RULING All Basotho Convention (ABC) stalwart Motlohi Maliehe (MM) bounced back into cabinet on 3 October 2019 as Minister of Social Development. This after Prime Minister Thomas Thabane fired him from his Tourism, Environment and Culture portfolio in August 2018. Mr Maliehe was sacked after a fallout with the premier following a series of attacks the former launched against Dr Thabane, his wife ‘Maesaiah Thabane and the government in 2018.
Mr Maliehe had, among others, accused the First Lady of fomenting chaos in the party and in government through “constant meddling” in the work of ministers and officials.
He also accused Ms Thabane of violating the constitution and “abetting corruption” by instigating the removal of ministers who refused to comply with her demands. The Butha-Buthe lawmaker also made sensational claims that the State House, the prime minister’s official residence in Maseru, was used as a secret venue by a group of party stalwarts who plotted to assassinate him.
And this week, Lesotho Times’ (LT) Senior Reporter Pascalinah Kabi sat down with Minister Maliehe to discuss his return to cabinet and other topical issues.
LT: You have returned to cabinet but previously you did not see eye-to-eye with your colleagues. What is the situation now?
MM: I would not agree with you that I did not see eye-to-eye with my colleagues. No. When I left the cabinet, we were cooperating well and there is nothing that could cause us to clash in cabinet because each one of us is looking after the interests of their portfolios to ensure that the ministries perform well.
It was only those issues that I do not want to go back to that the media pestered me for. I only said the Right Honourable Prime Minister never called me to tell me his reasons for appointing me as a minister and he had a right to fire me without giving me reasons like he has done with any other minister. I said that I had no right to contest his decision and after he fired me. He shocked me by reappointing me into his cabinet. He has given a job and I have accepted it the same way I did in the past. I have neither reservations nor questions. I will just do my job. There are problems and my colleagues in cabinet, old and new, are working collectively as a team and I have no complaints whatsoever.
LT: When you were fired you raised serious issues of corruption, accusing the government of deviating from the founding principles that it set for itself when it took over administration in June 2017. Do you still share the same opinion today?
MM: As long as there is corruption, of which I am not the one saying there is-it is the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and I see it with my naked eye, I will not keep quiet. I will say it but the most important issue is for me to organise my colleagues so that we can serve the nation. It is my main responsibility to organise my colleagues but when there is corruption, I will not turn a blind eye.
LT: What is your reaction to some opinions that you have been handed a ministerial post to keep you from attacking the Prime Minister?
MM: No, no I don’t know where you are getting that or where Basotho get it. I have never said anything against the right honourable prime minister, not even in a second. But; you know what I said when I was in Hololo, whom did I talk about. I did not involve the name of the prime minister.
I only mentioned the Prime Minister when the media asked me how I felt when he fired me. I said he was exercising his constitutional right. I have never said anything else about the prime minister because even in the issues surrounding corruption, he is not involved. He does not run ministries. He is just an overseer sitting there. It is only now that he has taken over the Ministry of Defence and National Security but we cannot say he is involved in corrupt dealings. I have no right to say that and I would be mad to say that. It is the ministers that can be involved in corruption and we have been reprimanded from meddling with tenders yet some are still being involved in (corruptly awarding of) tenders.
LT: Do you still think the First Lady foments chaos in the party and in government through constant meddling?
MM: Since I have not identified anything right now, I have nothing but if anything happens, I will still voice my opinion. I am not ashamed of it but right now I do not see anything. Instead, I have seen a lot of positive change since the last time I said that.
LT: What do you bring to the Social Development ministry?
MM: My aim is to take over from where my predecessors left off and build from there. I cannot claim to be better than any of my predecessors all the processes are long term. Unfortunately, I have not met all the directors but from my meetings with others, I have made shocking discoveries about the status of this country’s vulnerability. However, I know that I can manage some of these things.
I have my own decisions as an individual based on the observations I made while I was watching from a distance unaware that one day I would be appointed to the portfolio. One typical example is the is the abuse of elders; I take issues of Butha-Buthe as a good survey for the whole country and I feel I must address this soon-if possible, this week.
The old age pensioners get their pensions monthly from different posts across the country. There are always vendors in those paying posts cashing on the elderly selling them food. Criminals also take advantage of this and are now selling them traditional alcohol and fake traditional medicines. The most painful discovery that I made before I came here is that this is just a ploy to get pensioners drugged so that they can be defrauded of their pensions.
In most cases; immediately after one drink, the criminals claim that the pensioners owe them amounts as high as M150. The pensioners are then made to pay non-existent debts for months. I want to address this issue urgently by involving the police and army officers stationed at the pay points to ensure that the sale of alcohol and fake traditional medicines stops immediately. I have no problem with vendors selling food and other necessities to the pensioners but I have to protect them from criminals because some of them lose all their money to the criminals and in return spend the whole month surviving on debts. These are painful cases that we must deal with.
However, fortunate enough for us, the international agencies like the UNICEF are throwing their weight behind us. They have demanded utmost transparency in all areas that they are assisting us with. I am going to work hard to ensure that we are transparent in our dealings. However, this will not be a walk in the park.
The greatest challenge is that the Finance minister (Moeketsi Majoro), in his budget speech for the 2019/20 financial year indicated that funds allocated to this ministry must be disbursed to the ministry. But that has not happened even today. We are supposed to sign a memorandum of understanding with him this week to ensure that all funds allocated for this ministry in the next financial year are disbursed directly to us. It is a great challenge for our budget to be operated from the Ministry of Finance because they have been paying ghosts with our money.
The World Bank is going to train our staff to ensure that we distribute these funds in a transparent manner. This will deal with situations where names of the deceased are kept on the database to defraud the government.
There is a syndicate that involves people from the head office down to the cashiers and the Finance minister has indicated that the government is defrauded of M10 million monthly.
The World Bank is already preparing us to take over this project. We do not know whether or not we will inherently work with the syndicate. Maybe for the time being we will work with them during the transitional period but we will ensure that they operate under strict instructions and the watchful eye of the Ministry of Social Development.
LT: Does the ministry have an audited list of old age pensioners which it can compare with that being used by the Finance ministry?
MM: I am yet to meet all the directors in the ministry and familiarise with the ministry and I am not in a position to immediately tell if we have such an audit. I hope that there might be an indication somewhere but we depend on the Department of Statistics to give us a list of old age pensioners in the country. I can only estimate. Mostly importantly, the world now informs us that one is regarded as an elder once they reach the age of 60.
This is one of the greatest challenges for me because I want to roll-out a list of elders from 70 down to 60 years. I would not make it in a year. I am hoping that this will start very soon because former minister ‘Matebatso Doti began with the enrollment of 65-70 years.