FINANCE Minister Moeketsi Majoro late last year gave an enigmatic, if not prescient response when he declared that the race for the deputy leader’s post in the All Basotho Convention (ABC) would be a “brutal contest”.
But even he could not have anticipated the drama and controversies that have hitherto dogged the race for the coveted post which in all likelihood will produce the eventual successor to long-serving leader and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.
He could not have anticipated the spirited efforts of the ABC’s Koro-koro constituency committee to keep Prof Mahao in the contest despite the party’s national executive committee (NEC)’s decision to throw out his nomination on the grounds that he has not served in the party’s structures for the required time.
Nor would Dr Majoro have anticipated the virulent public attack on Prof Mahao by Dr Thabane, describing the latter as a “useless rag” who should never be allowed to succeed him.
Dr Thabane subsequently apologised for his acerbic remarks. But that notwithstanding, the stage for a bruising contest had already been set.
In all, it is a contest that chroniclers of political history would have wished for. It has all the ingredients of subterfuge, scheming, counter-scheming if not outright skulduggery.
To begin with, the party’s leading lights in Dr Majoro, Motlohi Maliehe and Prince Maliehe have thrown their hat into the ring. Add to that list, the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Vice Chancellor Professor Nqosa Mahao, a man whose academic credentials and work with the university is well-known.
Prof Mahao and Dr Majoro are technocrats with fairly impeccable achievements. Although the two Maliehes do not boast the same academic credentials, they certainly make up for that in terms of political appeal and experience.
Mr Prince Maliehe is the incumbent. He is thought to have the backing of party leader, Thomas Thabane himself. The other Maliehe is an extremely popular politician who is currently the party chairperson. He also served as Tourism, Environment and Culture minister until Dr Thabane sacked him for his public outbursts which included that unprecedented May 2018 attack on the First Lady Maesaiah Thabane whom she accused of meddling in party and government affairs.
And while these are all big guns, there can only be one winner in what Dr Majoro has rightly described as a “brutal contest”.
With just a week before the crunch ABC elections on 1 and 2 February, the Lesotho Times, with the help of party insiders and analysts, assesses the qualities of each of the contestants.
He carries a family name that has become synonymous with the fight for justice and human rights after the impunity and excesses that occurred during the previous regime that was headed by Pakalitha Mosisili. There is a rampant belief that the assassination of his brother, Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, by fellow soldiers in June 2015, was one of the key factors in swaying the majority votes in favour of the ABC and cutting short the reign of Dr Mosisili’s Democratic Congress-led coalition in June 2017. The assassination created widespread sympathy for Dr Thabane, who himself had gone into exile over fears the army was trying to kill him.
It also ignited widespread sympathy for the Mahao family, being the direct victims, as did their on-going courageous fight for justice against then powerful forces who included Dr Mosisili and the former army commander, Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli.
Prof Mahao fought for and continues to fight for justice in the case of his slain brother.
But his reputation is not based solely on his family name. Prof Mahao is his own man whose fame rests solidly on his personal achievements. These include his current stint at the helm of NUL and a solid academic background that includes heading the law faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand, one of Africa’s premier learning showcase.
It is on the basis of his good history that the ABC’s Koro-Koro constituency committee co-opted Prof Mahao in September 2015 and subsequently nominated him for the post of deputy leader.
Apart from his stellar academic achievements and his keen sense of justice, another key attribute of Prof Mahao is that he is not afraid to speak his mind even if that means ruffling some feathers along the way.
He has taken the same fearless attitude that has characterised the family’s fight for justice into the cut-throat world of ABC politics.
His recent interview with the Lesotho Times attests to his character as a fearless technocrat who is not afraid to speak his mind for the good of all and sundry. His frank criticism of the ABC, the very party he wants to eventually lead, exemplified a deep sense of honest self-reflection, uncharacteristic of most career politicians who would rather blow with the prevailing tide to achieve political power.
Soon after announcing that he wanted to contest, he tore into the ABC’s NEC, saying it was the main source of the ABC’s troubles.
“Initially it looked like there was a positive movement but in less than a year a degree of disillusionment and disgruntlement in the nation is palpable,” Prof Mahao said.
“The gap between those who are in power and the sentiments of the people on the ground has to be breached. Where does the problem lie?
“A political organisation is as good as its national executive committee. When you see an organisation that is as rudderless, it says something about the leadership and it is my sense that colleagues in the leadership of the ABC lost their focus on why they were elected into leadership.”
This frank talk certainly won him enemies. Some party insiders say it could now count against him. They say it also earned him the enmity of Dr Thabane who saw the remarks as a direct attack on him.
Despite his impeccable academic career, some ABC insiders says he is relatively a political greenhorn who is untested in the treacherous political terrain. His previous dalliances with the opposition Popular Front for Democracy (PFD), which Dr Thabane referenced in his recent attacks, could also work against him.
But his backers say that his political inexperience should in fact be among his trump cards. “Novelty can be a good thing in politics. His (Prof Mahao’s) so-called inexperience in politics is actually a plus for him in that he remains untainted by corruption, cronyism and factionalism which are all vices that often saddle those who have been around for far too long,” said one top ABC insider.
“He is not tainted by factionalism and other maladies. This makes him an acceptable candidate to those who cannot stand the combative approach of Ntate Motlohi Maliehe or the dourness of Ntate Majoro whose stinginess with the purse strings while good for the economy makes him a target for fellow ministers and other politicians who see him as an obstacle to spending in the name of populism.”
Another top ABC insider added; “Prof Mahao may be a relative greenhorn in party politics but he has the clout within the party.
“The Mahaos are a family that cannot be ignored and they command a lot of respect within the party on account of the supreme sacrifice that Lt-Gen Mahao made. It was the latter’s assassination that brought SADC back to Lesotho and kick-started the processes that led to the collapse of the Mosisili regime and the advent of the second Thabane administration. But above all Prof Mahao is also his own man. His work with NUL speaks for itself and there are many in the party who believe that he will be the new broom that will clean the malaise within the ABC. The ABC is riddled with infighting and incompetence which has so far made it fail to resolve the pressing challenges of high unemployment, corruption, poverty and under-development. We are soon a full two years in power but with nothing to show for it. The party supporters may see him as technocrat who will tackle these challenges headlong.”
Mr Mahao’s candidature hinges on the Koro-Koro constituency committee winning a court appeal against his disqualification. If it doesn’t win, all the arguments for and against Prof Mahao would have been for academic convenience only.
Like Prof Mahao, Dr Majoro is a technocrat. He rarely speaks publicly but he is seen as more of an enforcer who prefers to get the job done behind the scenes.
He has been engaged in long-running talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package for the country. The talks are being conducted away from the public spotlight.
But unlike Prof Mahao, Dr Majoro has been in the ranks of the ABC for much longer, having joined the party on the back of what his supporters say was a successful career in the public service.
His advantages over his fellow technocrat lie in that he is a legislator and senior minister.
“As a legislator, Dr Majoro understands the inner workings of the ABC better than Prof Mahao who despite being a technocrat, has been operating outside the party’s centre of power. As a senior minister in charge of the country’s finances, Dr Majoro’s influence cuts across all ministries and government programmes and that gives him so much power within the party and government. Furthermore, he is more acceptable to the IMF, World Bank and other multi-lateral institutions who would prefer his prescription of austerity in government spending,” one party insider told this publication.
But these same strengths could also prove to be Dr Majoro’s Achilles heel.
Another party insider said that because of his dogged insistence on cutting expenditure, Dr Majoro has incurred the wrath of both Dr Thabane and the First Lady, Maesaiah Thabane.
“The premier was not happy with Dr Majoro for refusing to release funds for a new vehicle fleet. Throughout 2017 and 2018, so many people in the party including ministers were not happy with Dr Majoro’s austerity measures.
“His ban on first class travel to cut spending was and continues to be defied. His colleagues are generally populists who want unlimited access to government funds and his dogged insistence on reducing spending has not won him support. It is a common secret in the party that Dr Thabane had wanted to shuffle Dr Majoro early on after this coalition took power. Dr Thabane was prevented by two officials who enjoy the Prime Minister’s ear. Otherwise he would have long gone. Dr Majoro certainly is not the candidate for the Prime Minister and the powerful First Lady” the party insider said.
Another party official said: “(Dr) Majoro is essentially not a politician. He is aloof and not charismatic. He is the Thabo Mbeki type. Good only as a finance minister or a minister of planning but he is not cut to lead a party”.
Still, some ABC officials say Dr Majoro would be the ideal candidate to take the country forward. He understands economics and he is not corrupt. He is energetic. He can get the country going again.
History is replete with tales of politicians who made it to the top despite the lack of obvious advantages such as charisma, academic credentials and popular support.
Mr Prince Maliehe could well be one such politician. He is the incumbent and by his own admission, he was brought in as a compromise candidate at the behest of Dr Thabane. Mr Maliehe said he was elevated to the post to prevent potential instability in the ruling party which could arise from intense jostling for the post.
“I am aware of groups of ABC members who have been holding secret meetings but I never took part in the meetings…
“The party leader, Dr Thabane, proposed my name to the NEC. No name was brought up to oppose the leader’s proposal and the NEC approved his submission,” he said of how he rose to his current post of acting deputy leader. He believes he was appointed to act because he is a “senior member who could act as a unifying figure to save the party from going through unnecessary instability”.
Mr Maliehe had dismissed speculation that his appointment was an indication that the party was grooming him to take over from Dr Thabane when the latter eventually decides to retire from active politics.
“We should not be impatient and speculate on the reasons behind my appointment. I am just an interim deputy leader to facilitate the smooth and efficient running of the ABC in preparation for the 2019 elective conference. Let us all wait for the elections and let the masses decide,” said Mr Maliehe in a previous interview.
He in that interview refused to talk up his own achievements, preferring to just say that, “I have previously served in the NEC as treasurer-general and I am a legislator”.
This could well be modesty or mind games on his part. One ABC insider say that “apart from having the deputy leader’s post thrust upon him by Ntate Thabane, Prince Maliehe has nothing else to recommend him for the top job”.
But if at all Mr Maliehe and his backers have been preparing him to land the top post on a permanent basis, they have not shown it through active campaigning or even clear public pronouncements and actions.
He has not stamped his authority or united the party whose infighting has been playing out in the public domain for all to see.
This could mean that Mr Maliehe could have just been a stop-gap measure who was just warming the seat before it passes to another.
But as another party insider said, “If I can make a prediction, I think Mr Maliehe will retain the position because he has the backing of Dr Thabane. In politics, the support of the incumbent counts for so much and whoever enjoys it has an edge which makes up for any perceived lack of charisma, popularity and other qualities. After all, in politics, as (William) Shakespeare famously declared, ‘some will have greatness thrust upon them’. Maliehe could just have it all thrust upon him.”
Quite often party members take the cue from their leader and if the ABC faithful read from the Thabane script, then Mr Maliehe will get the nod.
The ABC chair made the headlines with his blistering attack on the First Lady, Maesaiah Thabane, in May 2018.
Mr Maliehe accused Ms Thabane of fomenting chaos in the party and in the government through “constant meddling” in the work of ministers and officials. He demanded that the First Lady stops meddling in state affairs forthwith or risk derailing the government.
He further accused Ms Thabane of violating the constitution and “abetting corruption” by instigating the removal of ministers who refused to comply with her demands. The stinging remarks led to his dismissal from his post as minister of Tourism, Environment and Culture.
He was also suspended from the ABC chairmanship, only to be reinstated last month.
One party official said with his stinging attacks on the first family, “he only created powerful enemies for himself and that could work against his quest to land the top ABC job”.
“Mr Maliehe has been a loose cannon whose public attacks are not only embarrassing but a potential threat to Dr Thabane’s stranglehold on the party.
“If Dr Thabane has his way, Mr Maliehe will not only lose the deputy leader’s post but also his current position of party chair. This way he will be downgraded to the ranks of ordinary card-carrying member and even if he remains a legislator, his influence will be very much limited,” the official said.
However, another party insider said that it would be foolish for anyone to underestimate Mr Maliehe.
The insider said the fact that Mr Maliehe’s suspension was lifted before time was testament to the support and influence, he enjoys within the party.
“Even after the suspension was lifted, he (Mr Maliehe) could not resist one more jibe at his detractors in the party telling the media that he would have taken them to court if they had not lifted his suspension. This speaks of a man who is confident about the support he enjoys in the party and it would be foolish to discount such a man,” the insider said.
The problem with the two Maliehes is that no one knows what they stand for and the policies they will seek to promote, said a party official.
“We all know what kind of policies Majoro would push. Mahao has spoken at length about his philosophies. The two Maliehes are total strangers to policy articulation and formulation. But then this is Lesotho. This is Africa. Many delegates would not be bothered by the nitty-gritties of policy talk. All they will want is to vote for a face they like and the debate ends there….That is in some way the tragedy of Africa.”
One thing is clear, with Dr Thabane getting up in years, whoever wins the race will have their work cut out.