Back to square one: political infighting again stalls Lesotho reforms

The government and opposition are squabbling over the Omnibus Bill, which was supposed to stabilise the country.

Last week Lesotho’s government imposed a nationwide curfew after the murder of courageous investigative journalist Ralikonelo Joki and the rising rate of general crime. These are symptomatic of a country that remains politically paralysed and unable to undertake the desperately needed political, economic and social reforms meant to stabilise the country.

Journalists in Lesotho tell ISS Today that life has become even more dangerous for them, and others. The country is increasingly lawless, providing a haven for criminals who cross the border into South Africa to carry out hits and other crimes, and then slip back to avoid capture.

Lesotho had the sixth highest murder rate worldwide in 2017, according to the World Population Review. The rising crime rate is being taken as a sign that new Prime Minister Sam Matekane is failing to fulfil his mandate. Politicians are also again squabbling over seats in Parliament and jobs in government, jeopardising reforms that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been trying to midwife for almost a decade.

Matekane, a businessman with no political experience, won office in general elections last October. He promised to clean out Lesotho’s chronic petty politics and focus government on real problems that affect ordinary people – like crime. He has done neither. And now the prime minister is accused, f stalling Lesotho’s long-delayed reform process by cherry-picking some parts and ignoring others.

At the heart of the problem is the 11th Amendment to the Constitution Bill – aka the Omnibus Bill – which contains most of the changes emanating from Lesotho’s 2018-19 national dialogue on reform. SADC instituted the dialogue after the turmoil in the country starting nearly 10 years ago, including an aborted coup and assassinations of top military officers.

Politicians are again squabbling over seats in Parliament and jobs in government

The reforms are designed to stabilise the country by depoliticising the military, police and wider bureaucracy, and stabilising Parliament, among other measures. When it became clear that the Omnibus Bill wouldn’t pass before the last Parliament adjourned in July 2022, then prime minister Moeketsi Majoro recalled Parliament via a State of Emergency to adopt the legislation.

But the courts rejected that move, and Lesotho went to elections last October without the vital reform bill enacted. All the political parties pledged to revive the bill after the elections, but major problems have arisen over how they are doing that.

This week Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice, Law and Parliamentary Affairs, Nthomeng Majara, confirmed in a speech relayed to ISS Today by local journalists that her government intended to fundamentally restructure the Omnibus Bill.

The government proposed dismantling it into three parts: a bill for laws that Parliament could pass with a simple majority; another for laws that would require amending entrenched clauses in the constitution by a two-thirds majority in Parliament; and a third that would impact doubly entrenched clauses and require approval by referendum.

Matekane promised to clean out chronic petty politics and focus on problems affecting ordinary people

But she said not all ‘stakeholders’ supported this approach, so government had sought mediation to resolve the impasse. (It isn’t clear whether the mediator in question is again SADC.)

The opposition suspect Matekane’s motives for disaggregating the Omnibus Bill. They say one of the parts he’s cherry-picked would prohibit floor-crossing by MPs for three years after a general election. Floor-crossing between parties has destabilised Lesotho’s politics, causing governments to collapse.

Associate Professor Motlamelle Kapa, a political scientist at the National University of Lesotho, says the opposition – and others – suspect Matekane is just trying to protect himself. They say he’s facing a vote of no confidence in Parliament, which he could lose, as several of the ruling Revolution for Prosperity party’s MPs are disgruntled because they haven’t got the cabinet and other positions they wanted.

His opponents also say Matekane is ignoring other aspects of the Omnibus Bill that would curtail his powers to run government institutions and appoint senior bureaucrats. The Bill requires, for example, that independent commissions make such appointments.

‘So the opposition was against the government using this phased approach, arguing that it’s doing that to buy time so it can pack the civil service with its own people rather than following the process laid out in the Omnibus Bill,’ Kapa says.

The opposition suspects Matekane is trying to protect himself ahead of a no-confidence vote in Parliament

Kapa isn’t opposed in principle to separating the Omnibus Bill into three, according to the constitutional requirements for adopting the necessary amendments. He suggests the referendum needed for some constitutional amendments could be held at the same time as local government elections later this year, saving costs.

But he also says Matekane’s government should freeze all senior government appointments until all reforms are passed to avoid suspicions that it’s trying to pack the bureaucracy with its own people. That could satisfy the opposition and remove the need for an outside mediator.

Majara was dramatic in announcing her government’s reform plans. She called for a broad consensus to move Lesotho from its ‘bad and long history of perennial political instability and deep-seated hatred,’ which had made it a ‘laughing stock in the eyes of the international community and … has adversely eroded our good image … to a place of everlasting peace.’

But the opposition and many observers are apparently not fooled by these pious sentiments. One observer told ISS Today that politicians seemed to be back at their old game of jostling viciously for political and government positions that are among the few jobs available in the impoverished country.

Kapa blamed the government for being slow to tackle reforms in its first 100 days in office, as promised. He said Lesotho was now under considerable pressure, including from international partners. But unless government stopped conducting business as usual and accelerated the legislative calendar, ‘we are not likely to see Lesotho get out of the troubles it is in.’

As one senior journalist told ISS Today: ‘We appear to be back at square one.’

Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © Thomas Cockrem / Alamy Stock Photo

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