US agency speaks out on Land Bill

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MASERU — The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) says if the controversial Land Bill is not passed into law it will have to withdraw USUS$20.5 million (about M149.7 million) earmarked for the administration of the land reform process in Lesotho.
The MCC, a US government agency, has come under fire from politicians and civic society leaders who accuse it of masterminding the crafting of the Land Bill which they allege is meant to give Basotho land to foreigners.
Those opposed to the proposed law say it is part of the conditions that MCC set for Lesotho to get a US$362.6 million grant.
The grant from the American government is supposed to fund water, health and land reform projects as well as to alleviate poverty.
Opposition leaders have also accused the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) government of giving in to the demands of the aid agency just to get the grant.
But the MCC has said the Land Bill was not of its making, insisting instead that the Lesotho government specifically undertook to reform its land tenure system when it submitted its proposal for the grant. 
MCC resident country director, Gene MacDonald, told a meeting of stakeholders on the land issue yesterday at Lancers’ Inn that if the Bill is not passed the corporation will have to withhold funds that had been budgeted for land reform under the grant.
“If the Land Bill 2009 will not have been passed by 17 September 2013, the MCC will have no choice but to withdraw the five percent, or approximately US$20.5 million of the grant, meant specifically for land reform administration in Lesotho,” MacDonald said.
She said allegations that the MCC had a hand in the crafting of the Land Bill were wrong.
“We find it important to clarify that we have absolutely no role whatsoever in the Land Bill 2009,” MacDonald said.
She said land reform was only one of the 17 projects that were meant to be covered by the grant.
“MCC understands the sensitivity of land issues in Lesotho,” she said.
“But our clear position is that the US$362.6 million grant to fund the Lesotho compact does not solely revolve around land reform.
“We did not specifically ask that land reform be included in the compact, but the Lesotho government did so in its proposal.
“We only agreed to fund it along with 16 other projects featuring in the compact.”
The implementation of the compact, MacDonald said, was entirely in the hands of the Basotho people.
“The implementation of the compact is entirely in the hands of the Basotho people,” she said.
“Ours is to assist and oversee the success of the rest of the projects.”
According to MacDonald, the issue of whether or not foreign individuals and companies should be entitled to hold formal land rights in Lesotho was a decision to be made by the Basotho nation.
“Let me state that MCC does not have a formal position on the question of who should have rights to hold land in Lesotho,” she said.
“Compact funding does not depend on allowing foreigners to purchase land.”
MacDonald said the Land Bill and other land reform issues must be made through Lesotho’s democratic processes.
“After passing the eligibility trials Lesotho was identified as qualifying to sign the compact,” she said.
“The country therefore submitted a proposal stating projects to be funded by the MCA grant.
“There was a significant amount of consultation before the compact was approved.
“Besides the land reform administration, the grant will be used to fund poverty reduction projects in Lesotho.”
Addressing the same meeting, MCC deputy resident country director, Brian Baltimore, said the compact was not imposed on the country.
“As far as I know when the compact was signed in January 2008, it was not meant to be imposed as was, but was domesticated into the country’s law as should be done with other international conventions and compacts,” he said.
“Land reform, therefore, is not a necessary requirement for the compact to be implemented.
“We are not about abolishing your laws.
“Ours is ensuring that major requirements are upheld.
“There is nothing within the compact implying that there are conditions which should supersede your laws.
“It is up to Basotho to determine what should be done.”
Also at the meeting was the Basutoland African Congress treasurer, Lebohang Hatase, who said the compact and the Bill must be translated into Sesotho to be understood by everyone.
“Before implementing the compact, it must be translated into our language,” Hatase said.
“We must make sure that our people understand its conditions and agree to what they thoroughly comprehend.
“But that is not the case now.
“The panic currently reigning is a clear indication that no thorough consultation has been carried out.
“People have not read the documents — therefore, we cannot assess their understanding.
“Passing the Bill will be to this nation’s detriment.”
Hatase added that parliament was creating more complications by refusing to address the issue of the Bill in a proper manner.
“Parliament has stubbornly refused to address this issue,” he said.
“Democratic processes have not been followed.
“We therefore urge the MCC to be kind enough to talk to the government of Lesotho to reconsider the passage of the Bill and do things by the book.”
Futho Hoohlo, a member of the public at the meeting, pleaded with the MCC to take a firm stand instead of shying away from local politics by withdrawing the grant until Lesotho had sorted out “its false parliament”.
“We urge the MCC to take a firm stand instead of shying away from local politics,” he said.
“You are well aware that Lesotho is currently involved in the conflict surrounding the allocation of PR (proportional representation) seats in parliament.
“The majority in the parliament of Lesotho, composed of individuals who happen to be the people who are going to determine what happens to our land, is false.
“If America subscribes to principles of democracy, the grant should be withdrawn until such a time that Lesotho has cleaned its house by upholding democracy through correcting the current parliament.
“Continue with the other 16 projects and shelve the land administration reform part of the compact.”
The deputy leader of the Marematlou Freedom Party, Mphosi Matete, said as much as Basotho appreciated the help from the Americans to fight poverty in the country, it was wrong for the MCC to attempt to speed up the process of passing the Land Bill.
“By being in a hurry, you are promoting inefficiency,” Matete said.
“Please, tell the US government to withhold its money until necessary democratic requirements are met.
“Only then can we consider Americans as friends because ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’.”
MacDonald said although they were firm on their stance of not becoming involved in local politics, they were aware of concerns regarding the Land Bill and they would try to advise the government of Lesotho.
“We do not want to become involved in local politics,” she said.
“But we assure you that we have been aware of similar concerns for quite some time.
“The best we can do is to communicate your fears to and advise the government of Lesotho.”

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