Unveiling the many faces of controversial political activist Manama Letsie
It has become commonplace in Maseru to find citizens at different spots chilling out and catching up over good food and expensive alcohol discussing this and that. One personality that occupies social debate lately is the maverick Manama Letsie, the former Basotho National Party (BNP) leader Retšelisitsoe Sekhonyana’s protégé, who is Maseru Downing spokesperson and, lately, self-made spokesman for Prime Minister Motsoahae Thabane and the First Lady ’Maesaiah.
This week Public Eye catches up with the 39-year-old Letsie for a no-holds-barred interview, where he touches on a host of controversial issues that include his decision to defend the Wool and Mohair Regulations of 2019, his engagement as Maseru Downing spokesperson and his relationship with Thabane’s family, which has seen him defending the premier against allegations linking him and the First Lady to the murder of Thabane’s second wife.
Letsie is hell-bent on protecting Thabane, telling this paper he remains resolute to the cause “as long as it means protecting the prime minister and averting his government’s collapse.” He further provides his political background, decisively adding that he would rather be deemed controversial than fail to adhere to personal principles, which he maintains rubbed off on him from Sekhonyana.
Below are excerpts from the interview with Public Eye’s Bongiwe Zihlangu:
PUBLIC EYE (PE): We know you only as a former active BNP youth league member who has since become controversial for different reasons. Who, really, is Manama Letsie? Take us into your political background?
MANAMA LETSIE (ML): Manama Letsie is a Mosotho male aged 39, born at Ha Mpo, Qeme. I joined politics in 1993, shortly after the restoration of the Constitution and active party politics. Back then many people belonged to the congress leaning political movement, while my father seemed to believe in a different political ideology.
So, I enquired why he held a different view from the people in our village and his response was that it was politics that made him so. It was the first time hearing the word “politics” and it drew my interest. I started to observe my surrounding and listen closely to what members of the congress movement were saying, especially on radio.
My father later introduced me to BNP politics and I gradually developed an interest in Retšelisitsoe Sekhonyana so I would enjoy listening to both Sekhonyana and Ntsu Mokhehle. I did that so that I could decide which politics resonated with me.
I remember how in 1992 I attended Sekhonyana’s first political rally at the Pitso Ground, which would be the first of many rallies I would attend afterwards. Then in 1993 I joined BNP actively, taking my first membership. I joined as a recruit, which meant I fell within the bracket of amateurs who were groomed so that they would mature to join party structures once they attained the age of eighteen.
PE: Are you saying that your father did not impose his politics on you but that you charted your own path?
ML: Yes, my father did not impose his politics on me. I would ask questions and he would respond. Well, maybe he was biased in his responses to me but he was only helping to explain things. Ultimately, it was up to me to learn who those people were. It was also up to me to establish the truth behind my father’s explanations, after which I concluded that the BNP was the party I wanted to be part of. For instance, I asked questions on allegations about the BNP massacres of members of the congress movement but there was no evidence to support that.
I was convinced all the negative things being said about the BNP were untrue. I went further to scrutinize both Sekhonyana and Mokhehle, to assess who between them was genuine and told the truth all the time. I remember after the 1993 elections there were allegations that then Agricultural Development Bank would be shut down. Sekhonyana said so one Saturday while addressing his rally.
Then Mokhehle and some members of his cabinet convened at one hall in town to refute those allegations; they said it was not true that the bank would be permanently shut down – it was on Monday afternoon but, unfortunately, on Tuesday morning the Agricultural Bank was closed. That on its own convinced me that I did right by following Sekhonyana because he was a true leader who always spoke the truth.
PE: By the age of 39, many people would have traversed the political landscape and been members of different political parties. Have you been experimental as well at one point in your life?
ML: I was with BNP until 2017 when some Lesotho youth came together to form a political party. These were youths from different spectra, such as those who were already politically active and those who were not.
At the time, the expectation was that people like me who had been in politics for a long time would be at the forefront and driving the message. However, my argument was that the party would be a challenge to launch due to the lack of resources.
Secondly, I asserted that by forming a new political party we were entering a territory in which there were already dominant players. I had learnt at school that systems were designed in such a way that they protect themselves from outsiders. Our interest was to bring a shift from mainstream politics and to the players therein you are perceived to be an enemy; they consider you an enemy. It was a challenge one way or the other.
However, at the end of the day you go with the majority. So I went with the flow although I knew that we would fail. I supported them because leaving would be deemed a display of arrogance but deep down inside I knew that what we were pursuing was not viable and it failed eventually. While the message conveyed was that we were tired with the old political system, it was clear that the intention was also to get a slice of the cake. It did not resonate with me, more so because my orientation is in BNP politics while my colleagues were from congress parties.
PE: Well, you seem to court a lot of controversy, especially with regard to the wool and mohair saga where you seem to be protecting Maseru Downing whose proprietor Stone Shi has been accused of swindling farmers. How did you become such a significant part of the saga?
ML: Yes, there is a lot of noise around me and the wool and mohair saga and my role in it. There are accusations such as that I sold my soul.
Well, I became embroiled in the saga because of politics. As I said, I have been in politics for a very long time, and even studied Public Administration and Political Science at both Diploma and university degree levels.
That says I have practised politics at various levels, not to mention that when I joined the BNP it was being led by someone who was knowledgeable, honest and generous with information that was educational to us. Now, what I can tell you is that the tension brought about by Lesotho’s wool and mohair is merely meant to destabilise government.
And, I have learnt that when the BNP was in government from the 1960s until it was overthrown, its policies were ever under attack by the congress party. The main interest was to cause that government’s collapse. For instance, I have learnt that back in the day when the only tarred street in town was from the Kingsway Road to the main traffic circle, then Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan decided to extend it to the districts in the Northern and Southern parts of Lesotho but the main opposition congress party at the time accused his government of forcefully taking over citizens’ fields.
That in turn created the impression that people were being oppressed under his rule when the intention was to develop the country. The same wool and mohair policy of Leabua’s government back in 1967 was fiercely opposed by the congress parties when it was introduced. For that whole year and the next, Basotho’s wool and mohair were burnt and destroyed because literate congress leaders misled the people in their pursuit of the change of guard.
All the developmental policies of the BNP government then were strongly rejected by the congress movement, all because they wanted to change the administration. So, when the current saga broke out I didn’t have to think hard. It was clear as daylight that it was being done to precipitate the collapse of the current four-party coalition government. The intention was to unseat Prime Minister Thabane. I knew that all his policies would be rejected.
So, I had to stand with the policy (Agriculture Wool and Mohair Regulations, 2019) and I went all out to defend the policy. Along the way Stone Shi got my number and called me and we met at Avani Lesotho. He asked who I was and told me how he had heard that I was in support of government’s wool and mohair policy. In fact, he had the impression that I was defending his business but I made it clear that for me it was about principles and averting the collapse of government, nothing more!
It was at that point that he asked me to be his company’s spokesperson, to become his employee. I asked about the salary on offer but it was just too little for me so I told him that since my standpoint was that of protecting Lesotho, the government and the policy, I would play the role of spokesperson for a stipend and not a salary. That’s how I came into the show.
PE: But you have become the cog in Shi’s company. Are you sure you don’t have shares there? Aren’t you benefitting more than you’re conceding?
ML: I am being mocked for putting on weight in recent times because of monies generated from the wool and mohair business but like I said, I don’t have any special relationship with Maseru Downing, neither do I have shares. Ours is a mere working relationship. If we were to fall out tomorrow, I wouldn’t even sue him because I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.
First of all, I made the decision to support the poor people, to stand with them because the intention was to hurt them in the pursuit of an agenda to unseat Thabane. Sadly, they are also mocking me but unbeknown to them I am actually on their side, promoting their interests. Granted, there are challenges.
Wool and mohair production is seasonal, goats are sheared between April and August while sheep are attended to between September and February. So, no farmer brought their mohair to the wool centre until October 2018, as it was barred at the source by the shearing shed committees. It was so bad that mohair which should have been sold in August only came after wool in November.
Even then, it was not in good quality due to the rains. It was a mess because the two commodities came all at once. Imagine the clutter because you have to enter the farmers’ names in the database while also preparing to process payments. It takes you forever to do that.
On the other hand, farmers were now fighting for to get paid regardless of the inconvenience brought about by the delays. That challenge alone was insurmountable. Then as we were about to conclude payments, there was an anthrax epidemic followed by a strike at the sea ports. That meant the shipments that were supposed to be made in May were only done in September.
On the other hand, there were contracts signed which we failed to honour. Again the bank was delaying in releasing monies for payments. So, all the promises I made fell through because we couldn’t pay many people at once. For instance, we would just pay 200 instead of 2 000 people because the systems were not perfect. The payments would bounce, with the bank telling us that people’s accounts were dormant.
Not much has changed. The wool that we shipped off last week did not have the F178 Form which is a primary requirement because of administrative barriers. Without the F178 Form no payment transactions will be made, yet the farmers are waiting for their monies. You have to push to ensure that the wool is shipped off to give your clients hope that all is well. Even if you have a certificate of origin, payments will not be made without F178.
It has since come to my attention that all this is a clear political sabotage but it has now gone beyond that because other brokers are experiencing similar challenges. This country’s systems are not ready to facilitate for smooth international trade.
PE: Today, some quarters of the populace consider association with the State House as somewhat of a taboo. But you, on the other hand, have become some sort of Prime Minister Motsoahae Thabane’s and the State House spokesperson. What is going on?
ML: It’s true. It’s part of who I am and what I believe in. Politics are by their very nature controversial. In politics it is always about debate and exchange of ideas, which are almost never the same. What seems to be the controversy here is that while many people choose to hate Thabane, who is Lesotho’s legitimate premier, I’ve decided to stand by him.
My political background has taught me that a good leader usually becomes the target on unfounded hatred to the extent he is portrayed as the worst of them all. When some people talk about Chief Leabua Jonathan you could swear that he was the worst leader who ever lived. So, when I realised that there was a grand plan to undermine and vilify Thabane long before he could settle in as prime minister I decided to stand by him.
In 2017, there were folks who believed they were very close to Thabane hence they deserved to become cabinet ministers. I know of people who had already purchased designers suits in anticipation of being appointed to cabinet, only to have their hopes dashed. There were those who thought they were better than most and were so bitter when they didn’t make the cut that they started to criticize those who were lucky enough to be in cabinet.
There were women who thought being close to the First Lady meant their places in cabinet and foreign missions were secured. When their expectations proved to be just illusions, they decided to fight back. Thabane was under fire soon after he appointed his cabinet, being mocked for appointing ‘uneducated’ ministers at the expense of people like him.
They demanded to know the criteria Thabane used to appoint his ministers and I told them point blank that loyalty was a prerequisite to the prime minister and the appointment of ministers and senior government officials was his sole discretion. It was at that point that I became aware that Thabane would not enjoy his premiership due to those bitter hearts. I recall how people became mad when Jan Xi was appointed his economic advisor responsible for sourcing investments from Asian countries.
The impression in that instance was created that Thabane had been captured by the Chinese, as if former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili did not have an economic advisor of Asian origin as well, who had been given a diplomatic post. I knew that it was incumbent on me to protect Thabane to avert any change of guard, aware that as far as the congress parties were concerned, only they qualified to be in government. That is why I am being associated with the State House, as common belief is that people who defend the prime minister are rewarded with jobs.
I actually benefit nothing from the State House, monetarily and otherwise. I have companies that can supply this and that, even construction companies but ever since I started defending government those companies have not gotten any work.
It is just as well because when I defend government, it shouldn’t be because I am getting some kickbacks somewhere. I wouldn’t want to be influenced by money. No politician has ever given me any position neither have I direct benefitted from any one politician. Not even Ntate Thabane himself. That is why I have a clear conscience. I can defend whoever I want to and criticise who I choose to, depending on the circumstances.
PE: While at it, let us talk about your stance to defend Ntate Thabane and the First Lady against attacks from politicians and the public, following allegations linking them to the murder of the late First Lady Lipolelo Thabane. Are you still adamant that they are being treated unfairly?
ML: I am not even saying that leaders do not have weaknesses. But now more than ever before I stand with Ntate Thabane. When ‘M’e Lipolelo died it was a shock to everyone, especially given the fact that it was just two days before Ntate Thabane’s inauguration.
The first question was, does ‘M’e Lipolelo’s death serve as reason enough to halt the inauguration? What would stopping it mean, considering we had just emerged from the clutches of the worst government ever? We had been praying constantly to God to rescue us from such a government. Nothing could take us back there.
There were many questions, I can tell you! Could it be a ploy by the previous government to sabotage Thabane’s inauguration? Could it be a murder plot from within, by people who wanted to enter the new government without her? Those were the questions that went through our minds. The police did conduct investigations and called in people, including the First Lady to assist.
But some of us were watching diligently and were lucky enough to be in close proximity to the developments, and realized in due course that the Commissioner of Police, Holomo Molibeli, had become rebellious. He was no longer submissive to civilian authority as is required. He had become insubordinate and we were eager to have him relieved of his duties.
Former acting Minister of Police, Tefo Mapesela, worried that ordinary Basotho were dying in police custody in their numbers, ordered that all police officers involved be suspended pending investigations. However, people continued to die and the commissioner did not care what the civilian authority demanded. Then, when he learnt that there were plans to lay him off, he wrote letters associating the prime minister with ‘M’e Lipolelo’s gruesome killing, either rightfully so or in retaliation.
Whichever way, the timing of the letter was so wrong. What had stopped him from taking action in the past three years? Why write a letter to the FBI when he learned that Thabane was onto him? To us politicians, Molibeli was being treasonous because no employee can stop their employer from firing them. There are decided cases in the courts law to that effect.
What made it worse was when junior police officers, acting on behalf of the Commissioner, prevented Acting Commissioner of Police Makharilele from assuming his duties. It became clear that there was more to the allegations linking Thabane and the First Lady to ‘M’e Lipolelo’s murder.
It was all wrong, from the First Lady’s attempted arrest, recall of her security, the invasion of the State House by heavily armed police in Thabane’s presence and the removal of army security at the gates. Why tamper with the State House security, which is posted there not for Thabane as a person but to protect the integrity of the office he holds? Was that still the pursuit of justice or something more?