NTHAKENG PHEELLO SELINYANE
We are in the penultimate year of this 10th parliament’s five-year tenure, and in the second half of the first year of the second coalition government under this parliament, yet the same question keeps twirling in the observers’ minds as four years ago: how will the instability of the main ruling party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), affect the stability, cohesion and effectiveness of the government?
After the announcement of the third coalition government in parliament in 2017, under the ABC leader Motsoahae Thabane, someone observed in a local pub conversation that most of the ABC ministers were people whose ambition was to own a tavern on retirement.
This somehow fitted the profile of the prime minister’s wife – rather awkwardly styled First Lady in a nation where the head of state is the King – who had vainly tried a hand in the trade after abrupt termination of her husband’s first short-lived coalition government of 2012 – 15; and who was widely rumoured to have authored the final line-up of ministers on the basis of who contributed personal money to the upkeep of their family while living in exile in South Africa in fear of death at the hands of rogue army command following his ouster.
Thabane had perhaps presaged when he warned the final election party rally to refrain from gossiping about his wife, and charged that even his choice of cabinet after elections would be named after her. Not that the pool of parliamentarians from whom ministers would be picked was any richer.
The leader had made a clarion call for a merciful return of the serving parliamentarians for the tribulations they supposedly bore under the 2015/17 reign of terror that saw the killing of a dubiously demoted army commander and setting of rogue soldiery over all indignant segments of society.
So primary elections were not held regardless of patently useless parliamentarians in a majority of cases. From the outset restiveness was expressed as the Berea parliamentarians mutely expressed displeasure at being given only one cabinet seat despite winning all the 13 constituency seats in their district.
Soon, cries were heard of ministers complaining of the Office of the First Lady not only intruding into areas of their mandate but also commandeering the resources allocated to them by parliament for discharging that mandate, while the prime minister publicly threatened to dismiss ministers who questioned this encroachment.
It was not long before the hammer began to fall, as the charismatic party chairman was dropped from cabinet after saying to his constituency rally the leader had abdicated his leadership of party national committee and cabinet to his wife who domineered their meetings which were held at the State House instead of their regular venues.
This was well after two ABC ministers fought bitter battles with their principal secretaries, with one being sacked after allegedly standing in the way of award of a lucrative contract to associates of the prime minister’s wife.
This became a rumoured trademark of the regime until the minister of small business development featured in a highly publicised quarrel contesting his company had won a local government construction contract which the principal secretary claimed the prime minister’s wife had ordered that it instead be awarded to a Chinese firm at a State House meeting that featured the prime minister himself.
The wife’s sense of personal management of state affairs was no more graphically displayed than when she went on a tour of the police and transport departments, with the national television in tow, scolding and threatening the former’s minister and principal secretary and the finance principal secretary for not sweating for their salaries, while her husband looked on, looking helpless and choiceless.
Even as the prime minister’s wife got oceans of tongue lashing for dismissing her leading ABC critics as gluttons who wanted to be overnight millionaires, daring them to reclaim their subscription and walk away if unhappy; and the party secretary general tearfully dragged similar critics from radio talk show studios to keep dirty family linen indoors, only to disappear on them after the fact – the train of rampant corruption, conspicuous co-optation of the degenerate and marginalisation of the incorruptible just hurtled on.
But with her secondary school education, the prime minister’s wife couldn’t know the wide maze of government systems and what niches and opportunities existed in them, and how they could be harnessed.
Close observers say this fell to a handful of self-appointed lads among the young graduate professionals in law, accounting, and information technology that passed off by the name of the party think tank called Resource Group which was disbanded when the party first ascended to power back in 2012.
Disgruntled party stalwarts charged that this clique apportioned strategic civil service positions among themselves and awarded their reserves outside the service lucrative sleazy contracts and with carrot and stick to the co-operators and resistant cases – and they did madam’s bidding as long as she abandoned the turf to them under signature of her very obedient husband.
This unabating deterioration of relations with enlightened and frustrated rank and file membership inspired the formation of a social media group “ABC Uncaptured” which later had open-air meetings at the Maseru Race Course, and vastly exploited the airwaves, calling for reclaiming of the party from the clutches of the wayward section of the national committee, the “Resource Group” and the prime minister’s wife.
The group didn’t look to decapitate the party and replace Thabane but to get a strong deputy leader in the elections barely two years ahead to wean the party from devious influences and separate it from the government to be able to monitor it, and follow in his shoes for the next elections of 2022.
Some form of consensus congealed around Dr Moeketsi Majoro, a PhD economics lecturer who went on to be principal secretary for finance and later represent Lesotho at the World Bank and IMF in the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) days of Dr Timothy Thahane better forgotten for their heartless policies and unbridled corruption of the days.
He had been unexpectedly named to replace the deceased ABC leader Professor Maboee Moletsane in the first coalition government with LCD and Basotho National Party and his world outlook had miraculously changed to be soundly pro-poor and his budget as finance minister in the 2017 coalition had a hugely appealing social democratic ring to it.
He incurred the wrath of party bigwigs and cabinet colleagues including party spokesperson and fellow minister, Tefo Mapesela, who openly challenged him to disown these voices when his name was touted and his face placed in social media accounts way before election conference season.
In parallel with the rise of the Majoro hype, efforts were afoot by some Members of Parliament and activists close to them to woo law professor, Nqosa Mahao, who despite a lengthy dabbling in politics including formation of the small but highly influential leftist Popular Front for Democracy, had never really taken to making a career in politics.
His fiery projection, brave firmness and sharp articulation of rule of law and state accountability, continually highlighted in the media while seeking justice for his slain army commander brother under the Khokanyan’a Phiri regime, had sharply raised his profile and endeared him to many.
Though there were two other contenders, being the party chairman and the interim deputy leader seen as beholden to State House, the real contest was between Majoro and Mahao, whose candidacy was rejected by the national leadership claiming he hadn’t served three years on constituency committee as required, and he had to campaign under a cloud of uncertainty, entering the conference grounds by grace of an appeal court order of that evening to defeat Majoro by a mere 147 votes.
One cannot say which one was more surprising between the sudden turn and virulent attack on Mahao by the ministers and backbenchers who initially canvassed his cause, and the pact of Majoro with the much deprecated party secretary Samonyane Ntsekele seeking re-election where he was seen as epitome of the perceived rot in the state and the party.
Legend says Thabane had told his confidantes or inner circle to help him choose between Mahao and Majoro for successor, and indeed he was later heard saying in a birthday radio interview that he was too old and the party members should start looking for his successor, but never put this to the national committee to be formally filtered down to the party structures to be systematically seized with item.
Indeed at a party campaign rally for the elections that ousted him, Thabane spoke at length at a place in the Mohale’s Hoek district addressing it as the legendary Tšakholo in the different district of Mafeteng, and wistfully decrying the loss of its proud heritage; while nobody came to his rescue.
Suffice it to say in all major parties the top honchos override the probationary prerequisite if they posed a hurdle to their ends, without insinuating that for either candidate. It says when the four ministers wooing Mahao reported their success back to Thabane, he “suddenly hit the roof and said he’d never work with Mahao.”
The foregoing notwithstanding, Thabane still went ahead to disperse a national conference of the party youth who were already in Maseru from all over the country and South Africa, on the argument that if they saw him as their leader they should await his return, and no annual general meetings of the party were held for two years, and according to a national committee “about 70 percent of the leadership meetings were held in Ficksburg (where the leader was ensconced in exile)”, though constituency rallies were still held and he addressed them by phone. – and all his rally speeches since return from exile are written and read with notable difficulty.
Some think poor state of finances was responsible for skipping annual reporting meetings. Against this background, the putatively curative elective conference of February 2019 was held without any reports against which to assess the outgoing committee many of whom were contesting to be returned.
After blessing the conference as constituted following court battles, the leader went on to strangely countenance violent disruption of the meeting when results showed his worshippers were losing, and the use of police to evict the attendees as the last votes were being counted; then declare the conference perpetually open until all disputes were settled, when his admirers and apparent abusers rejected the results out of hand then went to the courts.
Fascinatingly, four years declaring himself unfit to continue leading the party, Thabane stood for elections again and was returned unopposed. He had already earned a reputation as a love-the-one-you’re-with leader, in whom the adage “out of sight, out of mind” became alive for real.
Hence those who wanted to benefit from his power, which he wielded very effectively and often ruthlessly when he wanted – like denying his 2015 deputy the benefits of opposition leader while he himself enjoyed pension and not both, and chasing him out of party for “gossiping” about his wife – never wanted him out of sight, and never wanted anybody else near him, at home, office or even on foreign trips.
Indeed some boasted of being the keepers of his memory. As long as he exacted his stranglehold on the party, there was no entity to shepherd the state affairs and authoritatively steer its ship back on course. The February 2019 party election was about undoing that vice-grip on the throat of the party.
The outcome was a committee that included literally all the four slates in the running in roughly equal numbers – the Mahao side got five seats and his opponents collectively scooped the same number. The keepers of the leader’s memory kept him on the leash for one long year while they frivolously challenged the results but prevacated in prosecuting their case in court, with thinly veiled collusion of the acting chief justice who earned herself condemnation of an international appeal court bench; while the leader and prime minister vainly tried to expel the upright section of the committee and President of the Court of Appeal.
After many rounds of botched rounds of talks followed by a final validation of the results by courts, while the leader and deputy leader led two separate streams of the committee, including insertion of election losers in the leader’s stream, convergence was found and an uneasy national rally was held where the two appeared together.
The Christmas 2019 naming of Thabane in a case of his former wife’s murder, for which his overbearing current had been quizzed back in 2017, and for which they were both later charged in January 2020 year, and his simultaneous attempt to fire the police commissioner and set the army on the police, triggered his national committee’s public call for him to step aside from the helm of government in the interests of justice.
His announcement of intention to leave, citing old age, was prompt though ironically first communicated to South Africa before his party, the coalition partners and the nation. The announcement said he would leave once arrangements to be made by his party and the government were completed, emphasising that there were no constitutional provisions for his voluntary retirement, as opposed to resignation.
But Thabane’s mind wasn’t on the homeward road, for like Mokhehle forming a new party as “safe home for my children” (his faction of the Basutoland Congress Party) in the dusk of his life, he soon shocked many when he suddenly summoned the party’s ministers to the State House and announced formation of a new government pact with the perennially embattled leader of the LCD.
The party executive promptly dismissed that in the media and as suddenly concluded a pact with the 25-member Democratic Congress, bringing along 34 of the ABC’s 52 legislators to make 59 seats, just two short of the 61 needed to form a new government.
To this they announced adding the BNP and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho with six seats between them, but leaving out the deputy prime minister’s A.D. with its 11 seats as it was seen as behind the prime minister’s machinations, and otherwise not a dependable partner.
When it came to constitutional arrangements, it was a blessing for the polity that it suited all parties to dispense with the prime minister’s prerogative to advise the king to dissolve parliament and announce new elections upon departure of the head of government by whatever course – what has been euphorically hailed as the plugging of the conduit (ho koala kotopo).
That Thabane wasn’t leaving the pinnacle of the party posed a foreseeable challenge of two centres of power. That his deputy and next in line to be the party’s prime minister wasn’t in parliament opened a gate of mischief for defeated slates who protested that Majoro as the best loser of deputy leadership race who was in parliament should take over; while the party executive insisted the party’s national chairman Samuel Rapapa who was next parliamentarian in party hierarchy should assume the reins.
After conferring with the caucus, a compromise was reached where a vote was opened only for the executive members among themselves, and Rapapa emerged as the winner beating Nkaku Kabi and ‘Matebatso Doti who withdrew to boost Rapapa.
When all systems seemed to be in full throttle for Rapapa’s ascent to the trophy seat, another drama unfolded as the national executive backtracked on its decision and held a Caucus vote where Majoro defeated Rapapa by 26 to 18 votes while the former deputy leader aspirant Prince Maliehe and former general secretary Ntsekele got one vote each.
With the effluxion of time all the ABC legislators including the outgoing prime minister signed up to the new government pact, leaving behind the Alliance of Democrats despite its last minute pleading to be taken aboard, and the DC tagged along the Movement for Economic Change and the PFD on its cabinet quota according to agreement to make a six-party government though it is often called a two party government