….as cash-strapped body battles for relevance

Ombudsman, LCS spat exposes constitutional fissures.

MATHATISI SEBUSI

The recent public tiff between the Ombudsman’s office and the Lesotho Correctional Services (LCS) over jurisdictional matters has exposed the glaring need for constitutional reforms that would clearly outline the powers of the government watchdog. In a titanic tussle in which the protagonists seemed intent on putting their adversary in their place, the LCS command repeatedly launched stinging rebukes at the Ombudsman’s office whenever the investigator tried to obtain “classified information” or interview LCS officers.

The spat conducted mainly in the media spilled into the law enforcement arena when the Ombudsman reported the LCS mandarins to the police in a bid to compel them to co-operate with the investigator. This after disgruntled LCS officers triggered a probe into a raft of promotions in the service they deemed unfair and intended to reward officers belonging to the same political party as their bosses, namely; the Principal Secretary and LCS Commissioner.

PS Lebohang Mochaba and Commissioner Thabang Mothepu vehemently denied favouring the promoted officers despite a body of evidence that included the fact that Mochaba’s husband was among those elevated. Human rights activists and lawyers blame the kerfuffle on the lack of clarity on the separation of powers between government departments and constitutional bodies such as that of the Ombudsman.

Constitutional lawyer, Advocate Hoolo Nyane, said this is caused by lack of understanding about the office of the Ombudsman, its authority, and the lack of respect and mutual understanding between constitutional institutions. This, he said, was worsened by errant officials abusing their authority with impunity thus degrading the office of the Ombudsman.

He believes there is a tendency in this country for people to undermine the Ombudsman on the basis that he does not have enforcement powers, a complete misreading of how the constitution works. “Institutions and officials hide under the misconception that since the Ombudsman does not have enforcement powers perhaps the office may not receive the same respect as other structures (with enforcement powers),” Nyane said.

Lepeli Moeketsi of the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) said the current quarrel between the Ombudsman’s office and the justice ministry is a clear indication that there is lack of clarity on the law. “The constitution establishes the Ombudsman and the very law gives the executive executional powers which they feel are exclusive,’’ he said, adding that there was need to clearly separate these powers and clear the administrative confusion with constitutional functionality.

However, political analyst Kopano Makoa asserts that the Ombudsman has authority to decide how matters or investigations are handled in his commission and also has the responsibility to protect the integrity and dignity of his commission. This, Makoa charged, the Ombudsman failed to do when he allowed Mothepu to barnstorm his commission with his armed guards.

Ensuing tensions only subsided when the Ombudsman asked police to search both the gallery and witnesses including the Ombudsman himself, an unprecedented event that Makoa reckons diminished the investigator’s standing in the eyes of the public. The police were looking for weapons. According to Makoa, Ombudsman Leshele Thoahlane should have ejected Mothepu from the hearing and ordered him to return when he was prepared to submit to his authority.

The ombudsman should have called in the police only if Mothepu had refused to leave his commission. Describing the mandate of his office, Ombudsman Thoahlane, notes that the Lesotho Ombudsman Institution was created in the Lesotho Constitution of 1993 in line with the provisions of Section 134 read with Section 135. The Office started its operations in 1993. Its powers, role and functions are detailed and spelt out under the Ombudsman Act 9 of 1996.

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