PRIME Minister Thomas Thabane declared 30 September 2017 as the date for local government elections earlier this month.
The local government polls will also coincide with by-elections for constituencies in Berea district.
In this wide-ranging interview with Lesotho Times reporter Pascalinah Kabi, political analyst Nthakeng Pheello Selinyane talks about the significance of local government elections in a democratic dispensation.
LT: Briefly take us through the history of local government structures in Lesotho.
Selinyane: The local government was introduced in Lesotho during colonial times, with the first district councils (DCs) established in 1960. The first nine DCs were contested by the main parties of the time which were Basotho Congress Party (BCP), Basotho National Party (BNP) and Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP).
It was a well-known fact that certain councils were ruled by certain parties.
In a democratic dispensation, the local government takes on the political complexion of the society; clearly reflecting on the followership of each party in a certain place. If it is given the due powers that it has, then the parties are able to appeal to the local populations with their policies in a way that enhances their visibility and likeability.
Again, it plays into a national appeal of such parties from the local population so that, if you have a certain government which is “anti-people”, that should be the universal complexion of a government population or state-community relation.
In the 1960s, the DCs were dominated by the BCP with six, followed by BNP with two and MFP with one. They were eventually dissolved in 1968 due to the national level fights in which the BCP was resisting the BNP government’s rule. The BCP was very powerful then at the local government level and the 1968 Chieftainship Act and the 1970 Order increasingly brought the chieftainship as the only local authority under central government.
The government of the moment established the Village District Committees (VDCs) which were mainly partisan like the food for work projects and did not accommodate other people.
The military government brought back those councils now as Village Development Councils Orders only in 1989 and like the BNP ones, they were elected in an apolitical sphere because the military government prohibited political activities.
In short, they did not have any effect until 1994 when others were elected under the BCP government, leading to the 1997 Local Government Act.
LT: What is local government and its role in a democratic dispensation?
Selinyane: Local government has two aspects to it and has to always be understood as such. At one point or level, it is a government as the names implies, a terrain for power contests and exercise or domination of people’s lives; which is what politics and governance is about.
At another level, local government is also like a corporate body that dispenses services and has a patronage or market like every other corporation that is a service provider.
As a corporate body, it has connotation of efficiency and effectiveness like every other corporate enterprise so that you have an expectation that it will supply you with infrastructure, services like education and health and security; and that those services will be available in amounts required by the populace.
For example, when a community requires five police officers, they should not be given one police officer. This applies to clinics with good supplies of medication and medical staff.
Now that is a challenge you would expect anybody who introduces local government as parliament, will be looking at and you would also expect that the consumers of the local government – either as the power-play center or service dispensing corporation – would like to judge it as well.
I specifically talk of parliament because I do not think that local government is a gift to the central government because both governments are the creators of the constitution.
The Local Government Act is known that it will be fashioned to parliament by the central government, which is where in our practice and every other practices that I know of that the laws are crafted by the parliament. But you see in making the law, parliament should also have in mind that they should make the law only in the spirit of the constitution; hence they are giving the local government to the people which they can withdraw at any point in time and which they can use in the way that they like according to their subjective way of how they like it. They are however failing to use in the spirit of what it was meant for as another level of government.
If you understand this as a legislature, a conduit to the executive to send services and exercise control, then it might be different altogether from what is going to become and understand it as a different sphere of government which has a particular prescribed level of authority on the local populace as well as channels of accountability to the authority.
So those are going to be problematic in the conceptualisation of local government.
LT: Why are local councils stagnant and unable to discharge their duties 10 years after the enactment of the local Government Act?
Selinyane: The Local Government Act gave the councils the powers to establish themselves as corporate bodies and mobilise local resources but only subject to the sanction of the minister. A lot of their functions were good which include establishing markets, tax local trade and usage of local resources by selling trees and sand to mention a few.
But the problem is that all those had to be done subject to the sanction or permission of the then Local Government minister Pontšo Sekatle. The problem is that the minister did not quite like the idea and ensured that everything would be done through the approval of by-laws.
If not in all the cases, she did not approve the by-laws knowing that the councils cannot function without the approval of the bylaws. The bylaws are drawn by the councils but can only be enforced after being approved by the minister and when the minister does not approve, those functions in the Local Government Act are as good as dead.
I think it was very naughty for the minister to have included in the law that those powers shall not be exercised only after her approval. So a lot of councils remained dysfunctional with the eminent conjecture of that dysfunction prohibiting families to bury their loved ones in residential areas.
We had two cases where local councils – Thabana-Morena (that one of a family related to former Minister Lebohang Ntšinyi) and Maluba-lube Communication Council which lost a case to former ABC (All Basotho Convention) Member of Parliament ‘Mamandla ‘Musa – because the minister had not approved the bylaws so that the councils would exercise their powers to tell people where to bury their loved ones.
This is despite the fact that the local councils already have the powers in the Act for burial but such powers cannot be exercised in the absence of the bylaws approved by the minister.
This was a painful political blow because the ‘Musa bereavement was part of those rallying points for the ABC and the minister or the then ruling party – Lesotho Congress for Democracy – would very much have loved to see these people disappointed by the ruling.
The minister denied herself the victory by not approving the councils’ bylaws thinking that the councils were not going to be obedient.
Another thing that is seriously handicapped in that 1997 Act is that the minister also has the powers to dissolve councils elected by the people in one stroke of a pen and I don’t think I like that because it is completely undemocratic.
I think there was one outstanding incident since the establishment of the local councils in 2005. We conducted a study on behalf of the Lesotho Council of Non-Governmental Organisations (LCN) looking at the service delivery in the context of decentralisation.
We found that there was high participation in local government with three committees – Finance, Water and Land – and there was a lot of local cooperation yet the committees did not have own bank accounts and had to get permission from the ministry to open one.
I don’t know if there is a single local government effectiveness that we can point to and we are going into the local government elections with problems surrounding demarcations of councils and this could have implications for other resources.
LT: Why is Lesotho going for local government elections without addressing these serious problems?
Selinyane: Let us take the prevailing frameworks that are not being implemented – the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP), Vision 2020, National Goals and Objectives and National Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). Local government belongs in that group.
The local government can be a framework for the government to make Lesotho an investment destination and a darling of whatever remains of the donor community.
So the political leadership should use local government as a tool for decentralisation and deepening of democracy. Everyone wants to be regarded as democratic and that is what they are using local government for.
Among other things that government does is to tax people, make laws yet the local government of Lesotho does not make laws nor tax people. It also does not provide services because they lack resources and it fails as a government and service delivery corporation.
They get their money from central government which goes through the District Administrator (DA) who works with District Council Secretary – employed by the central government and gives the money to community councils who never have their own budget.
In a lot of situations when you find these constraints, you also find that the District Council Secretary makes purchases on behalf of community councils through corrupt means. For example, we once found a situation where laptops were bought for community councils yet they never said they needed them. The laptops were after all second-hand.
So this is sheer populism. The fact the prime minister has convened the elections while there is a court case challenging the premier’s role as a player and referee shows the continuation of that tradition. The new government could have resolved not to go ahead with the court case so that His Majesty could have been declared as the only one to call for elections.
LT: Why is the central government seemingly reluctant to relinquish powers to the local structures as stated in the Local Government Act?
Selinyane: They are not committed to it because we do not have as yet a political culture of accountability in our leadership. Our leaders still very much like to exercise powers that are known only to themselves. This is evident in the corrupt awarding of contracts, jobs and other privileges to families and cronies.