How should Lesotho approach political and constitutional reforms
By Moeketsi Majoro
In late 2014, I penned in South Africa’s Business Day of 2 December 2014, a motivation for radical political and constitutional reforms (see the Internet link below). I argued that Lesotho needs deep and radical reforms to avoid emerging lawlessness and violent conflict and to make progress to reverse extreme forms of poverty, hunger, disease, excessive infant deaths and high unemployment. Since then, the situation has taken a turn for the worse, making reform now more urgent. Killings and revenge killings are occurring weekly, political leaders and members of the Lesotho Defence Force are on the run fearing for their lives, judges appear intimidated sometimes issuing strange judgements in LDF-related cases, while others are being impeached, and there is a clamp down on independent radio stations and social media.
Why the need for reform? Lesotho does not have adequate political and constitutional infrastructure to support a stable democracy needed to advance the welfare of its people and attain its long term goals. The existing political architecture lacks the requisite legal instruments, practices and conventions required to deliver peaceful political transitions expected in any thriving democracy. These critical deficits provide an opportunity for political elites to capture the state for personal gain using propaganda tools and militarised repression. But such actions are not acceptable in a democracy and are often achieved through barbaric acts of corruption, murder, treason, and repression. Regrettably, the recent gains in good democratic governance are now being reversed, setting Lesotho back to the repressive rule of the African dictatorships of the 1970s. This deliberately orchestrated retrogression must be halted at the altar of reform.
Lesotho’s ailing democratic system exhibits many undesirable symptoms which argue persuasively for reform, including the following:
- Frequent alignments between security establishment and political parties have undermined democracy for most of the last 50 years of Lesotho’s independence and will continue to do so unless the need by politicians and army officers to capture the state for personal gain is actively discouraged and permanently eliminated.
- In Lesotho’s political system, proportional representation and Senate seats are increasingly being used by political parties to reward members that have lost seats or have played significant roles to undermine sitting governments. This political expediency undermines democracy and needs to be eliminated by reviewing how political appointees are sent to the upper house.
- Lesotho’s Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral model while compensating for popular vote performance by each politically party, has introduced new distortions that undermine democracy by inadvertently giving parties that have little voter support to hold at ransom those parties that have large following. This unfortunate outcome is at variance with expected democratic norms and needs to be prevented through reform. Because political parties with large support are sometimes unable to form government alone, the smaller parties they need to form a ruling coalition are automatically granted the power of the kingmaker to dictate which large parties can form government, and which will remain in opposition. Further, once in power, the smaller parties can continuously hold large parties at ransom by wielding the threat to defect to the other large party that remains in opposition. In a democracy, the political power of popular parties should not be contested by political minnows simply because of weaknesses in the architecture of the electoral model. Reform is thus warranted.
- Another distortion emanating from the current practice of Lesotho’s MMP is the unequal weights attached to parties in parliament. Based on total votes cast in the 2015 general election, the average votes per MP is 4,030. However, three of the parties in parliament (LPC, BCP and MFP) fall short of this threshold which should be seen as the minimum a party must command before being represented in Parliament. To illustrate, an LPC MP has support of only 1,951 votes nationally, but has the same voice in the National Assembly as a DC MP who has average support of 4,650 votes! Clearly this practice discounts popular support in favour of small parties and penalises the support large parties have! The justifiable notion of compensation inherent in the MMP now works out to overcompensate small parties in indirect bargaining and political power! Thus Lesotho’s electoral model needs radical overhaul.
- Weak political and governance institutions and the absence of checks and balances in exercise of political power have promoted undemocratic practices at various times during the turbulent 50 years of Lesotho’s independence including the following:
- Deliberate politicisation of the Lesotho Defence Force, police services and the broader public service and the weakening of the judiciary and parliament particularly the national assembly with the single aim to preserve channels of political patronage and defeat the ends of justice;
- Polarization of society along political lines with deliberate conflict overtones;
- The capture of the state by an elitist element of society determined to govern in perpetuity for personal gain through extreme forms of patronage and militarised repression.
These weaknesses coupled with powerful vested interests of an elitist political class that doles out patronage (taxing everyone, but using the tax collections to hire and procure from only its supporters) can only cultivate a sense of injustice and lead to civil conflict. Reversing polarisation and seeking reconciliation will pave the way to implement an agenda of constitutional, security and parliamentary reforms within a framework of political stability, trust and national unity, good governance and accelerated economic and social growth transformation and respect for the rule of law and human rights. Thus, Lesotho must undergo radical and inclusive constitutional, political, public service and security sector reforms, which should be identified, decided and formulated jointly by all Lesotho stakeholders independently of government. An inclusive process will not only promote wider acceptance of the radical reforms but also their ownership by the Basotho nation as a whole.
The Government of Lesotho has declared that it is the most reformist of all times. While there is ample evidence to the contrary, the expressed willingness to reform is welcome and encouraged. In addition, SADC and the Commonwealth have not only recommended that Lesotho undertakes reforms; they have also funded and supported work that identifies such reforms. Going forward:
- The Government of Lesotho should establish an independent and inclusive reform process similar to the Independent Political Authority that was deployed following the 1998 political conflict, consisting of all political parties in Parliament and civil society. This process should be assisted by SADC and the international community including, notably the Commonwealth. Such a body should be established as soon as possible and within the timelines stipulated by SADC;
- SADC should facilitate and oversee the reform process and ensure that its outcomes are enacted and implemented. In this respect, SADC should deploy soonest its Oversight Committee and staff it appropriately to also play the oversight role envisaged here. Deploying a permanent envoy for the duration of the dialogue on reforms would be one way of discharging its role of oversight;
- The work of the independent reform body envisioned here should build on the reform proposals by the Commonwealth (the multi-party reform proposals facilitated by Professor Prasad of New Zealand) and SADC (Proposal on Constitutional and Institutional Reforms in the Kingdom of Lesotho).
Following political conflict in 2007, the Republic of Kenya undertook radical reforms that have changed the political and constitutional set up for democracy and introduced checks and balances as a necessary check against excessive executive power. Likewise, Lesotho political leaders should find in themselves the necessary political will to transform Lesotho away from the unsustainable politics of personal gain. In this respect, the dangerous relationship between the current Government and the armed forces should be eliminated and the wanton killings in recent months halted. In the same manner, the purge of the civil service of opposition supporters and weakening and intimidation of other agencies of the state including the judiciary should be halted and reversed. When Lesotho is destroyed by one section of the political spectrum, it is nonetheless ultimately destroyed for all.