A new government assumed the reins of power last week amid a host of problems including a comatose economy, high unemployment and widespread poverty, the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and food shortages expected to afflict almost half of the Kingdom’s population. Barring unforeseen circumstances, All Basotho Convention (ABC) deputy leader, Professor Nqosa Mahao, will be sworn in this week as the minister of the combined ministries of Law and Constitutional Affairs and Justice and Correctional Services. He will join new Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro’s cabinet in the unenviable task of trying to resolve the Kingdom’s myriad problems. The Lesotho Times deputy editor , Silence Charumbira, caught up with Prof Majoro last Friday for a detailed discussion of his plans in his new important portfolio and on the new coalition’s pedigree to reverse the country’s plummeting fortunes. Excerpts;
LT: When are you going to be sworn in and what delayed the swearing in of the remaining three ministers?
Mahao: I will be sworn in on Thursday (today). Mine was delayed because there are procedures that have to underpin my appointment. My name still has to be taken to the Council of State to facilitate appointment to the Senate because that is the angle from which I am coming in. We anticipate that the Council of State would meet on Tuesday and subsequent to that then I can also take oath in the Senate. And that will be it.
In terms of the other ministers who were not sworn in, the matters have already by and large been finalised today (Friday).
But there was a bit of bargaining that still had to be done with our partners, the DC, about the affected ministries. That process should be complete by this weekend (last weekend) and so the colleagues can be sworn in next week (this week).
LT: What do you make of the challenges that lie before the new government and the time span until the next elections? There is so much that needs to be done in that short period…What must come first? What are the priorities?
Mahao: Priority number one is to hit the ground running. That underpins the appointments that were made. The appointments are of people who are believed to have the capacity to hit the ground running. The other issue of utmost concern was about the integrity of the appointees… But essentially, we need to restore the confidence of the public in the integrity of our individual members of the executive, that is the Cabinet.
When you talk about priorities, you probably would be talking about specific areas. Those have more or less been identified in the coalition agreement. Issues of dealing with rampant corruption… the issue of strengthening institutions, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) and the judiciary. We are generally gratified that the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) has essentially been asserting itself as an independent organisation lately. The firming of institutions is going to be very important and we hope that will create an environment for effective governance.
The immediate problem is to strengthen how we insulate ourselves against the invading monster of the time, Coronavirus (Covid-19). Up until now you would appreciate that we have been spared, but we don’t know for how long, and so we must put appropriate structures. The anecdotal view is that the existing National Emergency Command Centre (NECC) apparatus has not been as well prepared as it should be. There is an intention to have that presided over by Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro himself, supported closely by the new Minister of Health.
What the specter of Coronavirus has taught us is that unless you are a productive society, you are generally in trouble and in that respect, key is the question of food security. It will be important that more impetus is given to, for example, winter farming so that at least there can be a better harvest around November and December 2020. Fortunately, the weather has been in our favor and so it’s just for the government now to encourage and inspire farmers to go into very vigorous farming right now. Those would be the immediate issues that must be attended to.
LT: Some of the people in the new Cabinet are old faces, be they from your party or even from the DC. And some of them, according to analysts, have no history of achieving anything, from their previous deployments. Some have been described as recycled deadwood…You have previously emphasized the need for credible appointees to assist the party in implementing its programmes… Is this the best cabinet that you could have achieved? Why is it also bloated?
Mahao: They say that politics is the art of the possible. First of all, you have to appoint ministers from the crop of ABC Members of Parliament (MPs) that we have, you can’t appoint from those that we don’t have. You have to look very closely at those who are available and try to pick the best. And remember, the best is a relative word. Secondly, there is no one who doesn’t know that as the ABC, we come from a history. There were actually three factions in the ABC and the composition of the ABC section of the Cabinet is essentially an attempt to balance those factions. Because unless you do so, you might go into another round of instability, where people get disgruntled and they decide to move away from you. Now with respect to our partners, you know this time, we have a unique arrangement. We have a partnership with the DC, but you also had other partners that the ABC took on board from the Basotho National Party (BNP), from the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL). Last night (last Thursday), there were a lot of complaints about who would be picked up from the other partners, BNP and RCL. But then what do you do? …For example, the RCL only has one MP. So, we were constrained in terms of the choices that we could make.
With respect to our partners, the main partner, the DC, frankly, I know very few of those people and I’m not in a position to determine in advance their capacity and competencies.
You might say that, quite correctly, that there’s been some recycling. But I’m saying that that terrain is informed by what you have within the National Assembly and the Senate from both our side as well as our partners.
From our party’s side, we are going to closely monitor conduct. We are going to closely monitor performance. And so, the dispensation is going to be new. From where we came, it was like a situation where there was no strong supervision of both performance and conduct.
LT: Will you have a formal party structure set up for that purpose to monitor the conduct and maybe even hold people to account?
Mahao: Yes. It has already been agreed that myself, as the deputy leader, will work closely with Prime Minister Majoro on issues of policy direction. On the other hand, the secretary general (Lebohang Hlaele) is going to focus on administrative issues in collaboration with the government secretary (Moahloli Mphaka) to ensure that at the bureaucratic and administrative level, there is going to be a close synergy between the party and the government… from time to time we are going to be meeting with the Prime Minister. We already did that yesterday (last Thursday), where we sat down with him and suggested that this could have been done this way and that way, and that sort of thing. So, yes, we will be on top of that situation on an ongoing basis.
LT: Prime Minister Majoro may be an MP but he is an ordinary card-carrying member of the ABC since he contested in the national executive committee (NEC) elections in February 2019 and lost to you. The sentiment is that he doesn’t have any constituency in the party and that is a handicap. Are there any plans at any point to incorporate him one way or the other into the NEC or some other kind of arrangement to give him some leverage within the party.
Mahao: Does he have to have leverage in the party? No. He doesn’t. He’s a deployee. But what is going to happen is from time to time, he will be meeting with the NEC. As to whether he is going to be formally incorporated into the NEC, that matter is yet to be discussed by the NEC.
LT: There is an unusual dynamic in the party where there are now two or even three centres of power. You are coming into government now and you are the party deputy, then there is former premier Thomas Thabane as the party leader but is not in government and the prime minister as an ordinary party member. How is that going to be managed?
Mahao: Remember that it would not be the first time in the region that you have more or less the same setup. After former South African president Thabo Mbeki stepped down, President Kgalema Motlanthe came in as president while President Jacob Zuma was heading the party (ANC). For the remainder of the parliamentary term, Mr Montlanthe was heading the state and Mr Zuma was heading the party. Where the relations are managed well, there should be no problems.
It could be problematic where the relations and the chemistry between the role players is not a healthy one. With respect to Ntate Thabane, who remains as a party leader, we don’t envisage a big challenge because bear in mind that he was no longer playing any role in the party. We have been meeting as a unified national executive since January 2020 and often, we would meet at the Old State House, which is a walking distance from where he resided, but he would not attend any meetings of the party leadership. We don’t see him as such becoming a diversion from the collective focus of the NEC.
LT: In February 2019, basically all the positions were up for grabs within the NEC, except that of the leader of the party. What does this mean? When does his term of office come to an end? Is he a life president, like Kamuzu Banda?
Mahao: He was elected together with us for a five-year period. The expectation would be in due course he would step down as a party leader. Remember that Ntate Thabane has from time to time spoken about how tired he is and as I already indicated, he was no longer even attending NEC meetings that were held literally in the same premises where he lived. We can expect that in due course he will opt to step down even from the position of the party president.
LT: You are coming into the Ministry of Law and Justice where there are several critical issues that must be dealt with like the issues of the appointment of a substantive chief justice etc and the previous premier’s attempt to target the president of the Court of Appeal. What’s your take on those issues?
Mahao: With respect to the judiciary, the urgent issue is to stabilise that institution, especially at the top level… have a substantive Chief Justice. There are also three judges who are retiring this year and they must be replaced.
There must be an institutionalised and effective case management system so that justice is not delayed within the courts. Issues of resourcing the judiciary so that it becomes an effective institution are going to be paramount.
In other areas, you know that we have again a long standoff at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) that still must be appointed… There was a court case and it is unclear why the case cannot be resolved so that we can have substantive commissioners. Remember there is a constituency up in the north which does not have a parliamentarian simply because we don’t have the IEC to run elections. The law says that elections must be planned within 90 days of a vacancy and this election is long overdue. So, ensuring that there is an IEC that runs elections is one urgent matter. Then of course, you have the reforms. Remember that when South African President Cyril Ramaphosa came here last year, the role players agreed on a timeline within which the reforms should have been completed. And we are a little behind the timed schedule. There is going to be a need to fast track the reforms at the National Reforms Authority (NRA) so that they get to Parliament.
LT: Do we have any time frames for that seeing as the government itself has a two-year lifespan?
Mahao: The time frame that was agreed last year was 12 months, with the possibility of adding another six months. And I think a lot of time has already gone past.
LT: What is the status of party relations at the moment among the previously warring ABC factions?
Mahao: Anywhere where a new government is being constituted, there will be people who are unhappy about the positions that they have been appointed to while others will be unhappy with being left out. It’s normal. So, one of the things that we must do now is to really massage those who have not been included, to continue to be loyal to the party.
They must understand that it’s not everyone who could have been appointed and opportunities will arise possibly in the future for them. That is the key challenge at the moment. How do you ensure that those who may feel that they’ve been left out do not walk away? As you know, Lesotho politics have become very acrimonious and fractious, and so that possibility is always there and it is our responsibility as the leadership to manage that space reasonably well.
Then there are those other fissures that we have come with from the past. They are still there. You would have heard the voices and noises of people who are not happy that we have gone into a relationship with the DC. We are trying to manage those….. Any party’s direction is determined by the majority. It was the majority who opted for the relationship with the DC and the principle of democracy is that the majority determines the direction. We are handling them. It is not easy but we remain optimistic that we will avert a situation where people might walk away.
LT: One of the key elements in the coalition agreement between the ABC and DC is the reduction of the size of the cabinet through the merging of some ministries but we have not seen that happening. Has the new government failed in its first few days?
Mahao: There have been efforts to cut down the ministries, ministers and deputy ministers but of course we didn’t go far enough… Remember this is supposed to be a partnership between the ABC and DC and the two also brought in other partners. And once that was done, lots of demands came to the table.
Initially, we had actually merged a number of ministries and in order to accommodate these demands, we had to unbundle them again. Now, the key issue was this: if you don’t try to insulate the government by ensuring that it has optimal support in the National Assembly, then you might have a government that will not last. Remember we have very strong opposition… led by potentially threatening parties. The Alliance of Democrats (AD), headed by a former deputy prime minister, is out of government as well as the LCD headed by another former deputy prime minister. Now, were you going to allow them to consolidate opposition together with the other smaller parties, and then become a formidable threat to you? And so, the best was to bring those onto our side but that comes along with demands. That is why the effort to reduce the size of the Cabinet has been very minimal. Priority number one was to ensure that there is stability up to 2022 and when circumstances would be different, then the issue of Cabinet reduction could be embarked on with more vigor and a sense of determination.
LT: Mr Thabane was reluctant to leave despite pressure for him to resign. He insisted that he would leave on 31 July 2020. We also heard talk of his demand for immunity from prosecution although the party did not support him. Is that still the position or there have been some concessions behind the scenes?
Mahao: With respect to his departure, the last but one speech that he gave publicly committed him to leaving on the 29th of May. As the party and the Parliamentary caucus, we had agreed that we would transit into the new government with him as still the head, but then the developments that occurred within Parliament on 11 May caught every one of us by surprise when the Speaker announced that government had collapsed. We immediately, as the NEC, called a joint meeting of the NEC and the Parliamentary caucus to say now here we are, the government has collapsed, Parliament is going to reopen on 22 May. Do we re-nominate Ntate Thabane as prime minister to take an oath such that on 22 May he’s the new prime minister only for him to step down the following Friday, then you nominate a new prime minister. It wasn’t going to make sense.
And indeed; to all of those that are watching the politics of Lesotho would have thought it would be a strange development. So, we decided that since we already had a successor, why should we not move straight to submit his name to the Speaker and route for an appointment. That is what has occurred.
And in the background; we started to engage Ntate Thabane to say maybe rather than wait until the 29th, it is better that you step down right now. We met on 16 May and it was a cordial meeting, and he then said he would submit his letters of resignation on 18 May. We had committed ourselves to President Ramaphosa’s special envoy, Mr Jeff Radede, when he came here on two occasions, to have a smooth, dignified exit for Ntate Thabane, and so everything that we did in terms of managing that transition was because of that undertaking.
With hind sight, we managed the process exactly that way, thankfully.
In terms of concessions, there were no special concessions. Remember from the very beginning that Ntate Thabane had put three conditions. One, that there must be a successor to hand over to and we dealt with that issue already in April. And then there was a question of his retirement in terms of the law, so we facilitated the Ninth amendment through the two houses of Parliament until it was signed into law by His Majesty King Letsie III. The third one was about his physical security at home. That matter was being attended to within government. For example, whether you would have a security fence around his house and all that is related. Those are normal things that would be done for a retiring head of government. When we spoke to him on 16 May, we told him that all of the conditions had now been discharged and we felt that it would be appropriate for him to formally signify his departure and he completely and very graciously agreed.
LT: So, the court cases regarding the murder charges are proceeding?
Mahao: Those matters will be handled by the police and the DPP. We are not interfering with them. If you look at the coalition agreement, we have committed ourselves to noninterference with the criminal justice system.
LT: In the same vain; one of the incoming ministers, Selibe Mochoboroane has a treason case hanging over his head. Will that continue too?
LT: The coalition agreement gives in detail some of the challenges that are bedeviling Lesotho. What are the chances of the new government succeeding in dealing with these in just two years?
Mahao: We are not expecting a miracle of overcoming Lesotho’s challenges in two years. What is important is that when we look back at the end of those two years, we should have reclaimed the public’s confidence in good governance and significantly to have addressed some of the issues around which the public was beginning to be disenchanted with, government and politics in general in the country. To me, that would be a major achievement if we would have reclaimed that confidence of the public.
LT: The budget has still not been passed. We have heard rumours that civil servants may not be paid this month if it is not passed. Are there any chances it is going to be passed soon in its current state or there will be adjustments to factor in Covid-19 and other issues?
Mahao: This new government has not yet met. The expectation would be that the Prime Minister, since he is the former Finance minister, would take Cabinet into his confidence as to what the impact of Covid-19 has been on the budget that he developed. The lockdown has affected businesses internally. It has affected the tax base. The closing of the border has affected expected SACU remittances because trade has reduced to the very minimum between Lesotho and South Africa. Tourists have not been coming into the country and they may not be coming for a while, and that affects the revenue base. So many things have happened that would not have been projected at the time of the development of the budget. My view is that we must take a new view of the budget and possibly reconfigure it, as they say: to cut the trousers that fit your waist.
LT: With 2022 around the corner, some had projected that just like Ntate Hlaele, you too would stand aside and await a chance of getting into the National Assembly and probably contest to become the next prime minister. Was that ever your intention?
Mahao: The ABC’s performance in government is a precondition for ABC winning elections. And so, for me the issue would be if I stood aside and the ABC in government doesn’t perform, who would I blame if the ABC does not win the elections? For me, the issue was: you go in there, dirty your hands and hopefully, help the level of performance such that you can win back the electorate. That is the reason why I chose to avail myself to go into government. Otherwise, you can work on the grassroots, but if the government is not performing, it is going to be an uphill struggle to convince the masses of the electorate to vote. The government’s performance will inform how the party is received by the electorate and it will be a good excuse if one chose not to go and dirty his hands and stand aside, then blame some if he didn’t perform well in the elections.
But that said, we quite appreciate the stance which has been taken by the secretary general. By the way, before our national conference in 2019, the invariable question that we would be asked was: “why is it that you don’t have among the officials someone who would man the office on a permanent basis to ensure that the party continues to function optimally”. Again, an example was being drawn of our friends across the border, the ANC, where the secretary general position is a permanent party position. Someone who is just dedicated to looking after the party’s business.
LT: It has been suggested that it’s likely that the ABC, in the event that Ntate Thabane relinquishes the party leader post, would have to hold a special conference to elect a new leader. Are you by any chance likely to stand?
Mahao: Definitely. I will throw my hat in the ring. I also expect that there will be other comrades who will be disposed to do the same. Look, we have to walk the talk in terms of embracing a democratic culture and democracy is mediated through democratic competition.
LT: Don’t you have to relinquish your current post for you to stand in the elections and don’t you risk losing both posts?
Mahao: No. There is nothing that says so in the constitution. Unless the conference resolves that people relinquish their positions, but for now, there is nothing of the sort in the rules of the constitution.