MASERU – Tension in the old National Assembly chambers was palpable as the National Reforms Authority (NRA) members gathered at the old parliament building to elect the NRA chairperson.
The hotly contested portfolio could have gone either way – to a political or civil society candidate and emotions were running high. Neither of the rivals was ready to compromise ahead of the elections; with political parties working tirelessly to convince some of the non-partisan members to vote for their choice of candidate and the eventual winner was Basotho Democratic National Party (BNDP) leader, Pelele Letsoela.
Civil society fielded Peace Education (DPE) co-ordinator, Sofonea Shale, as its candidate and lost the vote. Shale and Letsoela’s names were advanced as potential candidates for the chairmanship portfolio as per NRA Act of 2019.
The Act established the NRA as a successor to the National Dialogue Planning Committee and states that the authority will operate independent of control or direction of any person or authority with a view to ensuring transparency, the rule of law and involvement of the entire nation through multiple stakeholders. NRA is only accountable to the parliament, as per the 2019 Act, which empowers the authority to co-ordinate, oversee and strategically lead in the implementation of the resolutions and decisions of the Second Plenary.
Section 5 (4) of the Act clearly states that all stakeholders must convene and nominate a candidate for the Reforms Authority, hence the decision by the political parties and civil society to advance Letsoela and Shale as candidates for the NRA chair. On February 6, Shale and Letsoela marched to the clerk’s table at the old parliament building and anxiously sat down as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and carefully counted 56 votes cast by NRA members.
At this time, the tension was high as both the opposing parties – political parties and civil societies – eagerly awaited their fate. As it became evident that Letsoela was winning, mixed emotions of cheering, exclamations and, as usual, absurd remarks normally made during vote counting filled the room.
But civil society remains unfazed with the outcome and vows to continue to play its role of being the voice of the voiceless. In February 2019, University of Free State published Mphonyane Rakhare research on the impact of civil society on governance in Lesotho.
“Civil society contributes to governance by being the voice of the voiceless members of society,” Rakhare said. She said the effectiveness of civil society in Lesotho was complicated as it cannot be measured because of its intangible goal, making it difficult to define civil society.
“Public participation in the policy-making process in Lesotho was poor, therefore there was need for a strong civil society that will ensure that they, as well as the citizens of Lesotho, participate in policy-making and law-making”.
In an interview, Lesotho Council for Non-governmental Organisations (LCN) Programmes Director Sekonyela Mapetla said civil society will continue to execute its mandate of being the voice of voiceless despite the NRA chair elections outcome.
He said civil society featured Shale with one clear intention, “to protect the interests of the people and the reforms process”. He added efforts to protect the reforms began during the era of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s first coalition government in 2012. He said civil society visited eight councils to get people’s views on governance issues.
“When former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili took over in 2015, we did not rest. We went to the grassroots to get the views of Basotho on the seven-party coalition agreement,” Mapetja said. He added: “When the current government was installed we continued with our efforts and when the NDPC came into the picture, we rapidly moved to ensure that Basotho’s voices, across the country, are heard.”
Up to 412 gatherings were held in 76 councils, Mapetja said, covering 56, 945 Basotho across the country. Looking into the NRA, he said there were fears some findings by the ordinary citizens could fail to see the light of the day in the NRA should it be chaired by a politician. He said civil society wanted a leader, in the form of the NRA chairperson, who would protect the interests of Basotho and ensure that those findings are included.
“But we knew that it was a mammoth task for us to win the vote but this is not a blow for us. We shall continue to work hard to protect the views of the people,” Mapetja said, adding that they will continue to lead from the communities to safeguard people’s interests.
Speaking with this publication, Shale said it would have been better if civil society had won. He, however, said they will continue to strive to make a meaningful contribution they wanted to make as NRA chair, but this time from the floor. “Political parties are in majority and they have made it clear that they would like to chair. I think I lost because parties which are in the majority wanted to have a politician on the chair,” Shale said.
But civil society went into the voting uncoordinated with some civil society representatives having voted with the politicians and it is not clear why. “If you look at the numbers it appears that Honourable Letsoela got more votes that what political parties have.”
Shale said he does not know what could have informed the decision of some non-political party representatives not to vote for a civil society candidate. He said that he was not in the last meeting leading to the NRA elections where civil society decided on their candidate.
Efforts to speak to some of the non-partisan members of the NRA were unsuccessful at the time of going to print. However, Innovations in Civic Participation said due to a number of economic and other socio-political factors, civil society in Lesotho is uncoordinated. Like Mapetja, Shale remains unshaken.
“We were determined to do all we could to help the process. It is not that we think politicians are inherently bad for reforms, they are leaders and they too like reforms (and) we shall help the way we can,” Shale said. He added: “What is important now is to safeguard the views of Basotho over who leads NRA. We shall offer ourselves to make it work”.
DPE, he noted, started the “Lesotho I want campaign” way before NRA was installed and his organisation has been advocating and lobbying for inclusiveness ever since. In January 2017, DPE successfully petitioned the National Assembly not to allow the proposal to suspend Standing Order # 52 (5).
It argued that suspending the standing would “otherwise contribute to the error the government is committing which is that of mishandling the otherwise delicate process of reforms which has to be inclusive”. This, according to Rakhare, is a role that civil society must effectively play in democracy.
“When problems arise, civil society mobilises society to approach government in a democratic fashion to limit state power so as to avoid abuse of power,” she said. And this week, Shale said civil society, DPE included, will not allow anything to stand in the way of safeguarding an inclusive reforms process. “Nothing shall kill it,” Shale concluded.
DPE has been at the heart of civil society work in keeping the fire burning on reforms. The DPE profile in reforms includes mobilising citizens right in the villages to like and support reforms, advocating for inclusive, participatory, non-elitist and people-driven process, while facilitating dialogue between political leadership in government and those in exile.
DPE was critical in the development and eventual signing of the reforms pledge ahead of 2017 National Assembly elections and it has successfully petitioned parliament and stalled initiatives in parliament that undermined inclusive reforms and participation.