- as service providers ditch electoral body over non-payment
- while political parties demand ouster of commissioners
OPERATIONS at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) have collapsed as the battle for control of the electoral body intensifies.
In a series of developments that have paralysed the electoral body, services providers have begun withholding services due to its failure to pay for services rendered. Its internet and email services have been cut while staffers are not sure they will get their salaries this month. Embattled IEC commissioners, who were counting on the country’s political parties to extend their stay in office, have been dealt a body blow by the same parties who have recommended that they be kicked out of office without further ado.
The IEC commissioners are Chairperson Justice Mahapela Lehohla, Advocate ‘Mamosebi Pholo, and Dr Makase Nyaphisi.
The political parties, including opposition formations, want the Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane, to immediately advise the Council of State to urgently convene and kick-start the processes of appointing new commissioners by the end of June 2019. They say the appointment of new commissioners is top priority because “the normal operations at the IEC have collapsed and there is a crisis situation that the government and the leaders of the political parties have to address as a matter of urgency”.
The political parties also want the commissioners investigated for alleged financial improprieties emanating from their resolution that they be paid allowances for the 2017 general and local government elections.
The political parties’ resolutions are contained in a confidential document prepared by a technical committee set up to investigate the power struggle that has gripped the electoral body since the beginning of the year.
The technical committee’s confidential report, which has been seen by the Lesotho Times, is titled ‘Report of the Lesotho Political Parties Leaders’ Forum – Technical Committee on the impasse in respect of the tenure of office of commissioners of the Independent Electoral Commission’.
The Lesotho Times has established that the report has since been adopted by the leaders’ forum (which comprises of the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties) and that the Council of State is expected to meet this week to begin the processes that should culminate in the appointment of new commissioners as decided by the political leaders.
Such is the determination of the political leaders to begin the preparations for appointment of new commissioners that a letter proposing a Council of State meeting was sent to His Majesty’s office yesterday by the Ministry of Law, Constitutional Affairs and Human Rights.
This week, the Lesotho Times established that the troubled electoral body is failing to meet its financial obligations to creditors because the Acting Director of Elections, Lebohang Bulane, is unable to sign off for payments to service providers. So bad is the situation that the IEC’s internet and email services have been shut down.
Mr Bulane’s inability to sign off payments or effect any major decisions within the electoral body is due to the government and in particular the Ministry of Finance’s refusal to recognise his appointment. IEC staffers only got last month’s salaries after the principal secretary in the Ministry of Law and Constitutional Affairs, Tanki Mothae, took it upon himself to physically approach treasury to implore it to process the salaries on 18 April.
Mr Bulane was appointed with effect from 8 March 2019 by the IEC commissioners. He was appointed after the commissioners suspended the substantive director, Letholetseng Ntsike, for alleged insubordination.
In one of the internal memos seen by the Lesotho Times this week, the IEC informs staffers that they will not be able to access internet services until further notice. Well-placed sources say the IEC’s problems go beyond just the failure to access the internet as the electoral body is incapable of paying all service providers due to its stand-off with the government which has refused to recognise the commissioners on the grounds that their contracts expired in January this year. Consequently, the government insists that the decisions that the commissioners have made since the expiry of their contracts, including the suspension of Dr Ntsike and the appointment of Mr Bulane, are null and void.
This week’s IEC memo to staff informs them that “there will be an IEC internet network shut down on 15 May 2019”.
“This means services of emails and internet will not be available until another announcement is made. We regret any inconvenience caused.”
Although the internal memo does not give reasons for the network shutdown, authoritative sources told this newspaper it’s all because Mr Bulane cannot sign off payments.
“Ntate Bulane is unable to sign off any payments because the government does not recognise him as a legally appointed acting director of elections. The government, particularly the ministries of law as well as that of finance, have bluntly refused to recognise Ntate Bulane from day one.
“The government is refusing to recognise Mr Bulane because he was appointed by the IEC commissioners whose own stay in office is being questioned by the government which insists that their terms of office expired in January this year. The commissioners’ stay in office is now being dealt with by the High Court,” one source said.
Another source said the stand-off between the government and the IEC will soon affect the IEC staff as they will be unable to get their salaries Mr Mothae’s intervention notwithstanding. The source said they feared that the IEC’s district offices will have to close down soon due to the fact that Mr Bulane will not be able to access fresh funds for their operations.
“The IEC is basically in tatters. Everything is falling apart because there is no one authorising any payments so much that the principal secretary (in the Ministry of Law, Tanki Mothae) had to physically approach treasury on 18 April to ensure that last month’s salaries for all IEC employees were paid.
“The fight between these two parties is not just affecting them but the workers as well. I think we are the most affected people in this whole mess and we are scared that the district offices will soon be closed because Ntate Bulane is unable to access fresh funds to enable us to run the offices,” another source said.
Last month, the embattled IEC commissioners lodged a High Court application to compel the government to reverse its decision not to renew their contracts and instead ensure that their tenure is extended by another five years.
The commissioners also want the High Court to interdict the government from advising His Majesty King Letsie III to appoint their successors pending finalisation of their main application.
The Thomas Thabane-led governing coalition has refused to renew the three commissioners’ contracts despite their notable achievements in overseeing credible national elections in 2015 and 2017.
The commissioners have in turn dug in and refused to vacate office, arguing that the matter of the renewal of their contracts had been mishandled by the Thabane administration. As far as the IEC commissioners are concerned, it is not for the government to decide whether or not their contracts should be renewed. They say the government’s role is restricted to forwarding their desire to have their contracts renewed to the political parties and thereafter to the Council of State for decision, something they say was never done. This failure, according to Dr Nyaphisi, in a previous interview, is due to the government’s desire to control the IEC by determining who is appointed to the body that has over the years presided over elections whose results have been accepted by political parties and deemed credible by SADC, the African Union, among other international observer groups.
The commissioners had pinned their hopes on the political parties to recommend the extension of their tenure. But the political parties had other ideas and the political leaders adopted the report on the IEC which was prepared by their technical committee which comprises of the Basotho Democratic National Party (BDNP) leader, Pelele Letsoela, Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) leader Lekhetho Rakuoane, the Minister of Labour, Keketso Rantšo, in her capacity as leader of Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL), Democratic Party of Lesotho leader, Limpho Tau, and Mpulule Political Summit leader Remaketse Sehlabaka.
Instead of recommending the renewal of the three commissioners’ contracts for a further five years as Justice Lehohla, Adv Pholo and Dr Nyaphisi had hoped, the technical team said that it was not in the best interests of the IEC and that of the country for the trio to remain in office.
“The technical committee recommends as follows:
- That it would not be in the best interests of the institution (IEC) and that of the country for commissioners to continue in office on a short or long term basis.
- That the commissioners be instructed to vacate the office with immediate effect and that they be paid one month’s salary.
- That the Director of Elections (Dr Letholetseng Ntsike) be assisted to resume office with immediate effect.
- That the Auditor General be requested to mount a special audit targeted at the alleged improprieties (of the commissioners) and the report be submitted to parliament through the relevant channels.
- That the Prime Minister should advise the Council of State to be convened urgently to kick-start the processes and completion of appointment of new commissioners by end of June 2019.”
The fight for the control of the IEC threatens to throw the country’s entire electoral management system into disarray at a time several opposition politicians are urging their supporters to prepare for elections in light of the internal mayhem in the All Basotho Convention (ABC) which may collapse the current coalition government if left unattended.
The seeming unanimous stance of political parties in demanding the ouster of the commissioners means there is no one fighting in their corner, making it difficult to see how they can survive in office.
When contacted for comment this week, Mr Mothae said, “I am unable to comment on this specific matter because issues surrounding it are being dealt with by the courts of law”.
Mr Mothae however recently told this publication that the commissioners ceased to be the authority in the IEC as soon as their contracts expired on 7 January 2019.
“My understanding is that the commissioners’ mandate ended when their contracts expired. And until such time when the same processes that got them into office have been initiated and finalised, only then can they know where their future lies but that is not the case as of now.
“But there have been some appointments (of an acting director) after the suspension (of the director of elections by the commissioners) which are contravening the very serious rules and regulations governing the employment of individuals,” Mr Mothae said.