MASERU — In the end it was probably because of his fight for power that Justice Mahapela Lehohla lost his power.
He did not lose the battle to his nemesis, Court of Appeal president Justice Michael Ramodibedi for he too might be on his way out if the speculation about his future is anything to go by.
It is probably those who appoint, the executive, who decided that Justice Lehohla’s battles had become too toxic for the judiciary.
It will never be known what prompted him to take an early retirement.
Wise words might have been whispered into his ear by the powers-that-be in a closed meeting.
He might have been pressured by threats of a possible dishonourable discharge.
He might just have grown weary of his fights with Justice Ramodibedi.
All these are possible explanations for his shock decision to leave the bench six years before the official retirement age for judges.
Only he and his superiors in the executive know the reasons.
What is certain is that his stint as chief justice was fraught with crises. The 11 years he spent at the helm were probably the most disastrous for Lesotho’s judiciary.
The obituary of his 41-year career in the legal fraternity will not be complete without some monumental blunders he made in the last 11 years he spent as chief justice.
So serious were these mistakes that they might totally mar what might have been an illustrious legal career.
Those who worked with him in the early years say he was a diligent assistant registrar.
They admired his dedication and attention to detail. And they say he was an astute magistrate as well.
They have not found anything to criticise about the time he spent as a registrar of the High Court and Court of Appeal.
As a judge he delivered incisive and eloquent judgments.
Because of his long service in the judiciary very few people whinged when he was appointed chief justice in September 2002.
It seemed he had climbed the ladder fairly without stepping on other people’s backs.
For those in the judiciary, however, Justice Lehohla was going to be judged by what he was going to do and not what he had done.
He was now the head of the High Court and the subordinate courts. He was taking over courts that were fairly factional but laden with problems.
The backlog of cases was mounting due to a shortage of judges and magistrates.
When he took over on September 17, 2002 there were only eight judges on the High Court bench. The courts were generally underfunded and files were disappearing because the registry was in shambles.
If only Justice Lehohla had devoted his time to dealing with only those problems his legacy would have been entirely different.
Not only did he fail to solve those problems but he exacerbated them and actually created new ones of his own.
Eleven years on the backlog of cases has ballooned, files are still disappearing and the courts are still facing financial problems.
Justice Lehohla might argue that there was nothing much he could have done about the backlog because by the time he came it had already spiralled out of control.
He can argue that the cases of files missing have been few and far between.
He can also point to the fact that he is not part of the executive and the legislature that decides how much the judiciary should get from the budget.
He will be correct on all three but only to an extent.
On the backlog he probably made significant progress by introducing the Commercial Court and the Small Claims Court, all of which were meant to lessen the burden on the High Court judges and magistrates.
Yet he could have done more by aggressively pushing for more judges to be appointed on the bench.
A close management of those few judges would have also helped clear some cases. Even more, he could have led by example by hearing contested cases, something he did not do in the last nine years as chief justice.
On money, Justice Lehohla could have fought a little bit harder for more.
He can blame the missing files on incompetence and corruption.
To be fair, Justice Lehohla cannot take all the blame for these three problems. There is no evidence that he did not try to solve them.
He probably failed because he was not more aggressive in tackling them or he lacked the prerequisite managerial skills to sort them out.
The problem is that instead of working hard to solve these longstanding problems, Justice Lehohla seems to have gone ahead to create more.
His administrative skills were found wanting when he clashed with judges over Mathato Sekoai, the former registrar of the High Court and Court of Appeal.
His indecisiveness triggered accusations that he was shielding the registrar.
Judges reacted by boycotting the courts, itself an unprecedented move in Lesotho’s judiciary.
When he eventually tried to deal with the crisis by transferring Sekoai to the magistrates’ court there was a backlash from magistrates who responded with a strike.
Lawyers also boycotted the courts in solidarity with the magistrates. Eventually he failed to keep Sekoai as registrar or transfer her to the magistrates’ court.
As Justice Lehohla starts his leave pending retirement Sekoai is still officially the registrar even though she has been sitting at home for nearly 13 months. She still enjoys full benefits.
But perhaps the biggest blight on Justice Lehohla’s legacy was his decision to fight Justice Ramodibedi over seniority. There he picked the wrong fight.
It was a wrong fight because the general perception was that he could have channelled his energy towards dealing with more pressing issues.
Justice Lehohla had elevated a non-issue into a major one.
A full-blown crisis in the judiciary was the result.
Whether he was right or wrong is another matter.
What mattered was the way he fought and its resultant impact on the judiciary.
In the end his fight with Justice Ramodibedi became a threat on the integrity of the judiciary.
The last straw was probably the cancellation of the January session of the Court of Appeal.
Still these failures do not mean that Justice Lehohla did not serve this country with diligence and passion. He gave 41 years of his life to serving this country.
For that he must be thanked and honoured.
But above all, he must be given credit for leaving the bench without a fight.
He might not have wanted to leave but the fact that he is leaving means that he considered the greater good of the judiciary.
Men like that are rare.