahane towards the ombudsman.

“I hope that as head of government, he will not allow his shining moment since 1998 to be tarnished by the conduct such as Hon. Thahane’s towards this democracy institution.”

He said “if people are made by a government minister, to lose confidence in the ombudsman then our young democracy is under threat and must be defended against that threat”.  

Mafisa said this was not the first time that Thahane had allegedly tried to undermine and disrespect the ombudsman’s office.

He recalled Thahane’s reaction to a determination he had made in January 2007 in a case between Sebabatso Masitha against the director of statistics and Sehlabaka Ramafikeng.

Mafisa said after the determination Thahane had addressed a press conference and announced that he would not implement the ombudsman’s recommendations.

And true to his word the minister did not comply with the recommendations, Mafisa said.

He said he took the matter to parliament and when Thahane appeared before an ad hoc committee appointed to consider the ombudsman’s report it emerged that a retired magistrate of the “lowest class” had been chosen to review the report.

This, Mafisa said, was disrespectful because according to the law the ombudsman’s proceedings can only be reviewed by the High Court “and no other body or tribunal”.

Thahane however denied having contempt for the ombudsman.

“The function of the ombudsman is to help citizens to receive justice when they have problems with the government,” he told this paper yesterday.

“If the farmers were complaining about the government then the ombudsman is within his rights to intervene.”

Mafisa said in the current case Thahane had also opted not to appear before the ombudsman to respond to the farmers’ allegations.

The minister was invited to the hearing by phone and in writing but he did not appear, he added.

Thahane confirmed he had turned down an invitation to appear before the ombudsman.

“But it must be noted that the law that established the ombudsman’s office does not allow it to investigate His Majesty, the prime minister, ministers and statutory officers,” Thahane said.

“That is why I refused to appear before him. I however authorised officials in my ministry to appear before him if he requested.”

“If the ombudsman had called me to appear as a mentor of the association and he had also invited the association I would have appeared,” the minister added.

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