THE previous Thomas Thabane-led government’s failure to decisively deal with the scourge of human trafficking has come back to the haunt the country.
This amid revelations that Lesotho has joined the likes of Afghanistan, North Korea, Burma, Syria, Nicaragua and Zimbabwe on the United States (US) government’s list of rogue nations prohibited from receiving any development assistance.
Lesotho has been listed among the rogue nations despite that it has until the of February 2021 to have decisively dealt with the human trafficking concerns.
The US government defines human trafficking as “modern day slavery” which involves the migration or movement of persons locally and beyond a country’s borders against their will to get them into forced labour, involuntary servitude and debt bondage.
The placement of Lesotho of Lesotho on the US’s list of rogue nations means that although the US’ Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) on 15 December 2020 “reaffirmed its support for continuing compact development in Lesotho”, the country will not be eligible for the multi-million-dollar second MCC compact and all other forms of development assistance from the US unless it urgently addresses the human trafficking concerns.
And time is fast running out because just over a month remains before the lapse of the February 2021 deadline the US government set for Lesotho to have addressed the human trafficking concerns.
Other low-income countries on the US rogue nations’ list are Cambodia, Eritrea, Comoros, Papua New Guinea, Sudan and South Sudan.
According to a recent report by the MCC, Lesotho and other “prohibited countries” are ineligible to receive US economic assistance in the 2021 financial year due to various infractions listed in the US’ Foreign Assistance Act.
The infractions vary from country to country and in the case of Burma and Cambodia, these have to do with the two countries’ alleged failure to address concerns over their human rights records as well as the failure to take effective steps to strengthen regional security and stability.
Lesotho’s fellow SADC country, Zimbabwe has for close to two decades been on the prohibited countries’ list as punishment for the previous Robert Mugabe’s administration’s failure to restore the rule of law as well as respect constitutionally enshrined freedoms of expression, association and assembly.
Zimbabwe is also being punished for failing to respect property rights after the Mugabe regime seized land from close to 6000 mostly white commercial farmers ostensibly to redress colonial injustices which disadvantaged that country’s majority black population.
The US government has said that the Emmerson Mnangagwa government which took over in the aftermath of a coup against Mr Mugabe in November 2017 has done little to address the human rights concerns hence Zimbabwe remains among rogue nations.
Like Lesotho, the likes of Afghanistan, Eritrea, Comoros, Papua New Guinea and Nicaragua have been included on the rogue nations list due to their failure to address human trafficking concerns.
“Lesotho is ineligible to receive foreign assistance due to its status as a Tier 3 country under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000,” the MCC states in its report titled: “Countries that Would Be Candidate Countries but for Legal Provisions that Prohibit Assistance”.
Three years have passed since Lesotho’s eligibility for the second MCC compact was first announced by the MCC board and the US government. However, a concrete agreement specifying how much the country will be given for various development projects has remained elusive because Lesotho has still not managed to meet crucial eligibility criteria including addressing human trafficking concerns.
In fact, as indicated by the MCC in its report, Lesotho will not only completely lose out on the second MCC compact if the February 2021 deadline is not met, it will lose all forms of US development assistance. These include crucial funding for HIV/AIDS programmes which have helped the country meet its targets regarding the testing and treatment of people living with the virus.
US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, issued a similar warning two months ago. She said besides the second MCC compact, Lesotho would also lose out on the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) facility which allows it to export goods duty-free to the US.
Should the country lose out on AGOA, this could cost 45 000 factory workers their jobs as the textile industry is anchored on the duty-free exports to the US market.
AGOA gives duty-free and quota-free access to the US market to eligible sub-Saharan African countries including Lesotho. The legislation, which was approved by the US Congress in May 2000, is meant to incentivise African countries to open their economies and build free markets.
It was renewed for another 10 years in June 2015 as the AGOA Extension & Enhancement Act and amended to allow the US to withdraw, suspend or limit benefits if designated AGOA countries do not comply with its eligibility criteria.
The law obligates the American president to designate countries eligible to benefit from the trade facility on an annual basis after undergoing a review process. Among the main eligibility criteria for the facility are a market-based economy, adherence to the rule of law, the implementation of mechanisms to combat corruption and upholding of human rights.
On the other hand, the MCC was established by the US Congress in 2004 as an innovative foreign aid agency to help lead the fight against global poverty by working with selected countries to identify requisite areas in need of funding support.
Before qualifying for funding, countries have to meet a number of conditions similar to those of AGOA.
Compacts are large, five-year grants for countries that pass the eligibility criteria. Lesotho received its first five-year MCC compact worth US$362, 5 million (more than M3 billion) in July 2007.
Among others, the $362, 5 million compact funded the construction of the Metolong Dam as well as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to mitigate the negative economic impact of poor maternal health, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other diseases.
In 2015, the MCC decided against renewing the compact programme due to rampant human rights abuses under then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government.
The matter was then reconsidered after Mr Mosisili’s ouster in June 2017.
Lesotho became eligible for the second compact in December 2017 after former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s second coalition government.
However, the Thabane administration, which lasted until May 2020 when it was replaced by the current Moeketsi Majoro-led coalition, was accused of failing to improve on the human rights situation including halting police brutality against citizens and ending corruption.
The former government also dragged its feet on the multi-sector reforms process. It even missed the May 2019 deadline set by SADC for the full implementation of the constitutional and security sector reforms. All of these issues were part of the eligibility criteria for the second MCC compact.
In addition, the Thabane government was accused of paying lip service to repeated warnings to address human trafficking concerns.
Two months ago, Ms Gonzales revealed that due to its failure to deal with human trafficking, Lesotho had been placed in Tier 3—the lowest tier in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2020.
She warned at the time that Lesotho risked losing out on a second MCC compact, AGOA benefits and all other forms of US development assistance if the Moeketsi Majoro-led government did not address the human trafficking concerns by February 2021.
Ms Gonzales said, under normal circumstances, a country in Tier 3 on human trafficking like Lesotho would have already lost all development assistance from the US.
However, she said she had recommended a waiver of any punishment against Lesotho to enable Dr Majoro to act on the issue since he had only assumed office a few months ago. His failure to take concrete steps forthwith would however result in Lesotho losing out.
The steps, she said, include passing legislation to combat trafficking as well as ensuring that law enforcement agencies “investigate the many credible allegations of official complicity in human smuggling and human trafficking”.
“If investigations uncover evidence that incriminates any person or persons, then prosecution must be pursued to the fullest extent of the law. There must be accountability for such heinous crimes.
“Official complicity in TIP is the worst form of corruption—using one’s high office to profit from the buying and selling of humans is outright appalling,” Ms Gonzales said.
And with just over a month remaining before the February 2021, the government has to race against time to get the country off tier 3.
So far, the only tangible development has been the passing of the Anti-Trafficking (Amendment) Bill of 2020 which seeks to combat human trafficking by imposing lengthy and even life imprisonment on those convicted of the crime.
Although the approval of the bill by parliament last month is a giant step towards meeting the US government’s demands to deal decisively with the scourge of human trafficking, much more still needs to be done including investigating, arresting and prosecuting suspected traffickers who allegedly include government officials.
It remains a tall order to ensure that all of this is accomplished in time to meet the February 2021.
What makes the task harder is the US demand for top government officials to be investigated and prosecuted.
The trafficking issue has caused serious tensions between the two main governing coalition partners, the All Basotho Convention (ABC) and the Democratic Congress (DC).
The DC leadership, including its leader and Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu have been accused of complicity in trafficking activities alongside a Pakistani, Rana Qamar.
The allegations are contained in a High Court application by an immigration officer, Mapeete Jonathan, challenging her transfer from Moshoeshoe I Airport to the head office of the immigration department in Maseru.
Last Wednesday, the ABC’s national executive committee (NEC) said it would not protect Mr Mokhothu and he should step down from his post if he is charged with human trafficking.
Mr Mokhothu has since dismissed the allegations “as the work of Satanists” bent on tarnishing his and the DC’s image ahead of the 2022 elections.