Metsing says austere budget calls for unity government

BONGIWE ZIHLANGU

MASERU – Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader Mothetjoa Metsing says the budget tabled this week underlines the urgent need for a government of national unity (GNU) capable of rolling back economic decay and to “better manage meagre resources”.

Speaking to Public Eye at Parliament this week, the LCD leader noted that for Lesotho to overcome its ever-mounting challenges and realise economic stability, the formation of a GNU was paramount.

According to the LCD leader, no political party or Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s four-party coalition government could unilaterally “resolve this country’s problems”.

“The budget today justifies why we’re always calling for the establishment of a government of national unity (GNU). Under the circumstances we need a GNU, because this is a difficult period,” Metsing said.

“And, no one political party or current government can pull Lesotho out from where it is now. We need a lot of sacrifices from all sides and if those sacrifices were to be made, there are certain issues and priorities we need to agree on with government. It cannot only be priorities of government but all of us must really share in that vision.”

Metsing said the budget indicated that government was under pressure and pointed to the fact that Lesotho needed to have a shared vision that would only be realised through the formation of a GNU.

“We need a shared vision and the budget points to that. Hence, we are calling on every Mosotho to accept that we cannot pull Lesotho out from where it is if we don’t do it together. That is what is missing, a shared vision,” Metsing said.

The LCD leader said the challenge of scant resources currently facing Lesotho mean that it was time for Basotho to unite and rise above “those things that divide us according to our party politics”.

“They should understand that it’s not only about government implementing its own vision and those emanating from the manifestos of the political parties that government is comprised of. It is about agreeing on what is good for the country,” Metsing said.

“This is about moving away from some long-held positions as opposition and for government to do the same. So, what I am saying is that we should adopt a platform on which we learn to manage our politics, so that we can together utilise the meagre resources that we have effectively. I have been singing the same song at all of my LCD political rallies.”

The LCD leader then referred to Brexit, which he said was dividing that country’s politicians as some supported the policy while others sternly opposed it, adding it could adversely affect the British economy.

“Look at how Brexit has divided Britain, and how those divisions could have serious repercussions for that country’s economy. As things stand, there are already some politicians there who are talking about the formation of GNU, in order that they sit down, engage in dialogue in pursuit of a resolution to the impasse.

“Even during World War II, Britain established a GNU due to starkly differing opinions despite scant resources at the country’s disposal at the time. It was also to avoid the implementation of a narrow and individualistic vision as opposed to the shared vision of a nation,” Metsing said.

“Truth be told, if you take the nation along with you, we can as a united leadership agree on austerity measures to adopt perhaps for two years to allow our country to recoup.

“But currently there’s a lot of fragmentation. We need God’s intervention. If government continues to use whatever little resources we have to address its own interest and not an inclusive agenda, then we might never realise our vision for Lesotho.”

He added: “In principle there are a number of issues. We have not yet seen the budget itself but have only listened to the speech. We are yet to go to the committees where it will be closely scrutinized, but there are a number of things that have not been addressed.”

Metsing also touched on the contentious wool and mohair saga, lamenting that the government regulations imposed on the industry had created chaos.

“You know there are concerns now regarding the Wool and Mohair Growers Association (WMGA). There are regulations affecting that industry which have been passed and have created a chaotic situation for the wool and mohair industry.

“We cannot be creating that kind of a situation under the current economic climate, with this kind of a budget. The mohair industry is just one of a few Basotho-owned enterprises that has stood the test of time and has contributed immensely to the economy. But the operationalisation of the regulations has tremendously destabilised the industry. And that destabilisation has adversely affected the economy.

“That’s why despite our differences in opinion and those things we deem our priorities, we need to be working together now. Government should change its attitude. They need to understand that we need every political leader in order to address this problem, as a collective.”

On the budget Metsing said it was possible “for a willing government” to cut unnecessary trips abroad, regulate the usage of the government’s vehicle fleet after hours, cut the numbers of delegations for oversees travel, and reduce the recipients age of old-age pensions from seventy to sixty years.

“It is very possible. It only needs political will on the part of government. If the government is serious about it, it can be done tomorrow. But this is not the first time the minister makes these proposals and these same measures were not respected,” Metsing said.

Coming to his security, the LCD leader who is also a former deputy prime minister, said there was an agreement reached by government and the opposition, and brokered by SADC, which still had not been fully honoured by government “pertaining to my security”.

Metsing said he was concerned about the state of his safety and was not content that government had not “honoured its side of the deal” to provide him with round-the-clock security.

“It is my first time in parliament since I fled to exile in 2017 and since the agreement was signed. I have not yet been provided with the security that was agreed to. Remember, at night that is when I need the security the most. But it is when security is not there, unfortunately,” Metsing said.

Metsing noted that he only came to Lesotho and in particular parliament “because I am a representative of the people”, which was a reference to his native Mahobong constituency.

He has won consistently since 2002 when he became an MP under the LCD banner, the party he subsequently led in 2012 following the departure of former leader Pakalitha Mosisili, who went on to form the Democratic Congress (DC).

“I am a representative of the people. Because I want to see our country going forward, I came here to play my part and also watch as government does its part. I will not be coming as often as I would like. It will depend on the kind of security that I have, which I continue to assess from time to time. If I feel safe, I will continue to attend. If I don’t, I will not,” Metsing said.

“It also applies to LCD Deputy Leader Ts’eliso Mokhosi. You are also aware that there are other people in exile and government agreed to provide them with security. But none of them have security except for me and Ntate Mokhosi.”

Metsing further lamented that it was “very unfortunate” that an agreement that had been brokered by a reputable organisation like Sadc was not being honoured by Thabane’s government.

“And in the affairs of the state, government’s mandate is to lead and show the way. But they are the ones who are not showing any commitment to agreements made,” Metsing alleged.

Meanwhile, Official Leader of Opposition in Parliament who is also leader of the main opposition Democratic Congress (DC) Mathibeli Mokothu, weighed it on the budget saying it was “a case of serious contrasts” because “the minister admits Lesotho is cash-strapped but continues to dish out promises”.

“The most important thing that we need to appreciate is the fact that Minister of Finance Majoro in his delivery repeated thrice, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of his speech, that Lesotho was broke and that this was his most difficult budget presentation yet,” Mokhothu said.

“I agree with him that government is now stuck because it failed to collect revenue as had been expected. As a result, it has become difficult for government to address the rampant unemployment rate in Lesotho, especially among the youth.”

The DC leader added: “It is a case of contrasts because, while Dr Majoro complains about the ever-ballooning wage bill ravaging the GDP due to the huge civil service, he also talks of sparing M350 million for the creation of new jobs for the youth.”

According to Mokhothu, the promise of jobs made by the finance minister could not respond to the rampant unemployment as the M350 million spared for job creation would be channeled towards the construction of factories, thus sidelining the 12 000 graduates currently searching for jobs and could not be absorbed by the civil service as jobs had been frozen due to the ever-ballooning wage bill.

“But then when you listen closely, you hear that the funds will be channeled towards the construction of factories, which means they will absorb a certain calibre of youths, leaving to wonder what will become of the estimated 12 000 educated youths fresh from universities, who are left out in the cold,” Mokhothu said.

“The major crisis facing this country is the unemployment rate among young people.”

Mokhothu was also skeptical about Majoro’s undertaking that government would enforce the regulation of overseas trips, and curb the abuse of the government fleet which he said was gobbling a significant amount of the GDP.

“Government needs to devise sustainable management of its fleet in such a way that it is able to save money, while also renting Basotho’s vehicles as is the status quo. The minister has been saying the same thing over and over again but nothing has come of it,” Mokhothu said.

He further criticised Majoro’s decision to not increase salaries across the board, noting that it was unfair government still planned to review prices of services it offered such as toll fees and others, which he described as a string of little taxes which would negatively eat into Basotho’s stagnant salaries.

“Taxes are going to go up as government reviews fees for the services it offers, yet they don’t even bat an eyelid about not increasing salaries this financial year. What are they saying about inflation because it hasn’t been catered for?” Mokhothu quipped.

“It simply means that the quality of lives of our people is going to deteriorate. Because they are going to be worse off than they already are.”

He also echoed Metsing’s sentiments that due to the poor economy, it would only be prudent to form a GNU “so that the country’s resources are channeled in the same direction.

According to Mokhothu, Lesotho’s security issues which were under the spotlight, could not be solely addressed and effectively resolved by one political party.

“To achieve all that, a strong government with a two thirds majority to make significant changes would be the answer to our problems. We need a government that we can all respect, not a cut and paste arrangement.

“We need to make peace by following the route of reconciliation and unity and it starts with a GNU. We can together take on the reforms while also pursuing economy recovery, and overcoming security hazards the country is grappling with,” Mokhothu said.

Mokhothu added that while Majoro’s speech only contained estimates of the actual budget, it did not clearly say how challenges borne of the aftermath of the drought engulfing Lesotho, which meant Basotho could not harvest summer crops resulting in an 491 000 people facing a food crisis, would be addressed.

While reading his speech in the National Assembly on Tuesday, Majoro noted it was estimated that 491, 000 people would require emergency food assistance saying “the honourable House is aware that in 2018 the region experienced episodes of dry weather and heat waves which hit hard on crop production”.

“We therefore expect poor agricultural harvest this year and as a result it is estimated that 491, 000 people will require emergency food assistance. As government, we will continue to subsidise seedlings and fertilisers for the farming community,” Majoro said.

However, in response Mokhothu noted that the fact that the summer crop harvest would be poor, resulting in almost 500 000 Basotho needing emergency food aid, was a tragedy because “government doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive strategy to address this”.

“If there is no viable summer crop harvest, no jobs for graduates and no salary increment across the board, then we are done for. That is poverty at its best. This budget does not address poverty and how Lesotho is going to overcome the scourge,” Mokhothu said.

Also throwing his hat in the ring, National Independent Party (NIP) leader Kimetso Mathaba, submitted that Majoro’s budget was “no different from his previous budgets”.

The NIP leader complained that most of the sanctions imposed on ministries by Majoro since his maiden budget in 2017 had not been honoured and that he had “no reason to believe it will be any different this year”.

“But the most is important thing is to wait and watch if he will succeed in cutting down costs by regulating international travel for civil servants and enforcing the use of economy class instead of first and business class flights. This is the third time he is saying it,” Mathaba said.

“The pertinent question should be, if he could not enforce it the first and second time, will he be third time lucky?”

Mathaba then referred to the commotion earlier in the national assembly after Majoro tabled his budget, where the opposition were opposing Leader of the House and Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki’s proposal, and the august house adjourned for a week to allow for consultations with parliament portfolio committees ahead of the allocation of the budget, to commence in a few days.

The argument advanced by DC Deputy Leader Motlalentoa Letsosa, who represents the Qalabane and DC Spokesperson Serialong Qoo’s constituency under the party banner, was that the time allocated for ministries consultations with parliament’s portfolio committees, was short as the norm was to afford the engagement two weeks before the house could resolve itself into the committee of supply for the ministerial allocations.

According to the opposition, the little time afforded the consultations meant that the committees could not thoroughly interrogate how the previous year’s budget was administered and that the allocation of the proposed budget for the financial year 2019/20 would also be rushed.

“Parliament’s portfolio committees were not afforded the opportunity to interrogate how the 2018/19 was implemented as proposed. For instance, how much of international travel was reallocated to other heads? If the funds were channeled elsewhere, was it to areas that could contribute to economic growth?” Mathaba said.

“Or was the money channeled towards refreshments and the like? We need documents, we need evidence to be assured that the previous year’s budget was implemented effectively. If it was not, we should also be informed so that we can decide as MPs how the proposed budget should be allocated. We should build on the previous budget.”

Matbaba added that it was frustrating that against the norm of interrogating the implementation of the budget every quarter, in the current financial year the portfolio committees were able to meet with ministries during the first quarter but that attempts for further consultation were thwarted by the lack of funds, which Mathaba said hampered committee sittings.

“Usually if there is outstanding business when parliament adjourns for whatever reason, what normally happens is that we continue with our committee sittings and consultations with government ministries. But it did not happen this time and sadly that’s where we need to start to build onto the next budget,” Mathaba said.

“How do we approve the 2019/20 when we have no idea how the 2018/19 budget was utilised? We would not have played our role of oversight and that is very wrong. The five working days we have been given are not enough. That’s why as the opposition we were demanding that the consultation period be increased by at least another week. It is a race against time, but government can still request a supplementary which can be used beyond March 31st.”

He added: “That way we would have reports to submit on our interrogation of the ministries on how they utilised their budgets. That is the main issue here. Other things are just pipe dreams because the question is, where is government going to get money from?”

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