Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing has called on the government to pay the balance of the M500 000 interest-free loans Members of Parliament (MPs) still owe one of the local commercial banks.
The MPs automatically qualified for the loans, which were guaranteed by government, on taking oath of office in June 2012, and were supposed repay the money over their five-year term of office.
However, after their tenure was cut short following the decision to go for early elections in February 2015 instead of 2017, the MPs wanted to know what would happen to the loans and raised the issue when Parliament held its first session this week following its opening last Friday.
According to the Maseru Facilitation Declaration that Lesotho’s various political party leaders signed on 2 October 2014, parliament was to reopen on 17 October, be dissolved early December and a snap election held towards the end of February 2015.
The decision to go for early elections followed irreconcilable differences between Mr Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) and the Basotho National Party (BNP) led by Thesele ‘Maseribane, which formed a coalition government in June 2012. Among the reasons for the fallout between the erstwhile partners was Dr Thabane’a alleged failure to consult his fellow government leaders when making key decisions with a bearing on good governance.
However, Thupa-Kubu Constituency MP, Tsietsi Lethole of the ABC, wanted to know what would happen to their loans now that their five-year tenure would be cut almost midterm. Mr Lethole raised the matter after Mr Metsing, who is the Leader of the House, had mentioned the loan issue in passing during his presentation of a motion in recognition of the King’s Speech from the Throne when he officially opened parliament on Friday last week following its nine-month suspension on 10 June 2014. Dr Thabane decided to prorogue the August House to avoid a no-confidence vote by MPs who accused him of maladministration and the premier only reopened it in line with the Southern African Development Community-brokered Maseru Facilitation Declaration.
“I heard you mention our debt issue in passing, but we need to hear you address this matter thoroughly. We took the loans and need to repay them, yet we have heard that we have to hold early elections in February, and we will not be MPs anymore once parliament is dissolved in December. I was expecting that maybe, you would explain somewhere, how we are going to repay the loans when we are no longer MPs because we took them on the understanding that the money would be paid until 2017 when our term was supposed to end,” Mr Lethole said.
In response, Mr Metsing said the government had to address the matter “in the best interest of the country”.
Mr Metsing said: “The main issue is that it is in the best interest of the country for us to be going for elections in February next year so that we can be given a new mandate by the people. Going for elections should also diffuse the political tension that exists right now in our country.
“On the issue of debt, I believe that to be a simple matter because when you weigh the pros and cons, you would realise it’s important that government should pay you, honourable members, for the sake of peace and stability of this country as you compromised a lot to accept to go for early elections.
“When your remuneration was improved, there was a public outcry that your salaries had been increased by 80 percent. You knew the money wasn’t benefitting your families only as you had now assumed a huge responsibility in your different constituencies.
“So you were given loans on the basis that you had the capacity to repay the money as you were MPs. That means when you leave this parliament, some of you won’t be able to repay the loans; you had taken them based on your remuneration as MPs.
“Again when you took the interest-free loans, the government acted as a guarantor, and this meant it would take the responsibility should you have any problems in repaying the debt. This was despite the fact that it wasn’t specified under what conditions the government would take the responsibility. I see the prevailing conditions right now warranting government to take responsibility”.
The LCD leader added if the government failed to allay the MPs’ financial fears, the Maseru Facilitation Declaration could be jeopardised.
“I believe people took the loans because they had a legitimate expectation that they would be in office for five years as MPs, and government would pay their salaries for five years, while in turn, they would repay their loans. However, when you have stepped down, you won’t be able to repay the loans, which is why honourable members, I believe government should take the responsibility to bail you out.
“The country will benefit the most when we go for early elections and I say this country’s peace and stability far surpass any money that would be paid to you, through government taking over your loan obligations,” Mr Metsing said.
He then recommended the National Assembly Speaker, Sephiri Motanyane should liaise with government and address the MPs concerns within six weeks and “definitely before parliament is dissolved in early December”.