Echoes from old foot prints
DEMOCRACY is a commodity of many shapes. Its shape is dependent on how it is handled. Lesotho always has new actors and a new generation of voters who continuously board the Lesotho democratic train. Some come with new ideas, others only tinker with and express the Old Testament in different words. Such new comers deserve to know the experiences of the pioneers. Democracy deserves to be nurtured and not tossed up and down like a yo-yo.
Depending on who each newcomer is, their “on your mark, get set, go!” in active politics could be during any of the following points in the history of democracy in Lesotho. It could be 1968, when the PM of the time reportedly gave a final warning to the former King to abide by the constitution or face action. It could be 1970 when the independence constitution and the democratically-elected parliament were suspended; or 1973 when parliament was restored as an unelected Interim National Assembly. It could be in 1979 when a decision to establish a regular army out of the Police Mobile Unit was tabled in the Interim National Assembly.
It could as well be 1984 when apartheid South Africa threatened to withdraw its support unless Lesotho signed the Nkomati-type Accord with it. The year 1986 was a period of the famous bloodless coup, followed be a military announcement to swiftly move to democratize and the Constituent National Assembly established to pave the way for the 1993 constitution. It could be 1994 which had the first democratically-elected deputy prime minister gunned down (sadly, no Commission of Inquiry for that). The year 2004 even had a member of the Clergy convicted for high treason.
The foregoing are some incidents which punctuated the early part of the democratic route whose common feature was confrontational politics. Where each new comer boarded this train was not the beginning of the rail; the start was way back in 1966. And the rail still leads on with even more enthusiastic new comers boarding in earnest. The 2020 election may see new political parties entering the contest to be government.
This article selects to survey this route from the 1993 stage when democratic rule returned to Lesotho. Since then, many activists, political parties and electors have been born and joined to merrily roll along in this old democratic train: with some hope for the journey to be enjoyable and expecting to be a government.
A significant milestone of this selected part of the route was the 17-22 September 1995 National Dialogue on Democracy, Stability and Development. Lesotho had once again politically stumbled. Attendance was an unusual full house. Many national institutions, which mattered then, participated.
Even the Steering Committee of that Dialogue was unsure of how the conference would go. By the mere nature of the attendance mix, it was no surprise that the immediate matter of contention was whether the outcomes would be “binding resolutions” or “only recommendations”. The later prevailed, vesting authority of execution in the rightful custodian: a democratically-elected government.
Recommendations included the formation of the Independent Electoral Commission (about which the ruling BCP opted to “reserve its position” and ascertained that the Dialogue Declaration highlighted that). Need to review the FPTP electoral model was also recommended (leading to the current MMP model). Enlargement of Senate — proportionate to the number of constituencies and inclusion of grassroots and some kind of election procedure to make Senate a “truly representative institution in a democracy” was also recommended.
That Dialogue had a clear say on the Lesotho Security Forces (SFS). Under recommendations, the following was the view: “….democracy was a fertile ground for the SFS to execute their duties diligently and efficiently, and it offers an asylum where no tyrant and manipulation could penetrate”. It recommended: “the SFS should take advantage of the new dispensation … and gauge how best they could help to make Lesotho governable by ensuring security in the country… and should selflessly defend the constitution whenever attempts were made to violate it”.
Interestingly, it was recommended that MPS and other people in authority “should desist from harassing members of the SFS by calling them names”. The Dialogue even listed principles under which government ought to relate with the SFS: government should not use SFS to divide or repress the nation; government should not interfere with the command structure of the SFS. On these, new comers are invited to look back to when they boarded the democratic train, to review how their roles and inputs have fared, leading to the current state of affairs in Lesotho.
Subsequent to that Dialogue, the democratic Lesotho had its IECS replaced at the right time. New comers are encouraged to have some interest to inquire whether any of the previous IECS had any dramatic incidents during its tenure. Their major headache was failure to accept defeat by the knocked out political parties, despite their involvement and endorsement of preparations leading to elections.
The opposition tended to discredit elections.
It was the transition to the current IEC that different forms of drama surfaced. Psychometric test was introduced for the candidates. Did that ensure the appropriate caliber of commissioners, compared against test scores of candidates who failed to get appointed?
Was it by default or design that those commissioners respectively belonged to the three political parties forming the coalition government?
Was it conventional for Head of government, in a democracy, to make a public pronouncement at a political rally that the new commissioners were indeed partisan?
Could that pronouncement have been a brag just to generate additional cheering from the enthusiastic party faithful at that rally?
It could have, as well, been in the spirit of expressing hope for the impending efficient service delivery by that new partisan IEC. Sadly, that election management body also remained silent on the matter.
Common sense expected it to at least disassociate itself from that pronouncement: unless it did and their response was not as public as the pronouncement by the Head of government.
Besides different sets of ballot paper in a single constituency, there was a more serious issue of omissions in the voters’ lists where at some polling stations, the official lists omitted some voter card holders.
In some instances, amending or additional lists were printed and selectively delivered to polling stations late on the Election Day. If that was normal or justifiable, which is doubtful, why did a District Electoral Officer not offer copies of the same, on request by an interested candidate to verify the facts?
Instead, the response was that there were no copies in office other than those dispatched to polling stations. Where was transparency here? An Objection Form which listed other irregularities e g ballot boxes being delivered separately from their election packets was timely filed but never responded to. That reflects in the IEC.
Recent or current political events urge one’s mind to revisit the 1995 National Dialogue. Why did the BCP opt to reserve its position on the recommendation to establish an IEC?
By then, BCP was a mass party capable of taking all the constituencies. Suspicion is that it believed more in the principle of supremacy of the people as a pillar of democracy. It may have had a belief that the size of its large following guaranteed it a win, irrespective of who managed the election, and provided it was a credible manager. The Issue of the IEC was a preference of parties that always lost.
Similarly, why did the ruling BCP which had just survived a coup in the early part of its first rule not have a tough stand against the SFS?
Could this attitude have something to do with the notion that when the going gets rough, only the tough get going or the belief that congress spirit is unputdownable?
It is only now that the nation hears loud non-congress outbursts that Lesotho does not actually deserve to have a standing army of LDF stature. There are also utter- ances linking the military with the congresses. On revisiting history, it is some of the currently complaining actors who created a military machine when it suited them and now wish it away.
One wonders why the Congresses just took the issue of partisan IEC commissioners as they did. They did not go to town on the matter. Unlike in 1993, there are now many Congresses. The realization that these have rediscovered themselves and work with a unity of purpose, they still stand as a formidable force.
That is discouraging to their natural opponents. All Congress late comers to this train are specifically urged to find the need to consolidate efforts to nurture this shapeless democracy and desist from disruptive tendencies on board this train. Intra-party peace, democracy and stability contribute to national peace and stability.
It is many years since 1993. Many efforts have been made to steady this democratic train. It could be in the public interest if some mechanism was put in place
to establish an inventory of all recommendations made since the National Dialogue with a purpose to just put out political fires.
A balance sheet or tally of implemented and the unimplemented recommendations could reveal the political culture of Basotho and the attitude of sitting governments. It could actually reflect if effected recommendations have been for the better or worse; so as with the unimplemented.
A typical example is the nonimplementation of a recommendation to enlarge and democratize the Senate. This could even enable expeditious passage of legislation. Bills could be introduced in both Houses and shuttle in both directions.
Presently, Senate remains only a procedural institution. It could have more value if its inputs ceased to be treated as bullets of wax even in matters which Senate valued. It is such non-implementation which may be in the public interest.
It could have been a convenient move to let sleeping dogs lie. The current status quo still serves some purpose because the Senate remains a source of talent for the government through the constitutional nomination process. How do late comers view this?