MASERU — Local Government Minister Ponts’o Sekatle last year accused former US Ambassador to Lesotho, Robert Nolan, of betraying her by engaging in a public outreach campaign around the Land Reform Bill.
According to United States diplomatic cables released two weeks ago, Nolan described Sekatle as having displayed “an aggressive attitude” towards him during a meeting on February 3 to discuss the Land Bill 2010.
“Sekatle’s attitude during the meeting and unwillingness to listen to any concerns about the Land Bill not only confirm her image as one of the Government of Lesotho (GOL) hardliners,” Nolan says of Sekatle in the cable.
The Wikileaks cable was created and filed on February 16, 2010 by American Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Elizabeth C Power.
In the meeting, Nolan says Sekatle expressed her sense of “betrayal” and shock at the American Embassy’s public diplomacy efforts around the “contentious land reform Bill that is currently before parliament”.
“Sekatle stated that the public letter written by MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) explaining the United States government’s role in the land debate was improper interference in Lesotho’s domestic politics,” Nolan notes.
The Bill was granted royal ascent in June 2010 to become law.
Prior to it being passed, the Bill had been fiercely opposed by the opposition, who felt it was meant to steal land from Basotho and give it to foreign investors.
In early March 2010, opposition MPs, including All Basotho Convention’s Thomas Thabane, walked out of parliament in protest during the Bill’s second reading.
They accused the LCD government of trying to railroad the Bill through parliament without thoroughly consulting the public.
According to Nolan, Sekatle also stated that the US embassy’s public diplomacy campaign was an expression of a lack of confidence in her “personal ability to get the Bill passed” as required by the terms of the MCC compact.
“Noting that the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) holds a majority in parliament she (Sekatle) said, ‘I told you I would drive this Bill through parliament’,” Nolan says in the cable.
Nolan adds that Sekatle also stressed that there had been no need for the embassy “to take action relating to land reform”.
Nolan describes Sekatle’s “combative attitude” regarding the land Bill, lack of public engagement on the issue of land reform, and disregard for the concerns of the opposition as lending “credence to her image as one of the cabinet’s ardliners”.
In the same cable Nolan describes Foreign Affairs Minister Mohlabi Tsekoa and Communications Minister Mothetjoa Metsing as “moderate”.
“They applauded the embassy for engaging in effective public diplomacy by engaging the opposition on the land Bill,” Nolan says of the two ministers.
Metsing and Tsekoa are members of the LCD executive committee which has come under a barrage of attacks from a faction allegedly linked to Natural Resources Minister Monyane Moleleki.
Metsing is the secretary general while Tsekoa is the deputy chairman. Metsing is believed to be leading the other faction which has been battling for its survival since the LCD succession battles started in 2007.
The infighting reached a crescendo in September 2010 when some LCD constituencies aligned to the Moleleki- led faction sought to disband the executive committee mainly composed of Metsing-led sympathisers.
According to the cable, Nolan seems to believe that the US embassy outwitted Sekatle at her own game by engaging in public diplomacy on the land Bill especially with the opposition.
“We believe that Sekatle’s strategy had been to say that the US Government had forced the land Bill on Lesotho and the GOL had no choice but to accept it,” Nolan says in the cable.
Sekatle’s description of her plan to pass the Bill as “driving it through parliament”, the former ambassador says, indicates that the LCD has no apparent plans for outreach around the Bill, either with the general public or with members of the LCD party.
“Given Lesotho’s history of strict party discipline and an opposition whose role is to simply oppose the government’s proposals, post expects that the LCD will dictate that its members of parliament support the Bill without any further discussion,” Nolan adds.
But Nolan also cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Lesotho government’s strategy to pass the Bill through parliament taking into consideration the fact that LCD members of parliament had not been engaged in a meaningful discussion around the land Bill.
“It is not clear how much internal explanation of the bill’s component and history has been done for LCD members of parliament, who have not participated in any of post’s public outreach activities thus far,” Nolan says in the cable.
“It is likely that they have no further information than is available in the press.
“This seeming lack of knowledge, when combined with an LCD power base that is centered in the rural areas of the country where land reform is particularly contentious and misunderstood, could be quite explosive.”
In the cable Nolan warns that the ruling party was risking a revolt from its MPs if party members decide to join the opposition in rejecting the land reform to appease their rural constituents.
When contacted for comment on her alleged attitude during the meeting with Nolan, Sekatle fiercely denied attacking the former envoy but added she was “only putting my point across”.
“It was my way of getting him to realize the confusion they had caused,” Sekatle said yesterday. Sekatle added that the US embassy had engaged the opposition “behind the government’s back”.
“But then things went wrong and they called a press conference to say they had not been involved in pushing to speed up the passage of the land Bill in parliament,” Sekatle said.
If anything the US government was the one pressurising Lesotho to ensure a speedy and smooth passage of the land Bill through parliament, she said.
“They wanted us to push for the land Bill to pass through parliament in April last year. Things did not work out as they would have wanted. They had to find a way to clean their image,” Sekatle said.