Corruption, and the seeds of its destruction in Lesotho

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Tom Thabane has resigned as the Prime Minister of Lesotho amid a scandal over his wife’s murder. Getty Images/Angela Weiss
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In Lesotho, corruption, coupled with political instability, is sowing seeds of its own destruction – Moletsane Monyake explains.

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Lesotho is notorious for killings and/or exile of prominent figures as well as interference by security forces in political matters. Politicians also interfere in the internal operations of the security agencies. A more recent manifestation of these dynamics include cold-blooded murders of army commanders Maaparankoe Mahao in 2015 and Khoantle Motsomotso in 2017 by other members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).

The country is currently making international news headlines for a slightly different reason though: the police have charged Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his young and politically ambitious wife with the murder of the former’s second wife in June 2017.

This is the first time in the history of Lesotho that a sitting Premier has had to attend a court session to face criminal charges. This is a big deal, mostly because of its implications for the good governance project in Lesotho and the fact that the army has stayed in the barracks and allowed the law to run its course.

Prior to the foregoing developments, the courts, particularly the Court of Appeal had also shown a remarkable courage to reverse the decisions of the High Court and subsequently rule against the interests of the Prime Minister and his allies.

I argue in this piece that the unfolding events in Lesotho represent an organic and gradual emergence of the institutions of state. The increase in levels of impunity, corruption and economic exclusion that citizens of this small, extremely unequal and poor country have witnessed over the past few years has engendered a strong yearning for impartiality as a guiding principle of governance and administration.

Perhaps for lack of a better phrase, ‘corruption has created its own resistance movement and sowed the seed of its own destruction’.

Political root causes of corruption in Lesotho

For a country prone to violent conflict, Lesotho has had remarkably free and fair elections over the past two decades. Since 2007, these elections have been increasingly competitive, and their outcome largely, unpredictable. Partly because of this strong party system’s competitiveness, engendered by frequent political party splits and realignments, elections have since 2012 failed to yield a clear majority. This has resulted in the formation of fragile coalition governments that often collapse midway through their term of office— a result of which has been the holding of three parliamentary elections within a space of five years (2012-2017).

Coalition politicking has led to an increase in government expenditure, largely because of the rampant corruption. The size of cabinet and political deployments has almost doubled over the past eight years of coalition governing in Lesotho. Despite warnings by the international financial institutions, wastefulness has gone unabated and, by the Finance Minister’s own admission, the country is broke.

The premature collapse of the past two coalition governments has raised stakes for political office to a new level, generating in the process, insatiable greed and conspicuous gluttony among the ruling elite.

The precarious tenure of office has incentivised incumbent politicians to enrich themselves as quickly as possible before a new cohort of looters and eaters replaces them. The result has been a spike in confirmed incidences, allegations and perceptions of corruption in Lesotho.  For example, Transparency International (TI)— an international Non-Governmental Organisation that scores countries on perceived levels of public sector corruption — has downgraded Lesotho’s ranking on perceptions of corruption from 74th in 2017 to 85th in 2019. For many locals such as myself, this relegation is quite generous.

Afrobarometer data indicate that the percentage of Basotho who think that Members of Parliament are involved in corruption has increased by 20 percentage points between 2012 and 2017.

Conservative estimates in the Public Accounts Committee’s report to Parliament are that corruption has cost the country a minimum of M1.4 billion (100 million USD) over a three-year period (2013 – 2016). This is an extremely large sum of money for an aid-dependent poor country where 50 percent of the population are poor and 25 percent as living in extreme poverty.

Sowing seeds of its own destruction

An increase in corruption contributes significantly to the premature collapse of Lesotho’s coalition governments. It is at the heart of the internal squabbles rocking each of the four partners in the current coalition government. There are two major reasons why corruption has had this effect. First, the ‘national cake’ is extremely small and grossly insufficient for the clientelistic distributions that coalition politics demands.

Second, left out network members tend to view disbursement of patronage as unfair. For example, despite increase in the size of the cabinet as indicated, there have been complaints from a portion of the Members of Parliament from Prime Minister Thabane’s party that individuals that are more deserving are being side-lined in cabinet appointments. The disgruntled MPs threatened to break away from the party.

The ongoing intra-party squabbles reflect the intense jostling among patronage network members for what they feel is their share of the spoils. In this regard, in the context of poor but highly competitive environment, patronage appears to be a destructive rather than a stabilising tool.

Nonetheless, even among party loyalists there is an acknowledgement that ‘cake’ is too small for everyone to get a share. Government tenders are also never enough for most key network members in the business sector. Similarly, as many senior public officials (including some in the police) who do the bidding of their political masters in return for particularistic benefits are now aware, not everyone can be promoted.

Over the past few years, those network members who felt excluded from patronage distributions have migrated to other, less crowded, political parties. While this has fuelled political party fragmentation and the inconclusive elections in Lesotho, it has not been personally beneficial for most political nomads and many find themselves further isolated politically.

The consequence of the foregoing has been a simmering discontent with the particularistic rather than merit-based allocation of resources. This has, in turn, created a strong appetite among the bureaucratic elite, security agencies, Civil Society Organisations and the business community, for impartiality as an overarching criterion for who gets what, when and how.

A silent anti-corruption movement

The yearning for impartiality in the exercise of power has spawned a silent anti-corruption movement among senior public officials, judicial officers and law enforcement. As televised hearings of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) can attest, there is far more willingness among senior public officials to disclose damaging information about underhanded dealings of cabinet ministers and other politically connected figures. For example, in November 2019, the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Local Government and Chieftainship— a close ally of the Prime Minister— told the PAC that two prominent ministers and the Prime Minister’s wife forced him to award a lucrative road construction tender to a company owned by a Chinese national.

From victims to activists

The yearning for impartiality, which has been building over the past few years, proceeds side by side with the wanton disregard for the rule of law and principles of accountability under Thomas Thabane’s administration. This abuse of power has inevitably produced winners and losers. Some people have lost their jobs; others business opportunities while others have buried friends, brothers and colleagues. It is these victims and their sympathisers who have been most willing to resist various manifestations of particularistic exercise of power. It is the coalition of the wounded, and it is growing.

Moletsane Monyake is a Lecturer at the National University of Lesotho.

1 COMMENT

  1. “The yearning for impartiality in the exercise of power has spawned a silent anti-corruption movement among senior public officials, judicial officers and law enforcement.” I, for one, am extremely excited at this piece of news! Never service more important; to overlook it would be a grave fault on us all. We should encourage our friends in Lesotho to keep up the good work. Their work reminds me of the Biblical parable of the mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the birds of the air made nests in its branches. Luke 13:18-19. Lesotho is a promising garden to sow the mustard seed of hope, freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

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