THE Ombudsman, Advocate Leshele Thoahlane, recently released a damning 59-page report on his 2018 inquiry into the operations of the Lesotho Correctional Services (LCS) in 2018.
One of the major, damning findings contained in that report is that the LCS Commissioner, Thabang Mothepu, and some of the senior officers were illegally promoted to their positions possibly on political grounds.
The Ombudsman states that Commissioner Mothepu was appointed to head LCS probably as a reward for canvassing for votes for an unnamed political party ahead of the 2017 snap elections which ushered in the four-party coalition comprising of the All Basotho Convention, Alliance of Democrats, Basotho National Party and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho.
The report details how Commissioner Mothepu allegedly selected a few officers for Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) training in Zimbabwe and subsequently converted them into his bodyguards, while leaving the care and security of high-profile inmates in the hands of unarmed junior officers.
This, according to Adv Thoahlane, may have compromised the security at the Maseru Maximum Prison as the unarmed junior officers were left to guard the high-profile inmates. Some of the high-profile inmates include the murder and attempted murder-accused former army commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli and several other members of the security agencies who have been in detention since 2017 awaiting trial for various crimes.
This week, the Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Mohalenyane Phakela, engaged Commissioner Mothepu on the hard-hitting report. The commissioner also spoke on his work since his appointment, first as Acting Commissioner in June 2017 and as the substantive boss on 31 May 2018.
Below are excerpts of the interview.
LT: It has been nine months since you became Commissioner of LCS after you acted in the position. How can you describe you time in office and what has been the challenges?
Commissioner Mothepu: When I assumed office there were so many challenges most of which were not news to me as I have been in the LCS for a long time. It is just that being in charge means I had to address them. I can highlight the issue of infrastructure which required refurbishment. There was also the issue of the lack of staff housing which is a necessity in terms of the security required in the LCS.
The other issue has been shortage of human resources particularly the shortage of teachers and vocational trainers. We also lacked specialised forces in order to beef-up security. I cannot go into the specific figures for security reasons.
We are a special community with its own unique needs for our inmates and these also include the need for special types of vehicles. There are so many needs but then I cannot divulge them as this may compromise the security of inmates if they are in public domain. These are some of the issues I have worked and still working hard to address.
Apart from that, the reputation of the LCS was not a good one in that the public had no trust and confidence in the LCS due to the false information which was fed people via social media about escapes by inmates or such plans to escape. We were also not internationally recognised due to things such as reports about inmates being tortured or being kept in an unhealthy environment.
LT: What have been your major achievements so far?
Commissioner Mothepu: We did a holistic plan on how we would address the issue of infrastructure and so far, we have begun the refurbishment of the Maseru Central Correctional Facility. We have also begun the refurbishment of the Leribe and Mohale’s Hoek facilities and others will follow in the next financial year. We have also submitted proposals to build other infrastructure elsewhere but that is something that is still early to talk about.
We were capacitated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) force which was in the country (from December 2017 to November 2018) to address the human resource challenge. The governments of Zimbabwe and South Africa were very helpful. Next week we are expecting guests from Romania and United States to provide further training for our staff and we still expect further assistance from SADC.
Furthermore, we will be hiring 49 Basotho to fill the posts which were left vacant by personnel who have left the LCS for various reasons. We have also made a special request to the government for grant-paid teachers to address the shortage of teachers. We have also sent 10 staff members for master’s degree programmes in China to improve service delivery.
The disappearance or escape of inmates is a thing of the past as we have and continue to capacitate our staff. I can proudly say that there has never been any escape since I have been at the helm of the LCS.
The international community now has trust in us now for we have been asked to increase the government provided personnel which is our representation in the United Nations peace keeping missions from two to eight people.
LT: Is the security of inmates not compromised by correctional service facilities situated in towns or residential areas?
Commissioner Mothepu: There can be security threats irrespective of the location. Isolating a correctional facility may be setting it as a perfect target whereas some may say that being in town or within a residential area makes them an easy target because attackers may not be seen from a distance or that inmates can easily escape undetected. It is just a matter of manning and beefing up the security personnel.
LT: What is your vision for the LCS and are there set timelines for such goals?
Commissioner Mothepu: Our vision is to be a centre of excellence which equips inmates with various life skills for them to be entrepreneurs when they are integrated back into communities. So far, we have introduced music as a subject at the Juvenile Training Centre.
Another achievement is that our inmates have started tailoring courses as well as production of cosmetics such as petroleum jelly and body lotion. I have samples of the LCS uniform which they will be sewing soon. I can assure the nation that by September I will be wearing a uniform which is tailored by inmates and that will save us a lot of money. For instance, a pair of our uniform trousers cost M650 from the supplier but when made internally, it only requires two metres of cloth which cost M120. The Leribe facility has also sewn clothes which were donated to the destitute by local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) recently.
We all wear uniforms in our community (LCS staff and inmates) so the plan is to produce our own uniforms so that we can divert funds that would have been used to procure the uniforms to other needs. We will no longer buy cosmetics but produce them internally. We also intend to improve our agricultural production.
LT: There have been reports of overcrowding and disease in correctional facilities. What is being done to address such issues?
Commissioner Mothepu: There are times when we are overcrowded but then I cannot go into details for security reasons. We try as much as possible to keep our environment clean and hygienic. We maintain the Ministry of Health standards as we also have health specialists in the facilities to address any problems but if they are beyond us, the inmates are rushed to government hospitals.
LT: The ombudsman has released a report which is very damning of you. He said your appointment was illegal in that there was a substantive commissioner, ‘Matefo Makhalemele, who was then on annual leave. What is your response to that?
Commissioner Mothepu: The report is out order because the ombudsman was misguided and it was clear he was serving someone else’s interests rather than those of his office. We told him what transpired regarding the allegations he was inquiring into but instead he decided to listen to other people who were feeding him lies.
Government institutions such as this one (the LCS) and that of the ombudsman are supposed to be in the hands of people who are entrusted not to prejudice any processes but we have seen the ombudsman acting contrary to what he is expected to do.
The ombudsman wrote to me demanding my appointment letter as well as that of ‘M’e Makhalemele but I refused telling him that he should get them from the government secretary who is responsible for writing such letters. If he wants to challenge the issues of the legality of my appointment and says the Prime Minster was wrong, then he should take the issue up with the office of the government secretary.
We had established a relationship with the ombudsman but his conduct this time was suspicious. We saw him acting contrary to the laws of his office. It is the norm that when there are complaints from the LCS to his office these are presented in the form of a letter. And he (the ombudsman) is supposed to write back to me and attach the complaint. But this time instead of doing that we were surprised when he said he was holding an inquiry.
We have confidential information but the mere fact that the letters which we wrote (to the office of the ombudsman) would be read out on one local radio station meant that we could not release files of the employees which he demanded. We asked the ombudsman to clean up his office first before we could give him information but we were surprised by his report.
LT: Some of your subordinates in the LCS have said that you should have not been appointed as you were serving a punishment for illegally some inmates. Is it true that you were serving such a punishment? What qualifications are needed to be LCS commissioner and do you possess such?
Commissioner Mothepu: The issue of me releasing inmates illegally is a pure lie fabricated by the ombudsman and those rogue officers who had been feeding him lies. We operate by law and it is only through a court order that we keep or release an inmate. We only check its authenticity as at times we have found some court orders to be fake.
I have never released anybody illegally. People are kept and released from the LCS based on a legitimate court orders and nothing else. Those are the Ombudsman’s formulated lies. As for qualifications, that is a question that can be directed to my employer, I cannot sing my own praises.
LT: It has been said your appointment was a reward for your involvement in politics. They say you were campaigning for a political party among the inmates before the 2017 elections and that you were seen driving around a politician during Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s inauguration in 2017. Are you involved in politics and do you think that has led to your promotion?
Commissioner Mothepu: I have never been seen in any political regalia. Before the 2017 elections I worked at the LCS headquarters and I had no interactions with inmates therefore there is no way I could have canvassed for votes for any political party.
On the issue of being seen driving a politician, I can say there was never a time when I took leave from my job and became someone else’s bodyguard or driver. However, being a commissioner does not mean that I am no longer a human being. It does not mean that once I assume such a position, I should become enemies with them (politicians). I reside in Ha Abia but I come from Nazareth, so I cannot be crucified for befriending my neighbours Ntate (Thomas) Thabane and Ntate (Monyane) Moleleki.
LT: You were further accused by the Ombudsman of compromising the security of the inmates by taking highly trained SWAT officers and turning them into your personal bodyguards. It is also said that the SWAT officers took the weapons from the LCS armoury to guard you and left the junior officers to guard high-profile inmates. What is your say on that? Who guards the high-profile inmates and is there adequate security for them?
Commissioner Mothepu: By law I have to be guarded by LCS officers who are armed from the armoury. My bodyguards are not expected to use any other armoury besides that of the LCS. But I carry my own personal pistol. By right I should be travelling with three vehicles with well trained and armed LCS personnel but I have been using only one car. I only went to the Ombudsman’s office with those SWAT people once and the only reason I went to his (Ombudsman) office with heavily armed security personnel is that we learned that there was a covert plan regarding me being called to his office that day.
None of my bodyguards was part of the personnel who got SWAT training in Zimbabwe or South Africa.
But it is a lie that I took specialised highly trained personnel who were trained in Zimbabwe or South Africa. Those people he is talking about are guarding inmates not me. This is evidence that the ombudsman’s report is a lie that is intended to taint my image. The entire report is full of malicious lies.
Since I have been in office there have never been reports of inmates escaping from custody which means everything is under control.
LT: The Ombudsman has accused you of promoting people on political grounds, what is your take on that?
Commissioner Mothepu: I cannot just promote anyone who feels they deserve promotion but I do that based on the merits of each individual. I believe I promoted the best people hence the stability in the correctional facilities. I do not think there will ever be a politician who will have the audacity to come to tell me who to promote or hire. I believe people should be hired or promoted on merit only.
All the people I promoted are the best people and that is why there is stability in the prisons. It does not mean that there are no possibilities of (the prisons) being attacked but we have the best people (prison officers) who are resilient. Since I assumed office there has never been any reports of escapees because we have improved our skills and promoted people based on the hard work they do.