Interrogating the Third Coalition Agreement

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Nthakeng Pheello Selinyane

SO the third coalition government has “finally” been signed some two-and-a-half months since the Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s investiture! This is half the time the just-deposed Khokanyan’a Phiri coalition took to publish such an agreement, though its captains were already filling the skies with protestations that their successor regime established its full complement and even went on to pass the 2017/18 budget without the Agreement. They complained the new rulers left the nation, interest groups and rivals with nothing by which to judge them as their own commitment. They even falsely claimed this was unprecedented and contrary to normal practice or tradition.

It is billed as an agreement of the four ruling parties, “with the possible participation of other political parties represented in Parliament” – a tag which together with the Agreement’s title or theme, would seem to be borrowed or donated from the November 2016 draft agreement between the Mosisili-ditching Democratic Congress (DC) of Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki and the then opposition leader Dr Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC). While this relationship doesn’t raise eyebrows given the composition of the government, certain features not only shock but also disappoint and depress the reader into thinking s/he’s being duped with a product whose peddlers have scant or no commitment to it.

I am not sold to the idea, for example, that the authors wanted to tell the world, about themselves: “The current government of Lesotho has lost trust of a large section of the Basotho people and its international partners” (1.3),  or that anyone living through or following current developments in Lesotho would believe that at the time of signature, the government had as its first objective as “To rescue Lesotho from the current downward spiral into lawlessness, conflict, political instability, economic stagnation, and degradation of democracy”.  Call that dereliction of duty of care, whose instrumentality in enemy hands can be lethal, and pass to content on offer.

The first coalition government agreement was published roughly half a year after the formation of the 2012 government, and its 2015 successor only a month short; but they don’t add any value to accountability or dependability of the government.  The 2015 Agreement could be a UN manual on governance, accepting the media as fourth estate and pledging cooperative intercourse and empowerment of the sector and civil society, protecting human rights, combatting corruption and strengthening judicial independence and executive accountability, depoliticisation of the public service and security forces etc. – all of which the government abundantly betrayed and violated, eminently culminating in the Phumaphi Commission.

During the 1998-2002 transition – a full decade before the first coalition government – the People’s Parliament of Candi Ramainoane, Seabata Masienyane and Thabo Qhesi called for ruling parties’ campaign promises to be codified and legislated as their government’s development platform, which they could be sued or impeached for not implementing. A hard call, but what remains is that the challenge of promises betrayed isn’t a monopoly of coalitions, nor have the now trendy coalition agreements proven a cure for the same, nor can they, short of political will. Some activist quarters insist on publication of the agreement so as to enable them to timeously pick up any marginalisation or watering down of popular demands of their constituents or clients – often explained away as sacrifices for reaching all-party understanding – and demand their restoration and due prioritisation.

The dubious elevation of the 2012 ABC-BNP-LCD Agreement to supremacy over the Constitution, by the deputy prime minister misreading its requirements of consultation to mean the prime minister should seek prior consent of his partners before exercising his constitutionally conferred prerogative.

Two important aspects of any agreement are mediation and flexibility/adaptability. This agreement is to be mediated by a four-man implementation and monitoring “mechanism”  representing each of the partners; and another “ mechanism” of eminent,  independent, wise local persons will be established for referral of disputes, while SADC and other interstate partners will form a second tier of such referral.  The Agreement also provides for amendment of its provisions by the partners, whereupon copies of the changed texts will be forwarded to the co-operators and others that have interest in the changes; and further that Parties may strike bilateral agreements – some of which already exist – for cabinet and senior officers’ appointments, which shall form annexes to the main agreement.  I don’t know what to make of this ambiguous feature that, like an international trade negotiations proposal, it retains this unexplained obligation to “other parties” that might be interested.  While this could be an unconsciously dragged vestige of the abortive ABC-DC pact; it could come in handy for government expansion to forestall a catastrophe like the March-June 2014 watershed disintegration of government.  Conversely, it could also be exploited to “smuggle” other four-plus-one parties into the compact to neutralise existing partner(s) or shore up an obstructive partner in an unpopular manoeuvre.

The best way to understand motivation for a man’s actions is perhaps simply to ask him what he thinks he is doing.  The Coalition Agreement says it grapples with a weak democratic culture and a weak economy which have left Lesotho with political instability, weak institutions and polarisation of society – producing self-serving political behaviour incapable of evolving socio-economic policies that build a strong, shared economy and foster national consensus. Nice words that don’t mean much. It simply says our fate placed us here.  As a political/strategy consultant, you wouldn’t be surprised if your client government presented you with this stuff – whereas they had to speak to both agency and structure, man and his environment, the potential drivers of change, and obstacles thereto. But to be pragmatic, and avoid a charge of being academic, let us just assume the co-operators as disinterested contractors have defined weak economy, institutions, and emaciated democracy and public policy capacity as deficiencies they want to attack. The absence of agency in this statement of the problem, i.e failure or conscious refusal to name actors responsible for degeneration of democratic culture, naturally leaves the Agreement largely preserving the status quo, shy in current commitments and hazy on future scenarios. Those who thought it was going to be a roadmap on state-society relations over the next one year and going into the 60th month of this regime’s mandate will be disappointed; but unlike the overreaching Khokanyan’a Phiri agreement which promised heaven on earth and went on to instantly rubbish all that, any agreement is really not anything more than a referee’s manual for partners’ intercourse.

Besides the four objectives of national unity, reconciliation, peace and stability that give the Agreement its name; there are (i) commitment to independent and inclusive reforms, though I don’t quite understand what independence of reforms means, and find it fascinating that it says reforms of Parliament will be led by itself building on the new Zealand reforms proposals; (ii) deepening democracy especially citizen participation, where greater access to Parliament including petitioning will be key; (iii) reintroducing a culture of human rights and civil liberties as enshrined in the Constitution; and (iv) espousing good governance per international standards with emphasis on accountability – where among others focus will be on the Parliament’s real supervision of  the government and of the public service and its commissions; (v) and a private sector-based economic transformation.  I have reservation on the wording of “espousing good governance”, which doesn’t quite sound like swearing by it, making it one’s oath.  The delivery of these objectives is supposed to be shepherded by “a fully authorised, implementation, monitoring and evaluation infrastructure”.

The eight-point “priority policy programme”  (section 3) commits the partners to a 90-days timeframe, from the date of effectiveness of the Agreement (not given, but presumably the signature date), to (i) produce an economic reform blueprint to stop economic stagnation; (ii) pass new procurement legislation, and public procurement policy for “politically exposed” persons including ministers and  officers; (iii) strengthen investigative and judicial branches and implement a revamped assets declaration policy. All these will take place under the canopy of implementation of all the decisions of SADC intervention (Phumaphi Commission Report), the SOMILES and Commonwealth / New Zealand reforms recommendations.  The Government will also review and implement the 2014 Decentralisation Policy before September 30 local government elections. The agreement importantly expresses the urgency of accelerating certain reform measures to “limit abuse of office” and safeguard the compact and public confidence in the Coalition government. Call me maximalist or naïve, but I cringe at phrasing that seeks to lessen rot, and not declare it public enemy.

The section (4) on General Principles speaks more to modalities of collaboration, being named as (1) good faith, collaborative engagement and no surprises, (2) proportional allocation of cabinet, Senate, senior official, ambassadorial, statutory corporations’ and commissions’, and district administration executive positions; (3) sustaining partners’ individual identities; (4) establishment of a Leaders’ Caucus, to convene regularly and urgently at any leader’s request; (5) freedom of parties to openly air disagreements / alternative views publicly and in Parliament.  This last one contradicts the article  (8.1) which commits the parties to voting in support of the government at all times in confidence, supply (i.e budgetary), and procedural motions in Parliament and in portfolio committees.

In respect of the Cabinet (section 5), the Agreement considers the current size too large and sectorally  fragmented at 34, being 26 ministers and eight (8) deputy ministers; and commits to review and realignment of ministries’ responsibilities by next financial year – with consideration for a slim and focused cabinet in future. It is provided that all cabinet will be appointed, in consultation with Coalition partners, by the prime minister who will also be responsible for their performance and discipline; be dismissing or reshuffling a minister the prime minister shall first consult the Coalition Partner affected.  Cabinet in enjoined to meet regularly, as the sole place for formal decisions on critical issues prescribed by the constitution, to which decisions all ministers shall be committed, “unless Cabinet gives approval for a Minister to take a different position”.   Now, this one sounds quite an outlier on the graph grid! They might wish to explain it.

In relation to top public servants in government, corporations, and diplomacy, the partners commit to revisiting the definition of “political appointments”; with a view to “depoliticising and accelerating professionalism in the public service”. To this end it is pledged that hiring practices in the corporations will be reviewed and corrective measures taken, and fit-for-purpose assessment of boards undertaken. This isn’t promise of anything at all. The drafters of the Agreement should be aware of state-of-the-art precepts of corporate governance including the New Public Management discourse, the King processes etc – and I think they could be at least implicitly (descriptively) alluded to! There is promised an acceleration of “measures to prevent abuse of office by any Party in the Coalition Government”, and injection of transparency in the appointment of security chiefs and heads of Constitutional oversight institutions like Ombudsman, Auditor General, etc.

All in all, this Agreement is a index of positive things in motion. It is overly cautious in its positive-sounding undertakings, and is shy of committing to time limits in even those areas it highlights as executable without constraints of legislative reforms, but it is still; and a good reference point.

  •  Mr Selinyane’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lesotho Times.
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