MASERU – A local rights group, Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), has petitioned Prime Minister Motsoahae Thabane’s government to reopen parliament within five days, even amid restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Thabane prorogued parliament last month, apparently preventing some dissenting members of parliament from toppling him but his government said the move was merely procedural given the state of emergency in the country and regulations prohibiting large public gatherings. But opponents claimed it was a calculated move aimed at blocking efforts to replace the current coalition government with a new one.
“We are particularly concerned that the Prime Minister’s prorogation came at a time when the parliament should be debating possible approaches on how to minimize the impact of this pandemic (coronavirus),” TRC said in its statement on Thursday. It added that: “We are mindful that this move jeopardises the initiatives already taken to enforce virus containment as the state of emergency under Section 23(2) will only be in effect for 14 days. Extension requires approval by parliament.
“In this sense, the prime minister and government efforts and vigilance in protecting the nation while parliament hitherto is prorogued would be undermined by this phenomenon of uncalculated prorogation.”
Government Secretary (GS), Moahloli Mphaka, said he was not aware of the TRC petition when this paper contacted him yesterday but was quick to point out that prorogation has already been challenged in the courts. “I have not seen the TRC statement you are talking about,” Mphaka said. Last week the main opposition Democratic Congress (DC) announced that it had joined political parties that are seeking a court order to nullify prime minister’s decision to prorogue parliament.
DC leader, Mathibeli Mokhothu, told a press conference at the party’s headquarters in Maseru that Thabane was seeking to stifle the parliamentary process of passing a vote of no confidence against him. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a global pandemic over coronavirus which causes an illness known as COVID-19. It has spread to over 200 countries and territories, killing more than 48 000 people and infecting more than 950 000. Over 202 000 people have recovered.
Most people only experience minor flu-like symptoms from the coronavirus and recover within a few weeks, but the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear well. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia, in some patients, particularly in the elderly and those with underlying health problems. Although the pandemic has spread across the globe and Africa, Lesotho has no confirmed case of COVID-19.
There have been more than 1 300 confirmed coronavirus cases in South Africa – the highest in Africa – and has killed five people sparking concerns about Lesotho’s vulnerability to the contagious disease. Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa. Thabane declared coronavirus a national emergency on March 18, and subsequently prorogued parliament on March 20. On March 25, he announced 21-day lockdown which came into effect at midnight last Sunday, to prevent the spread of the virus.
In its statement, TRC stated the parliament prorogation came as a shock “considering that hitherto there is still a need for stability in government and no appropriation bill has been published for this year’s budget”. It said it “foresees a situation where a contingency budget for disaster management is passed without consultation and debates, which in turn will compromise accountability on the use of funds”. Finance Minister, Dr Moeketsi Majoro, told Public Eye last week that government had made available M700 million to help fight the outbreak of coronavirus.
On top of the M700 million, Majoro said government would also set up a relief fund that would help businesses mitigate the financial impacts of the disease. TRC said upon convening, parliament should focus solely on budget allocation for disaster management, formulation of relief laws aimed at lessening the blow caused by the lockdown on the economy and on the livelihoods of many Basotho.
“With regards to allocation of a budget, the parliament ought to make provisions for swift procurement of lab equipment for effective testing equipment to prevent transmission of COVID-19. “In addition, parliament should formulate strategies to protect the economy from a shutdown considering that a lot of revenue government gets comes from trading at both a micro and macro level,” it said.
In South Africa, the national assembly sat on March 18, to consider four matters, including the Division of Revenue Bill and thereafter all its activities were suspended indefinitely in the light of South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a national state of disaster as a result of COVID-19. The upper house of parliament of South Africa, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) had its last sitting on March 19, before its business was also suspended until further notice.