TODAY marks exactly a month to the date parliament reconvened after a lengthy winter break which began on 25 June 2020.
But despite such a long rest, the legislators appear to be taking a sluggish approach to their business- a development which has not gone down well with analysts who argue that given that elections are due in 2022, there is not much time left for the MPs to pass crucial laws.
Parliament reconvened on 5 October 2020 amid high expectations that legislators would move with speed to deliberate and finalise key legislation including amendments to or even a complete repeal of the controversial 2018 wool and mohair regulations which barred farmers from selling their produce from anywhere in the world and through brokers of their choice.
It was also expected that the MPs would also move with speed to pass legislation to combat human trafficking. This after Lesotho’s downgrading to Tier 3- the lowest tier in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2020.
The US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, has warned that unless Lesotho addresses human trafficking concerns, police brutality against citizens and implements the long-delayed multi-sector reforms, the country will lose out on the multi-million-dollar second compact under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC).
Ms Gonzales has also warned that Lesotho would 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.
Ms Gonzales said under normal circumstances, a country in Tier 3 on the human trafficking ranking like Lesotho would have already lost all development assistance from the US.
She said she had however, recommended a waiver of any punishment against Lesotho to enable Prime Minister Moeketsi to act on the issue since he had only assumed office as recently as 20 May 2020.
But the honeymoon period is very short as the government has only until February 2021- three months to be precise- to act or lose MCC, AGOA and other forms of development assistance from the US.
And parliamentarians have a key role to play in ensuring the US government’s demands are met in order to get Lesotho off tier 3 and thus save the MCC and AGOA benefits.
According to Ms Gonzales, MPs specifically have the role of 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”.
But according to a prominent lawyer who spoke to the Lesotho Times on condition of anonymity for professional reasons, the MPs are “either unaware of the enormity of the task that lies before them and the limited time they have or they have got their priorities wrong”.
“Whatever the real reason, their failure to act fast enough amounts to gross dereliction of duty. First, they go on lengthy and unnecessary winter breaks. “When they reconvene, they waste the first two weeks of parliament just having prayer sessions and no other crucial business on the order paper.
“Thereafter, they start debates on salary increments for themselves and other senior government officials instead of prioritising the passing of crucial laws to deal with the human trafficking issue which threatens Lesotho’s eligibility for MCC, AGOA and other forms of development assistance from the US.
“They also know that they have to drive forward the SADC- prescribed multi-sector reforms but nothing is happening on that front. They know that farmers have been agitated ever since the promulgation of the 2018 wool and mohair regulations.
“Instead of wasting time, the MPs should show their mettle by swiftly enacting the laws to deal with human trafficking. They should also play their part in resolving the wool and mohair saga once and for all. But they could well miss the opportunity to cover themselves in glory by focusing on the wrong priorities,” the lawyer said.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Lesotho director, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, concurred, saying despite their huge responsibility to enact laws, the MPS were lackadaisical in their approach. Mr Ntsukunyane said the MPs only appeared to come to life whenever there were issues concerning their personal interests.
“There are so many outdated laws which should not be on the country’s statute books at this point in time. Some of these laws include the Officials Secrets Act of 1967 which hinders the work of journalists.
“The recent statement by the Prime Minister (Moeketsi Majoro) saying they will be classifying government documents and it will be an offence to publish stories based on classified documents is based on one of those old laws which are no longer relevant.
“Parliament has a huge task of amending or repealing these laws. It also has a responsibility to pass longstanding bills like the Access to and Receipt of Information Bill which was tabled as far back as 2000 but has been ignored by successive parliaments.
“The MPs should also be seized with the Cyber Security Bill to regulate the use of internet not for the LCA to make regulations to censor the internet which are not informed by any law that has been passed by parliament.
“But our legislators are resting on their laurels and not doing their job to repeal the outdated laws. The MPs take long breaks which are not necessary. When parliament opens, the MPs are always preoccupied with issues of their own personal and party interests such as bringing down governments, fighting for their salary increments and diplomatic passports.
“MPs also spend most of their business time arguing on trivial issues. Serious parliament business is generally done in just two out of five days per week. The rest are for prayers or trivial issues. They are wasting precious time they could be using to pass laws,” Mr Ntsukunyane said.
National University of Lesotho (NUL) political science lecturer, Mohlomi Mahlelebe, said although the MPs had other important functions to play in maintaining democracy, this was however, not an excuse for them to delay passing crucial laws.
“We have to understand that parliament, as an institution, has a lot of work and that is not limited to passing bills.
“They have other crucial duties including informing the executive of the issues affecting people in the constituencies. Another key role is that of oversight where they have to ensure that government is accountable to the people. They should ensure that public funds are used well.
“We might think that they are wasting time with things such as bringing governments down but this is part of democracy and part of their job as representatives of the people. If they feel like the administration has strayed from its mandate, then it is their responsibility to correct that. Those might seem to be irrelevant, timewasting issues but that is how parliaments work.
“But having said that, it cannot be denied that issues of national interest are not given the attention they deserve. To some extent, it can be said that parliamentarians do not treat issues of national interest with the seriousness they deserve,” Mr Mahlelebe said.
On his part, former All Basotho Convention (ABC) legislator, Sello Maphalla, said cabinet ministers and government ministries should also shoulder blame for the delays in passing laws.
“The MPs are not solely to blame for delays in enacting laws. Bills go through lengthy processes before they are ready to be passed into law. They are first formulated by government ministries or by whoever wishes to propose a bill.
“After that they are tabled in parliament and taken to relevant committees. They are taken to the Senate and sometimes to the public for its opinion. However, that does not completely justify some of the unreasonable delays in the passing of some laws,” Mr Maphalla said.
Apart from anti-trafficking laws and legislation to breathe life into the long-delayed multi-sector reforms process, other outstanding bills include the Disability Equity Bill.
The draft bill provides for an array of legal rights of persons living with disabilities including rights of access to services including health, the provision of education and the creation of the Disability Advisory Council.
The bill has been on the cards since 2014 and it was first tabled in parliament by Social Development Minister, ‘Matebatso Doti on 31 August 2018.
Since then, there has not been any movement to ensure its passage into law and in the meantime, disabled people continue to face discrimination and other challenges in accessing education, employment, justice and health services.
Another area where parliament has been found wanting pertains to the enactment of enabling legislation to allow the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) to do its job.
NACOSEC was set in June this year by prime Minister Majoro to spearhead the Covid-19 fight. However, it is unable to perform its functions due to the cabinet’s reluctance to allow it access to the funds set aside for the Covid-19 response.
The government ministries argue that it cannot be allowed to function in the absence of enabling legislation. This serious issue has not even been raised by MPs in parliament.
Meanwhile, the country’s fight against Covid-19 has been seriously affected by the suspension of testing for the virus due to the lack of testing equipment which can only be procured by NACOSEC.
As analysts point out, the MPs cannot continue in their sluggish ways while the country faces serious challenges which can be resolved through the passage of relevant laws.