When magistrates, who are the custodians of justice in any given country, decide to sue their own government, then things have gone horribly wrong. In fact, it’s a scenario that we have never fathomed, let alone heard of anywhere. Yet it has just happened here in Lesotho. It can only happen in Lesotho, the cynics will surely say. We cannot think of anything that should be worse embarrassing for any government.
The coalition of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane has no one but itself to blame for this fateful decision by the country’s 50 plus magistrates’. The magistrates opted to drag the government to court last week over perennial disputes about salary increments and improved working conditions.
We repeat, nowhere else in the world does one ever hear of magistrates and police officers going on strike. Yet it has happened here. We have not only witnessed police officers and magistrates opting for strike action. We have now witnessed the unprecedented phenomenon of the judicial officers suing the government to force it into action over the long outstanding issue of their salary increments and better working conditions.
This is what legendary Nigerian author Chinua Achebe probably had in mind when he said that things have fallen apart and the centre cannot hold.
As we reported in our previous edition, the magistrates opted to sue the government, accusing it of destroying their “morale, enthusiasm and passion” through its failure to adequately remunerate them and to allocate sufficient funding to enable them to discharge their duties.
While this may be a very rare unheard of occurrence, the lawsuit did not just come from the blue. It was the culmination of several years of the magistrates’ fruitless efforts to persuade the government to increase their salaries and benefits as well as recognise them as constitutionally distinct beings from civil servants. In July 2018 and again in April 2019, the magistrates took the unprecedented step of staging go-slow strikes to protest what they said were “our shockingly poor salaries and benefits”.
They also complained of lack of benefits including transport and housing allowances which forced most of them to rent what they call dilapidated houses and use unsafe public transport, which they sometimes share with the very criminals they would have convicted. They only called off the job actions when the government promised to address their grievances.
But after months of waiting in vain for feedback and concrete action, their patience has finally worn off and they have taken the unprecedented step of collectively suing the government.
But it did not have to come to this. The strikes and even the lawsuit could have been avoided had the government paid more attention to the magistrates’’ long-standing grievances instead of dismissing them out of hand as it did.
Like all other grievances presented by civil servants, the grievances are genuine. Yet the persistent response of the government has been to ignore them. While it cannot be expected that they could all be addressed in one sitting the fact that the grievances date as far back as 2005 suggest that successive governments could not be bothered to begin tackling the issues.
And this will not end with the magistrates. Next it will be the police, the teachers and other civil servants dragging the government to court over their salary grievances and working conditions. And so the story goes on.
There something is certainly wrong with the way the government responds to grievances. Ministers have often been accused of bunking meetings with aggrieved civil servants.
The magistrates have certainly reached the end of the proverbial tither. Their action speaks volumes of not only a judiciary in crisis but a whole country now sitting at the edge of a precipice. Unless the government gets its act together and concentrate on the business of growing the economy and generating wealth, expect more similar actions from different sectors of the civil service.