A WAR of words has erupted between Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara and Government Secretary (GS), Moahloli Mphaka, over moves to oust the top judge from her coveted post.
The Chief Justice is furious over a recent notice from Mr Mphaka’s office in which he claims that “peaceful talks” with Ms Majara over her exit from the judiciary have advanced well.
Justice Majara, who has thus far resisted forceful attempts to oust her from her post, has hit back at the GS saying there was no way she could be said to be involved in any peaceful talks when she has been the subject of spirited sniping by government officials and politicians. She effectively accuses Mr Mphaka of telling lies on various issues.
The notice from Mr Mphaka’s office informs the public that Justice Majara, who has been under siege from some cabinet ministers who have openly called for her removal, is in “peaceful talks” with the government over her exit.
Mr Mphaka yesterday confirmed the authenticity of the notice from his office concerning the Chief Justice. He said Justice Majara had since written back to him and he was yet to respond.
“We are indeed having talks with the Chief Justice. I am yet to respond to her letter but I’m surprised that (Justice Majara’s response) it is in the hands of a journalist when it was supposed to be confidential,” Mr Mphaka said.
In the initial notice concerning Justice Majara, Mr Mphaka’s office wrote that; “The public is reminded that the Chief Justice is still in peaceful talks with the government pertaining to her exit and the talks are at quite an advanced stage, soon to be wrapped up”.
“You are therefore implored to be patient as these issues are being treated with cautiousness,” the notice concludes.
The notice also mentions the government’s efforts in addressing the huge backlog of cases before the High Court and the Court of Appeal. It proposes remedial measures which include the appointment of international judges to mitigate staff shortages on the bench.
The Court of Appeal has been in limbo due to lack of leadership. The government’s plan to appoint Justice Kananelo Mosito to head that court was thwarted by a successful legal challenge of his appointment in the Constitutional Court. Subsequent efforts to appoint an acting head of the court are also mired in more legal challenges.
According to the notice from Mr Mphaka, the government is working hand in hand with the High Court to ensure that all cases are heard and backlogs are cleared.
“The government shall help the High Court to deal with the back-log of cases by seeking international judges, according to the provisions of the constitution and other supplementary laws.
“In the same fashion, the government and the office of the Chief Justice are working on preparations for those cases to be heard by the Court of Appeal as provided for in the constitution.”
However, Justice Majara took exception to the notice and penned a strongly-worded response to Mr Mphaka, disputing the claims that she was involved in cordial talks with the government concerning her exit from the bench. She also scoffed at Mr Phaka’s claims that she was working with the government on a plan to clear the backlog of cases at the Court of Appeal saying she was never consulted on any of the issues raised by Mr Mphaka.
Instead of a harmonious working relationship between herself and the government, the Chief Justice’s letter rather painted a glum picture of a sitting duck under siege from a government determined to oust her at all costs. She cited open threats and intimidation directed at her by former Minister of Justice, Human rights and Correctional Services, Mahali Phamotse, and the Minister of Law, Lebohang Hlaele.
“It is not at all true that the government is liaising with my office about the cases before the Court of Appeal. Nothing has been communicated to me in connection to such preparations if at all there are any in place,” the Chief Justice wrote to Mr Mphaka.
“I engaged in talks with you after I was put under pressure as a result of threats levied against me by the former Minister of Justice, Dr Mahali Phamotse and her Principal Secretary, Lebohang Mochaba.
“Dr Phamotse told me to my face that the government had made a decision that it no longer wanted to work with me and if I did not resign, it would do all in its powers to make my work a living hell and taint my name so badly that by the time it was done, no one would want to touch me as a professional.
“I am also reminding you of the statements and threats made by the Minister of Law (Mr Hlaele) at a demonstration held on 9 December 2017. I therefore don’t understand how then these can be said to be peaceful talks.”
On her part, Dr Phamotse yesterday denied ever threatening Justice Majara.
“I never threatened her in any way. Instead she is the one who told me that she could tell that the government no longer wants to work with her and she even gave me the terms of an exit package which I won’t disclose as it is confidential.
“Other than that, there is no bad blood between me and her and I have no personal vendetta against her at all,” Dr Phamotse said.
Justice Majara also questioned the logic of the GS’s office placing highly sensitive issues in the public domain. She declared; “I have never seen, anywhere in the world, where such issues are placed in the public domain when the one directly affected is not even given a chance to air her views, let alone be notified as these are issues that need to be treated with confidentiality and great caution”.
She also denied that she was ever notified of any plans to engage international judges.
“I write to state my astonishment, worry and despair pertaining to a notice from your office which bears no truth at all on the issues raised as I explained myself to you in our earlier telephone conversation,” wrote Justice Majara.
“It is not true that the government is working with my office on the issues stated in the notice. The truth of the matter is that I am the one who volunteered to advise the government that while it is working on bringing in international judges (which I learned about through the grapevine), some sections of the constitution and other laws governing the country should be considered in order to avoid problems which could emanate in future.
“I also advised the government to put in place all necessary logistics and preparations ahead of the arrival of those judges so as to avoid hiccups when they have to begin work.”
Justice Majara has endured a frosty relationship with the Thomas Thabane-led coalition government ever since it came to power in the aftermath of the June 2017 snap national elections.
On 9 December 2017 Law and Constitutional Affairs Minister, Lebohang Hlaele, told protestors in Maseru that Justice Majara should either resign or be “impeached for corruption”.
Mr Hlaele alleged that the Chief Justice was “corrupt” and gave her an ultimatum to either resign or face an impeachment tribunal. The Minister charged that Justice Majara should be impeached for “corruptly” renting a house for M27 000 per month from a colleague Justice Teboho Moiloa, a figure “way above” the statutory allocation for her housing allowance.
Mr Hlaele made the remarks soon after receiving a petition from a group of Basotho who had staged a protest to demand the swearing-in of Justice Kananelo Mosito as the Court of Appeal President after his re-appointment in August last year.
The December protest and the subsequent remarks by Mr Hlaele prompted three prominent lawyers; Zwelakhe Mda, Karabo Mohau and attorney Qhalehang Letsika, to lodge an urgent application before the Constitutional Court to block the removal of Justice Majara.
The application was filed last month and is still pending before the courts.