LESOTHO is in its lane as a democratic kingdom among other democracies committed to the Westminster model, and in the race to evolve into a working democracy. All efforts have to be made to ensure that it does not fall in the trap of being a poor performer in its practice of democracy. A randomly selected sample to test how we perform could be the roles and relationships of Members of Parliament (MPs) and local government councilors, among other variables.
Relevant laws distinguish between their modes of election. Their tenure of office is both five years, while their terms are not concurrent. What could be the effect if they were concurrent? Could there be any savings? To many villagers, there is no clear distinction as to what to expect from an MP and a local councilor. What they are just aware of is that each of the two has to be elected at the appropriate time.
Why do many rural inhabitants still expect their MP to deliver or drive local development initiatives? Why do some aspiring MPs, or even some current MPs, tend to devote their attention to the delivery of the various local services? This is also encouraged by the media – especially radio personalities who engage with villagers or callers during phone-in programmers or MPs themselves, to sound their views and attitude about the actions of the latter in matters of rural community development.
To many villagers, roles and relationships between the two remain unclear. The portfolio of Local Government with its unique mandate exists; it is generally known by villagers because of its extension service. The existence of such a central government agency reveals the level of political commitment and will to put appropriate institutions in place to promote local development initiatives. The only challenge is why some villagers and radio stations continue to pin their hopes and fix their eyes more on MPs for the delivery of local services and less on local councilors.
Local government is encouraged to do its best with what it has; and only timely release funds to the districts. There, however, remains a grey area; the conspicuous absence of an equivalent organisational set-up for matters generally referred to as “parliamentary affairs”. Lesotho suffers the worst incapacity in this regard. This can be felt at constituency and central government levels. Functional relations between local and central government have to be maintained.
This grey area impacts differently on local communities. There are those who bank more on their MPs who happen to be closer to the powers that be in Maseru, and less on a local councilor who goes only as far as the council and not even up to the district level. This excludes situations where their MP is of a different and probably a hostile political party. It is worse where the councilor is also from another party, and happens to have a bias against some villages. Unfortunately, MPs end up committing themselves to actively facilitate local development projects. At times, MPs pick felt needs which have not been put to the attention of a relevant community council. Under such circumstances, the most such an MP can do is to pose a parliamentary question: whether a Minister is aware of a felt need at some named locality.
It is such questions witch yield departmental answers like: “Yes, the ministry is aware… and the matter will be dealt with as soon as finances permit.” In a well oiled democracy with effective parliamentary oversight, the executive adopts inbuilt mechanisms to whip itself – pick such answers up as assurances; follow up and pin individual ministers to indicate exactly a when those finances will “permit”. Mechanisms like that are designed to ensure planning and responsiveness to promises made in the House. In Lesotho, the tendency is for the onus to remain with the ministry.
Some research on the number of questions and assurances thereof, for any past parliament, could reveal the number of assurances that were fulfilled. In effective parliamentary democracies, and if for any reasons, fulfilment is not possible, assurances have to be referred to the House as a request to drop such assurances. Why does this not happen in Lesotho? It ought to be the responsibility of the ministry responsible for parliamentary affairs; which would also follow up ministries on pending questions and progress on motions passed by the two Houses. Statistics of this nature are a good indicator of how responsive to promises made in the House ministers are. That would reveal representatives who keep ministers on their feet. This could be extended to maintain some information on how many interventions each MP made in matters relating to Agriculture, Health, Trade etc. It is such details if kept to help determine which MP gets assigned to be on which parliamentary delegation.
To add to this grey area, House Standing Orders prohibit the asking (repetition) of a question that was fully answered in the same session. The Lesotho constitution also establishes a parliament with only one session [unless parliament gets prorogued]. That compels an enthusiastic MP to wait for the next parliament to formally inquire, if re-elected, in the house, about an assurance made in the preceding sessions. These and many other shortcomings restrict oversight – giving government ample space to hide its ineffectiveness from parliament.
How central government handles/views/treats/approaches local authorities is very important. The wrong attitude can actually render local structures ineffective or irrelevant. The 8th Parliament had a sad example. The CityMlum [indigenous name]road project was imposed regardless of priorities of the district and local community councils. Yellow plant was deployed and a good road was actually constructed, but not completed. This was wrong in that the unmentioned reason for such intervention was politically motivated: to influence an otherwise politically hostile CityMlum community. Such projects have to be channeled through proper structures.
Sadly, this and other similar unfulfilled promises actually angered the adjacent communities as expressed through the 2015 election results. There will definitely be an uphill struggle for the concerned party to win the confidence of those mistreated communities. The next elections – local and parliamentary – will definitely demonstrate this.
Allocation of funding for development continues to largely, and correctly so, remain with the central government. Local authorities only submit proposals and look up to the centre which has the final say. Lately, some communities are keen and sense the direction which final allocations follow. It is this, and other causes, which determine shifts in party loyalties during elections, regardless of popular philosophies etc. This can be read in the pattern of election results lately. Unfulfilled promises add to this.
Lesotho ought to swiftly adapt and adopt good parliamentary practices to be abreast with 21st century democratic trends. Relations between central and local institutions have to be perfected. Could there be any sound reason against representation of district councils in the Senate of Lesotho? That would also give Senate a lighter complexion by adding some election dimension to the House which has remained undemocratic ever since. There ought to exist some Local Development Fund to empower both MPs and Local authorities to exercise some independent say in the financing of some small local initiatives. That would develop some trust between MPs and local councilors who can jointly be viewed as agents of change through working together.
The question of a vibrant Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs deserves either the sympathy or better understanding of governments. Parliament itself has to decentralize and have a formal constituency office manned by at least one employee of parliament who can read a draft bill to prepare local inhabitants for their inputs- where an MP somehow is incapacitated. Locals deserve to be prepared intellectually for the visits of portfolio committees.
While the 9th Parliament holds the key, it ought to have already assembled some behind-the-curtains teams already, to just think aloud about the various reform issues. Reliance on imported consultants and our often grand committees has only delivered us to where we are today. A committee may not originate an idea and work on it alone. There has to be a formal recommendation from different minds. If the constitution gets improved to provide for distinct sessions of parliament, that will definitely impact on both parliament and the executive. Lesotho has not to be told that by a consultant from elsewhere. Similarly, could it make any difference if National Assembly and Local Government elections had separate IECs if their terms continue to run as at present?
The question of being a democratic kingdom is another matter of thought as it raises the issue of monarchy in a democracy. As it is now, His Majesty only delivers speeches from the throne and gives royal assent to bills passed by the two Houses. Speech from the throne is followed by a debate of a motion of Thanks, for its delivery. It is doubtful if there is any working mechanism to ensure that His majesty gets to formally know the views of MPs on issues contained in His speech? A vibrant democracy has to ensure that; at times necessitating a concerned minister to come back to formally address the House on some expressed views on His Majesty`s speech. The motion of Thanks can be amended to express or flag some lack of confidence in the government which is supposed to implement the contents of the speech. Effective oversight starts with the parliamentary opening speech and not to wait for oversight committees. Standing Orders further provide for communication between the two Houses and not with His Majesty`s office. This has to be reviewed; but as a monarchy and not a republic or presidency which subject head of state to elections.