We are building a new ABC free of the cult of the great leader: Mahao
A year ago, the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) held its elective conference on 1 and 2 February 2019. Despite strong objections from ABC leader and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and some party stalwarts, Professor Nqosa Mahao, contested and won the post of deputy leader. His election was however met with fierce resistance by Dr Thabane and others who argued that he was a relative newcomer who should not have been elected ahead of more seasoned party stalwarts. This week, the Lesotho Times (LT) Editor Herbert Moyo and Reporter Bataung Moeketsi sat down with Prof Mahao who shared his thoughts about his first anniversary in the ABC’s national executive committee. Below are excerpts from the interview.
LT: It’s been a year since the All Basotho Elective Conference where you were elected to the position of deputy leader. What have been the major issues, the successes and the challenges?
Professor Mahao: It’s literally a year to the day when our success in the campaign for the position was declared. We could have not anticipated the huge challenges which would confront at the time.
Of course, we had lingering thoughts in our minds that there would be a resistance to the outcome of the ABC national executive committee (NEC) elections, what we never thought was that it would take almost a year before our election was recognised. In a way, this baptismal was helpful in the sense that it helped us fully appreciate that the political landscape in the political parties, the ABC included, is not as democratic as often assumed.
It is quite obvious that what is often characterised as open competitive acquisition of power is actually something that is mediated from above by the powers that within the parties.
And I am saying that it is across the spectrum. It just happens to be more glaring in the ABC simply because those that held power were far more brutal and less refined, and so they orchestrated their resistance in such an open manner that affronted anybody who subscribed to the values of democracy. We have had a series of cases in the courts which we won because the facts and the law were on our side.
We never had doubts that we would win cases but what was exposed is the fragility of our judiciary system. Our courts are not as independent and impartial as they are assumed to be nor as we would wish them to be. There numerous efforts by some elements in the judiciary to determine the outcome of the contestation within the party in favour of the powers that be. But those who were inclined in that direction were beaten in that game.
Upright judges determined the outcome in our favour. The other side of the struggle was winning the battle within the ABC as a mass movement. It is quite obvious that we commanded the majority of the membership of the party and this was amply demonstrated at the rallies that we had. I think the other side was trying to wear us down, but in the long run it was they who ran out of steam. I think they had 11 rallies to our 25 rallies and that demonstrated our resilience despite the fact that we didn’t have resources. Towards the end of the year we were awarded a very important judgement by the High Court of Lesotho.
You would recall that there had been a purport that we were expelled from the party, the five of us, myself, the national chairperson (Samuel Rapapa), the secretary general (Lebohang Hlaele), the Public Relations Officer (Montoeli Masoetsa) and his deputy (’Matebatso Doti). But that case was determined on the 17th (December 2019) and our victory enabled us now to have a firm control of the party affairs.
I think it (17 December 2019 court victory) was one of the turning points which made our opponents to want to cut a deal (unification of the warring ABC’s Thabane and Mahao factions). The other factor, of course, is this fate that befell the prime minister and his spouse (the murder allegations in connection with the 14 June 2017 murder of Dr Thabane’s former wife, Lipolelo).
Both factors showed them (Thabane faction) that it was necessary to make a deal with us and that enabled us to reunite the party on the basis of the basis of the outcome of the elective conference. And that is where we are now. We are operating as a unified national executive committee. We are working on fixing the whole structure of the party from the top, that is, the national executive committee down to the constituency committees so that we operate as a unified party in the manner that we should have done after the elective conference. That is the road that we have travelled so far.
LT: You are speaking of the need to restructure and unite the party. What are you doing in terms of strengthening the party structures so that whatever happens in the party does not depend on the whims of individuals?
Professor Mahao: What was the 12 months of our struggle about? It was about the democratisation of the party. We have to acknowledge that the ABC was run in an authoritarian manner. It was almost a one-man band and you would say it was actually a one-woman party because behind the façade of the leader we knew who was actually pulling the strings. We knew who was actually objecting to my election. The whole 12 months were a struggle to democratise the party and the extent that we have succeeded in a sense that we are now recognized as the official leadership of the party, together will all of those we were elected with. That first leg of democratizing the party has been very successfully. When we were still operating as the two factions, our faction had already taken important initiatives to have the constitution of the party reviewed. A task team that been assigned the job has given its reports. Were it not for the reunification of the two factions, we were hoping that at the end of February we were taking those reforms in the constitution to the party conference. But of course what it does mean now is that we have to go back to that process and reinitiate the review of the constitution now under this unified umbrella. What is important about the reforms was to precisely embed collective leadership, very sharply within the constitution such that you don’t have the vestiges of the past. That was one initiative that we had already set in motion. The third (second?) initiative was to try to modernize the party by removing a focus on individuals which in the context of Africa is associated with the cult of leadership by tasking another task to develop party policies. In another words, a party programme that would be what forms the social contract between ourselves and the electorate, and what those of our deployees in government and other structures of governance would have to implement. In that way we are dealing this issue which is so prevalent in African politics where people place their trust in the leader and not in the programme, not the in the values that party stands for. In that way we are also hoping that we will distinguish ourselves from other parties. I have often made the point that interestingly you have 35 politically parties in the country but if you asked a man in the street what differentiates them you will find it’s about party colours, about the exalted almost worshipping of the leaders and the party paraphernalia, and nothing about substantive developmental policies that address the challenges of underdevelopment in the context of Lesotho. That exercise was still on-going when we reunited and that means we then again have to re-institutionalize that process through the now unified national executive committee.
LT: In the period you were having all of these problems with your colleagues in the ABC you struck a deal with the opposition particularly the DC to support your no confidence motion against Dr Thabane. What will happen to your relationship with the opposition now that the no confidence motion has become irrelevant?
Professor Mahao: The relationship was based on principle. We supported them when we thought that they stood on an issue of principle. For example, you would recall there was an attempt by parliament to suspend a member of the opposition, DC, for a very long period of time. And our assessment was that cannot be right because the member was suspended in connection with an issue which subsequently became a burning issue, the issue of wool and mohair. Which everyone would know has been so topical because the implementation of the regulation has resulted in such harm to the rural farmers, to the wool and mohair industry as it were. So, we supported them on that position. Similarly, they also were willing to support us because they understood that to refuse to recognize an elected committee of the party held harm, not just to democracy within the ABC, but it posed a serious threat to national democracy. Going forward it means that it doesn’t matter what the unity within the ABC will take us to, this relationship has opened possibilities of collaboration informed by key national issues and I can assure you will continue to rub shoulders with the opposition on matters that do warrant that we cooperate.
LT: When negotiating the reunification of the party, did you discuss the possibility of ensuring Dr Thabane and the First Lady would be granted immunity from prosecution as suggested in some quarters?
Professor Mahao: First of all, the prime minister has not approached us on the issue and therefore it is not on the table as we speak. In the negotiations for reuniting the party that issue of immunity was never part of the discourse. Thirdly, the ABC came to power on a very clear and focal commitment of upholding the rule of law. Our side of the ABC prior to the unity had always spoken very clearly and unambiguously that it holds the legacy, the commitment about the rule of law, and there is no way that we can wake up all of a sudden to want to do anything that affronts the rule of law. So those who make those allegations are desperately trying to paint us against the wall in the hope that they will use that as political capital. But let me say this. Who exactly is notorious for cutting deals that seek to circumvent the rule of law in this country? It is the opposition party that were not prepared to have the culprits who were involved in serial murders prior to 2017. They were not prepared. They never brought anyone to book until they were out of office. It was my personal campaign, my family and the ABC that campaigned such that you now have some chap at the maximum awaiting trial. Even today the opposition is still campaigning to have those folks released without facing their judgement day in the courtrooms. And this why up until now you have cases being postponed by lawyers with the opposition playing at the background. You have cases of judges being called upon to recuse themselves. Remember there was such a case before the Constitutional Court last year, they lost. The case went to the Court of Appeal, they lost three weeks ago. Again, a similar challenge to a judge to recuse himself, they are going to the Court of Appeal again. The culprits together with the opposition are hoping that there can be a change of government and when they get on to power, if they will, they will try to make the cases go away. And so I am saying to you, just look at history. The folks who today are trying to say that “maybe they cut a deal”, they have their hands drenched in blood and they would want the public to believe that it us who would compromise justice, and not themselves. But I am sure the sinning eyes do see it is them who will always work towards compromising justice and not us.
LT: But you did mention the issue of the fate that befell the Prime Minister and his spouse as probably a push factor. How was it push factor towards the re-unification?
Professor Mahao: Look, there were two interests here that were at play. The interests to push the murder under the carpet, but also folks who saw that as an opportunity for them to hang to power by holding onto the coattails of the Prime Minister. When they realized that dispensation was crumbling, and then they felt, well let’s reach out and in that way, we may save our careers. I think that is the basis on why they were more than ready to reach out. Remember that, this time around, we had negotiated so many times and the initiatives were always by us, but this last time actually the initiative came from the other time. By this time, we had said we have no business to do with negotiations anymore having tried everything in the book in the last 12 months, but then they came forward to say can we talk, can we reunite the party. And for us the bottom line was there was an elective conference and it is the results of the elective conference that separated us. If you are prepared to recognize that elective conference, then there is no reason why we would not hold hands.
LT: Now we have this process. What I would like to find out from you as the deputy, the Prime Minister has spoken about retiring. Why can’t we just have a date like we normally see elsewhere? Why can’t we have a specific date instead of a process towards retiring?
Professor Mahao: Two issues are there. The Prime Minster is the one who has to indicate a date. Unfortunately, that is a process is removed from us as a party because it is an individual decision that he has to make. But we do suspect that there are folks behind him because the Prime Minister has almost said he would want to retire like yesterday. But we think those folks who are associating their positions with him remaining in office are probably holding him to stay longer than he would wish. That’s the one issue. The other issue, let just take my shot at you the press, including your newspaper. There were these screaming headlines “crisis in the ABC” and I can’t remember what the other poster titles were, but they were along the same lines. Now look you guys, you got it wrong. I will give you an example. Theresa May in the United Kingdom indicates that she is going to step down and for something like two months a whole process unfolds within the rules of the [unclear word – 33:22] party where not less than eight candidates threw their hat in the ring and there was a democratic competitive process that eventually resulted in one of the eight being selected to take over as leader and Prime Minister. I suppose because those people are white you would see that as democracy taking its course. Now, low and behold, just a few months a Prime Minister in an African setting indicates that he is going to be going and plus minus eight focus express their ambition to go for the position, because those folks are black the media says “chaos”, “crisis”. It is because you guys are addicted to authoritarian ways of change. You only know one formula of dictatorship where positions are passed on conspiratorially as if someone is passing a family legacy to his son or something like that. No. Those colleagues are entitled to express their ambitions. But the party will act according to the conventions and norms that exist within the ABC, which is that the National Executive Committee is the one that is going to pick the candidate. Even as we knew that we were entitled to do that, without that one, there must be consultations because the parliamentary caucus is a key stakeholder in this whole thing. So last week we met with the parliamentary caucus, we gave them our report and they asked questions to which we responded. They then asked us as the NEC to give them space to deliberate, they did that. We are going to receive the feedback from that process. And I suppose there will be proposals. And it is only fair that we look at all of those proposals, they will possibly improve the decision that we will make. In my view there is no crisis unless the media sees democracy as a crisis, unless the media sees consultation as a crisis. There is no crisis as far as I am concerned. And secondly, related to the question that you asked. Why is it taking so long? What are we in a hurry for? The Prime Minister has not said when he is going. There is talk that it might be in July. It could be earlier. It could even be later. So we are not under pressure to fast track that process. In any case, my personal view is that drawing the process out enables us to also continue to deal with the other fundamental process of re-unification and healing. You know, people still look at each other with suspicious eyes. Even when it comes to this process of picking a candidate, you will not completely rule out that the differences that were part of our baggage in the past one year would still influence the way people perceive their choices. My view is that it is okay, we are going through massaging one another, making sure that we understand one another. But at the end of the day a candidate, a suitable candidate will be picked up. We will not look about not which faction that candidate would have been associated with, but on the issue of whether that candidate is going to project the image of the ABC in a positive light to the electorate at large. Remember, now our eyes are focused firmly on the 2022 elections and if this process picks up a candidate who will not reflect well on the ABC in the eyes of the electorate, we would have offered the disaster ourselves. So we allow our people to think very deeply about these issues such that we may improve our chances of winning those elections even more soundly than when we did in 2017.
LT: We heard that the NEC has come up with a name to succeed Dr Thabane. Are you at liberty to share that proposed name?
Professor Mahao: We proposed names and those names are in the public domain. They are the names that were tabled before the parliamentary caucus. I am told that the proceedings in the parliamentary caucus are covered by the nondisclosure rules so I cannot break those rules.
LT: What qualities are you looking for in the ideal candidate to succeed Dr Thabane?
Professor Mahao: I don’t want to pre-judge the feedback that should come in from the parliamentary caucus. But the long and short of it is that the candidate must be credible and command the respect of our people. We want a candidate who is not mired in shenanigans of one kind or another such that we will all be able to stand behind them with our heads held high. It would be regrettable if the process could pick up a candidate whom the following day the opposition would be shooting down so easily. That is not what we would want. Those are some of the major considerations that will go into the determination of who and why. But we expect that the parliamentary caucus would also have generated additional qualities that we need to take into account.
LT: The expectation is whoever you choose will finish off Dr Thabane’s term up to 2022. But since you say you are looking beyond 2022 are you ruling yourself out of the succession beyond 2022?
If Mr Thabane leaves and you become ABC leader when there is someone else as prime minister, won’t this create a problem of two centres of power?
Professor Mahao: In due course Dr Thabane will indicate when he will be stepping down as party leader. In terms of party constitution, the leader has to be elected at a conference, and so I hope I will be running for that position. But there are a whole host of candidates who will be running for that position so we have to go through the motions of, first of all, him indicating… You remember that in the press conference that he held together with us two weeks ago, he only indicated stepping down as Prime Minister. In other words, we don’t know when he will be stepping down as leader, so we would have to wait for that moment to arrive. You are talking about two centres of power. It is not a problem if it is managed well. My understanding is that a Prime Minister is accountable to the National Executive Committee of the party and draws his mandate from the National Executive of the party. And if those rules are respected there is no reason there should be tension between the National Executive Committee and the Prime Minister.
LT: The judiciary is one arm of the state which has come under severe criticism in terms of its handling of issues and the question of whether it is independent of the executive has come up so often. In your assessment is the executive interfering with the judiciary?
Professor Mahao: Interference in the judiciary is a notorious factor in Lesotho. Remember, in the last five years, a president of the Court of Appeal was removed, a chief justice who was removed, then again a president of the Court of Appeal who was removed, a chief justice who as removed and then you have current attempts to remove the president of the Court of Appeal. So, interference in the judiciary is a notorious fact of life in Lesotho. In case you are not aware of the references I am speaking to, you had the removal of judge Michael Ramodibedi who was the president of the Court of Appeal, the removal of Chief Justice Lehohla followed by the removal of Professor Kananelo Mosito as the president of the Court of Appeal, followed by the removal of the Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara as the chief justice and now the latest attempts to again remove judge Mosito as the president of the Court of Appeal. It is so glaring that the executive is hell-bent on undermining the independence and impartiality of the judiciary. Now the question you are asking again, is it the whole of the judiciary? Apparently no, it is individual judges who allow themselves to be susceptible to manipulation by the executive and those have not adorned the judiciary in glory and honour, and have resulted in a very dim view of the judiciary as an institution. You know, we are in the reforms era. We hope that some of these powers to appoint in a transparent manner and to dismiss to serve sectarian purposes will be removed from the powers that be by the reforms process.
LT: The big news from last week is that we have heard the outgoing Prime Minister has recommended the appointment of acting chief justice Maseforo Mahase as the substantive chief justice and now there are attempts by the secretary general of the ABC to stop this from happening. Is it legal for the prime minister to recommend a key appointment when the premier is about to step down? If not, is it still desirable for him to do so?
Professor Mahao: Legally there is nothing that says that a prime minister who has declared that he is stepping down may not appoint. Whether it is right is another thing. For me, we are in this unsavoury moment because our laws vest these powers in politicians without putting in place the necessary safeguards and checks and balance systems. Remember when it comes to the chief justice and the president of the Court of Appeal, the Prime Minister is not even advised by the judiciary service commission. He can just wake up the following day and pick up a fellow in the street and say, “I am making you chief justice.” It says that our constitutional system is very defective and we should rectify that defect. A penchant has developed where our politicians want to rule from the grave, on the eve of their departure they want to fill all the important positions, whether in the judiciary, in the public service or in our diplomatic missions. They do that with the malicious intent of ensuring that those that succeed them will have the centres of opposition and weaken their capacity to govern. It cannot be right. Now, of course you have referred to the current effort to appoint the acting chief justice. I don’t know how some can appoint someone who has so patently proven herself not be competent for the job. Remember it is the Court of Appeal that said in one of these ABC cases, if it were in another jurisdiction this judge would have been hauled before disciplinary process. It is the Court of Appeal that said that. And then he still proceeded to want to appoint someone like that. It is a disaster. But it just says that leadership in this country does not have the interests and the progress of the nation at heart, it is all about themselves and their friends.