THE intrigues in the battle for the Senate presidency have been hogging the limelight in recent weeks. They culminated in Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso losing the election to ’Mamonaheng Mokitimi.
Thaba-Bosiu Principal Chief Khoabane Theko was in the thick of the fray after openly expressing support for Ms Mokitimi. Chief Theko stated that they voted for Ms Mokitimi to end the perception that the upper house was only the domain of chiefs.
In this wide-ranging interview, Chief Theko talks to Lesotho Times (LT) reporter Pascalinah Kabi on the recent events in the upper house.
LT: Many people regard you as a controversial character. Is that a fair characterisation?
Khoabane: Some say when you are silent, you are regarded as redundant and cannot be part of the chieftaincy that they want; you should speak up and should protect the people when you see their rights being trampled upon. This is what I think the people want. But others say: “Oh Khoabane is so controversial and he tells as it is.” This is the character of my family. Even my father and my grandfathers were also taken like that, we are a very outspoken people; I have taken after them and I never really want to bury issues and not say them in the open because it is like you are being hindered and if that makes me controversial, so be it. I do not regret being this way, I am not ashamed of being like that and I don’t know what other people define as controversy because I am always described as controversial.
LT: What is the principle mandate of the Senate as the upper house of Lesotho’s parliament?
Khoabane: The nature of bicameralism of our parliament makes the Senate to play the oversight role on the performance of the governance through a question and answer session. This is whereby senators pose questions and ministers answer such questions.
The other mandate is also to endorse or amend laws that come from the National Assembly which is the house that makes laws. We do not have laws that emanate from the Senate, they are always from the National Assembly. We do not have what we call private members’ bill in the Senate where we can really start the law.
We are a review chamber; to ask the owners of the laws whether they are sure that the bills are really up to scratch. For this mandate to be carried out properly, the Senate needs to be really vibrant and dynamic because we are doing an advisory work to the people that would be experts in different fields. I think that is the pivotal role the Senate plays – to compliment the National Assembly.
LT: With your experience as a college of chiefs whip, what would you say is lacking in the Senate that needs to be urgently addressed?
Khoabane: The issue of people who we call experts or interest groups should not pass only as ministers into the cabinet through the Senate. We should have permanent members like the clergy, farmers, doctors, retired judges, media and people of all expertise so that we can help the Senate to uplift its workmanship and its response to the challenges facing Lesotho.
To date, you can see that all the people who came as Senate members have all passed on to the cabinet and they are not going to have our time anymore. They just come during question and answer question or when maybe they have to come and pass the law or pilot the bill inside the Senate; otherwise you never see them in the Senate.
So we are left a little bit vulnerable or alone. I don’t think it would be too much to ask for 10 more people in the Senate; even people from the media so that they can help us when we pass media laws. The media should not come to lobby us, they should have a representative in there; doctors and farmers alike and all people of key population areas like the disabled.
This would be a very good chamber that we safely and proudly call the reviewing chamber. We have received a backlash from some quarters of society saying that we have put a commoner at the helm of the Senate and I have and would still continue to defend the decision because this is not the chieftaincy house; it is a reviewing chamber and it is only that Basotho have respected the chieftaincy to put such a big number (22 chiefs). This is sometimes a little bit of residual nature because others are just not participating at all.
I put my head on the block here, there are people who come for five years, sit there and say nothing in the Senate hence our business is a little bit vulnerable. We would be rendered redundant in the future if we do not address this matter urgently. We are trying to address this problem by educating our children to give them a better shot at doing a better job in the Senate if at all the house would still be in existence.
We need to take this matter in consideration during the national reform agenda that these 11 members should not only use this house as an entry point to the cabinet or for the government; it should be for the Senate so that it can perform its oversight role in a proper manner.
LT: With your parliamentary experience, would you say the Senate is carrying out its mandate as efficiently as it should be?
Khoabane: So far so good but there are lots of challenges. Top of the list is the lack of education in our midst. The Senate is primarily made of 22 principal chiefs and unfortunately in the past we were not afforded a chance to learn or chiefs maybe chose not to learn because they thought that their bread was already buttered. So you will find that we have those types of shortcomings.
However, we do try our best and maybe one would like to talk to the fact of using the house as a conduit for people who have failed in the elections and the government needs them in the cabinet. They do not really come to supplement or help the chieftaincy to review the laws that are emanating from the National Assembly.
We have been deprived of education either by ourselves or parents. Besides this, there are no other challenges that one would really say are an impediment for us to the job but what helped us is the usage of both Sesotho and English on the order papers. This helps those who can only read in Sesotho.
LT: Last week’s Senate presidency and deputy presidency elections were clouded with controversy, probably the first in history. What’s your take?
Khoabane: I don’t know how one would define the word controversy because I thought everything was normal as any other day. You will remember that in 2015 we saw Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso defeating Chief Letapata Makhaola for the presidency seat while former deputy president Futho Hoohlo defeated our incumbent president ‘Mamohaneng Mokitimi. There was nothing really controversial but the two gentlemen did not work things well during their term.
In his incoming speech in 2015, Mr Futho said he would work harmoniously with Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso but we saw them drifting apart in these two years with Mr Futho thinking that maybe it was about time he challenged for the presidency. He did not really work his mathematics well because you saw him getting nine seats, so was Ntate Mantata (Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso) and that gave Mrs Mokitimi an advantage which was not numbers really from the chiefs. The chiefs had five in addition to the eight members from the government which Mrs Mokitimi lobbied hence she won with 13 votes.
I would really say there were normal elections. You know in every competition there is always a winner and there was no controversy as such, it was only a three-horse race this time rather two in the past.
LT: When Lesotho first introduced local governance through the 1997 Local Government Act and at that time there was a strong discomfort from the chiefs saying councillors would take over their powers. As Lesotho heads for Local Government elections, can you safely say that both parties are working in harmony and if not what needs to be done to ensure that the two work together?
Khoabane: We have come, maybe, to take some little comfort because there is no power that is attributed to the councillors. The central government is totally putting their cards close to their chests. The councils do collect revenue but they have no budget really to perform on the grassroots because the central government seems to be reluctant to do so.
I cannot say it is a comfort but I would like to bring more harmony to chieftaincy. When this started we went to the late former prime minister Ntsu Mokhehle and said “look during the time of the military rule, we had chiefs as chairmen for these bodies because we understood that the chiefs should not really come to sort a friction with his councils.”
If he sits there and listens to people debate, it is more elegant but once he participates, he considers his own power and sometimes he could be derailed.
So we really need to work hard to harmonise the role of chieftaincy and local government. For instance, in the councils there are 16 members and only two of them are chiefs and that really pulverises their work because of their number.
One would like to see harmony between the two because people need to govern themselves and have a right to make a decision on the things that affect them. If ever a chief intervenes because of his chieftaincy powers, it makes it a sort of a problem but all in all I would be very comfortable the day a central government lets the councils have their own powers. That is to determine which café, the roads and all the revenue collection should come into their own treasury, not always waiting for central government to give them something. It undermines democracy to do that.
LT: Chieftaincy is fast becoming politicised by some quarters of the society, with some chiefs believed to be pro-congress while others are perceived as pro-nationalists.
Khoabane: I think it is a big discomfort for the chiefs if it is really happening but people mistake and expect chiefs not to participate in politics as something bizarre; thinking that they should remain in the middle not going south or north.
However, the issue is that when maybe I speak to Ntate Tom Thabane (All Basotho Convention – ABC leader and Prime Minister) and I am seen with him, people think that I am an ABC supporter and when people see Ntate Mantata speaking to Ntate Pakalitha Mosisili (Democratic Congress leader) people make conclusions and that is not the right way.
I take a stance when people badmouth the chieftaincy and the congress seem to have been in that habit for many years and when one talks back, it is like one hates them. When one shows them that they have that hatred, they say you have that hatred and it is a little bit surrounded by controversy but one is very cautious of this.
You see I still have an election ink mark on my finger and people do not know which party I voted for but they will definitely say I have voted for a nationalist party. Indeed, since time immemorial, I have been in a good relationship with Ntate Thabane and that makes other people think that I am his supporter.