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Thabane sued for contempt of court

by Lesotho Times
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  • as battle for control of the ABC intensifies amid threats of bloodshed

Mohalenyane Phakela/Pascalinah Kabi

THE new national executive committee (NEC) of the All Basotho Convention (ABC), fronted by Professor Nqosa Mahao, has sued party leader and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane for contempt of court after he “expelled” several of its senior officials instead of heeding a High Court judgement legitimizing them.

The lawsuit by the new NEC follows a week of high drama which saw Dr Thabane convene an open air press conference on Monday to announce the “expulsions” from the ABC of deputy leader Mahao, secretary general Lebohang Hlaele, chairperson Samuel Rapapa and deputy spokesperson ‘Matebatso Doti. They were “expelled” for alleged insubordination stemming from their decision to continue holding countrywide rallies despite Dr Thabane’s express orders not to do so.

But the new NEC officials immediately hit back with a press conference of their own where they vehemently and unequivocally rejected the “expulsions”. They announced they would sue Dr Thabane for contempt of court as the PM was clearly out of line by disobeying a court order which recognised their February 2019 election as legitimate. Instead of purporting to expel them, Dr Thabane should have facilitated their assumption of office in line with the court judgement.

Yesterday they made good on their threats and lodged an urgent High Court application seeking to have the ABC leader declared in contempt of the 12 June 2019 judgement which confirmed them as the ABC’s legitimate NEC.

The new NEC also wants the court to block Dr Thabane and former secretary general, Samonyane Ntsekele, from interfering with its business. They also want the courts to nullify their purported expulsions by Dr Thabane, arguing he does not have powers to do so. The ABC, the ABC’s NEC, Prof Mahao, Messrs Hlaele, Rapapa, spokesperson Montoeli Masoetsa and Ms Matebatso Doti (deputy spokesperson) are the first to seventh applicants in the matter.

Dr Thabane and Mr Ntsekele are the first and second respondents respectively.

The latest court action can only escalate the war of attrition between the two factions, which some commentators say can now only end if one faction walks away to form another political party as what occurred in 2012 when then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili jettisoned his ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) to form the Democratic Congress (DC).   But with the ABC being a popular and attractive brand, and with Dr Thabane widely seen as regarding the party as his personal project which he founded way back in 2007, it seems the battle of the two factions is far from over, albeit with devastating consequences to general governance and service delivery, since the ABC is the lead party in the current coalition government.

In court papers filed yesterday, Dr Thabane is alleged to have “continuously been in contempt of court through his utterances and actions, thus hampering the day-to-day business of the ABC and creating untold tension among the ABC (members) which may lead to bloodshed”.

“Following the (High Court) judgement (of 12 June 2019), the NEC did all within its powers to take occupation of the office of ABC and take possession of all property of the party  in terms of the court order,” Mr Hlaele states in his founding affidavit.

“Despite the clear dictates of the order of court, there was some hostility from the respondents’ part. After a long struggle and fruitless meetings with the former secretary general, we managed to take occupation of the office on 14 June 2019. The resistance was a glaring contempt on the part of the then secretary general in concert with the leader. The former secretary has since been suspended for other reasons.

“The first respondent (Dr Thabane) has always been adamant that he will not work with the incoming committee, particularly the third applicant (Prof Mahao) who he refers to as a non-member of ABC. The respondent has continued to display this attitude even after the judgement. In stark contempt of the order of court, he misused, abused and misinterpreted powers he assumed he had under the constitution (of ABC) to determine the membership of members of the NEC. His acts were a clandestine way of going against a clear order of the court which installed the elected committee into office.

“He manipulated the constitution to hide behind his contempt of court whereas his intentions not to work with the new NEC were formulated from the day the new NEC won elections. When he held a meeting with Chief Khoabane Theko (of Thaba Bosiu) who was trying to mediate, he became frank and informed the chief that he will not work with the elected committee though the heavens fall down.”

The applicants want the court to order Dr Thabane and Mr Ntsekele to refrain from interfering with their activities as the new NEC or be jailed if they fail to comply.

“In the event that the (first) respondent is found guilty of contempt of court, he shall be ordered to purge his contempt forthwith by desisting from making contemptuous statements that go against the order of court. Desisting from interfering unduly and without good cause with the business of the affairs of the ABC’s NEC which was elected on 1 and 2 February 2019 and confirmed by court order of 12 June 2019 as legitimate.

“Failing which, the (first) respondent shall be committed to jail for period determined by the honourable court,” the applicants state in the court papers.

Outspoken Thaba-Bosiu Principal Chief Khoabane Theko also filed an affidavit to support the court application, saying even before the 12 January High Court judgement, Dr Thabane had informed him that he had no  intention of working with the new NEC especially Prof Mahao.

“I confirm that Mr Thabane and I had a private conversation in his home. The purpose of this conversation was that I was trying to mediate between the warring factions of the ABC. In the said conversation, Ntate Thabane said he had no intention to work with the newly elected members of the NEC especially Prof Mahao and Lebohang Hlaele. He said even if the courts of law would make a ruling that he works with them, he will not adhere to that order but will do anything in his power rightly or wrongly not to work with them even if it means firing them from the party,” Chief Theko states.

The new NEC has had its fair share of troubles since its stunning victory at the elective conference.

The victory was immediately rejected by three ABC legislators, Habofanoe Lehana (Khafung constituency), Keketso Sello (Hlotse) and Mohapi Mohapinyane (Rothe) who filed an 11 February 2019 High Court application seeking the nullification of its election on the basis of “gross irregularities” and “massive vote rigging”.

The new NEC finally won the right to remain in office last Wednesday when the High Court bench comprising of Justices Thamsanqa Nomngcongo, Moroke Mokhesi and Sakoane Sakoane dismissed the three legislators’ application, ruling that the alleged vote rigging would not have changed the outcome of the elections.

But before they had soaked in their court victory, Dr Thabane immediately served Prof Mahao and four of his colleagues with ‘show cause’ letters why they should not be expelled. He proceeded to “expel” them on Monday.

The “expulsions” created a strange subplot in the ABC’s relentless war of attrition. Dr Thabane was forced to make the announcement in the open parking lot outside the ABC’s Metcash Building offices in downtown Maseru. This after the new NEC had locked party offices to prevent him and old NEC members from accessing the premises.

Prof Mahao and his colleagues immediately hit back by holding their own press conference at which they announced plans to press a contempt of court action against Dr Thabane over his refusal to accept them as the NEC of the party.

Flanked by Prof Mahao, Ms Doti and Messrs Rapapa and Masoetsa at the press briefing, Mr Hlaele warned Dr Thabane to immediately stop violating court orders and the party constitution or risk being dragged to court for misconduct.

He said it was wrong of Dr Thabane to expel them from the party because he did not have the powers to do so.  It was also illegal for Dr Thabane to hold onto party assets including official letterheads which he used when he wrote them the ‘show cause’ letters.

Mr Hlaele, ironically a son in law to Dr Thabane, said it was his responsibility as secretary general to keep all party assets and Dr Thabane had not requested them from him.

“Lesotho is a democratic state in which no one is above the law and therefore Dr Thabane is just an ordinary person before the law,” a fire-spitting Mr Hlaele said.

“The ABC is not his personal property, it is not anyone’s personal property and we will protect this party with everything we have.

“We do not want to humiliate our leader by dragging him before the courts because he will suffer a torrid time before the judges and lawyers…..but his behaviour is leaving us with no option,” added Mr Hlaele at the press briefing.

He said under section B. 5 (g) of the ABC constitution, the leader could only suspend   officials pending ratification of the decision by the NEC. He said that the leader did not have the powers to expel people from the party.

Mr Hlaele said the new NEC would not hesitate to take disciplinary measures against Dr Thabane if he continued to violate the party constitution and court rulings that recognised them as the legitimate NEC.

“If he (Dr Thabane) continues to disregard the (ABC) constitution and violating court orders, we will be forced to take action against him.”

In addition to the lawsuit, Prof Mahao and his fellow NEC members also ramped up pressure on Dr Thabane by announcing plans for a special conference to deal with their recalcitrant party leader. They said at least 46 out of the party’s 80 constituencies were demanding action against Dr Thabane for his obstinate refusal to endorse Prof Mahao, secretary general Lebohang Hlaele and some members of the new NEC.

Chief Theko recently called on ABC members to convene a special conference to recall Dr Thabane from his government and party posts, accusing him of ceding control of the party and the government to his wife, ‘Maesaiah Thabane.

“If my own wife causes confusion and instability in the government that I am leading in Thaba-Bosiu, the people of Thaba-Bosiu should recall me. That way my wife would have been removed from power and the problem solved.

“The ABC people are wasting their time and energy by trying to deal with this matter by other means. What they must do is to call a special conference and resolve that Ntate Thabane should step down. He (Dr Thabane) wants to play God with this government through his wife.”

This week Mr Hlaele said it was not for the new NEC but for the ABC members to decide whether or not Dr Thabane was still fit to lead the party.

“The party members voted us into these positions because they trusted us to lead the party. If the other side (old NEC) decides to hold a special conference, we will hold ours on the same day and time but at a different venue so that we see who has majority following. The numbers will not lie. We do not want to do so but if they force our hand, we will react.”

He said they had already received letters from 46 of the party’s 80 constituencies requesting that they organise and call a special conference that will deal with the ABC crisis.

Some of the constituencies that have demanded the special conference include those that are represented by legislators opposed to Prof Mahao. These include Mr Sello’s Hlotse constituency. Mr Sello is one of the three legislators who challenged the election of the new NEC.

On his part, Prof Mahao said Dr Thabane’s move to “expel” them was illegal because the premier had flouted procedural requirements which included instituting disciplinary hearings against errant members before any expulsions.

“The NEC has resolved to dismiss the show cause letters which we were presented with because they did not follow the right procedures. It is only through a special conference and courts of law that he (Dr Thabane) may challenge the NEC’s decisions.

“We will disregard the letters we got on Friday and those expelling us this morning (Monday) because they are just a move to undermine the court order which regards us as the democratically elected NEC. The letters have not affected our ABC membership, our positions in this committee or in this office. It is evident that there are people who are using the leader to undermine democracy and court rulings,” Prof Mahao said.

He alleged that the ‘show cause’ letters were written last Wednesday evening and sent to Dr Thabane, who was away in Johannesburg, to append his signature.

Prof Mahao nonetheless emphasised the importance of reconciliation and re-uniting the fractious party.

“We asked the Christian Council of Lesotho (CCL) to mediate between us and we have also asked the leaders of the coalition government to mediate between us because we want the unity of the ABC.”

As deputy leader, Prof Mahao, is now in pole position to succeed Dr Thabane when he eventually leaves office either voluntarily or otherwise. Prof Mahao however emphasised that he was not intending to topple Dr Thabane.

“There are no plans to topple the leader. I recently met our leader at the State House and I told him face to face that I was not going after his position in the party. The post of the ABC leader was supposed to be contested (at the February elective conference) but the ABC members decided against doing so.

“I would understand if his position had been challenged. But we accept that there are those who are looking to protect their own selfish interests and they whisper in the leaders’ ear and make him believe that so and so are threats to him.

“So it wouldn’t be surprising if the leader felt vulnerable and accepted such petty talk as truth. In most cases African leaders feel very comfortable working closely with people who have nothing meaningful to offer and don’t threaten their positions. So I told the leader face to face that he must understand that we don’t have any programme to topple him,” Prof Mahao said. But from the look of things and the ever escalating war between the factions, it seems clear that Prof Mahao’s faction is now poised to dethrone Dr Thabane, particularly after it filed a no confidence motion against him in Parliament.

 

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