Just before the Lesotho parliament was dissolved ahead of the general election in February 2015, the then (and still) Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) provoked a social media storm by suggesting, in parliament, that government would have to pay off the interest free loans that legislators had taken as part of their benefits. This, he was quoted as saying, would ensure the MPs who fail to retain their seats do not default on their payments. It would also act as an added incentive for legislators to agree to the dissolution of the then 2 year old 8th parliament.
At face value, this seemed to defy all political logic coming from a man cast as venal and greedy in both mainstream and social media circles. One would have thought the scandals in which he was embroiled would make him a fraction careful with what he says as he tries to endear himself to the public and hopefully do well in the election. But again, the whole thing seemed to fit the narrative that the DPM was playing a political trick of sorts, and trying to make friends on both sides of the political aisle as he projects himself as being concerned about the welfare of legislators regardless of their political affiliation.
Be that as it may, the political punditry was that the socio-economic and political dynamics that currently exists in Lesotho would not allow any government to ‘spit on tax payers’ by making such hefty payments on behalf of financially reckless individuals. There would be little to no room for political negligence, arrogance and gluttony of the sort that characterised previous regimes. Fast forward 8 months, the pundits are left with an egg on their faces; all but 2 of the 120 legislators who took out loans of M500, 000 (34750 USD) each, have now had these debts fully settled by the government of Lesotho.
The fact that the government has forked out M32 million on behalf of these individuals is a clear indication of the level of rot that has for so long hindered this country’s progress. We are aware of the notion that this may not qualify as ‘corruption’ because government fulfilled its legal obligation as the guarantor, to pay off the loans in the event that MPs were defaulting or likely to default. But so far the evidence that MPs are in fact failing to service their debts has not been presented. For all we know, many of these guys are back in parliament while some are currently gainfully employed elsewhere. Even if these were not the case, it is morally objectionable for the country that consumes so huge a chunk of donor funding, is failing to reign on the spread of HIV/AIDS, violent crime, the bourgeoning graduate unemployment, crumbling basic education and healthcare systems and has its public infrastructure reeling in the shocking state of disrepair, to spend over 2 million USD writing off the debts of individual legislators.
It should be borne in mind that access to the interest-free loans does not reflect the generosity of the banks, but that of the Lesotho government towards the people who are, by national standards, already earning much higher than the majority of the tax-payers. These are the people who on top of their salaries have each a daily lunch allowance of 250 Maloti (18 USD). To put it in perspective, each MPs weekly allowance for lunch is equivalent to an average monthly salary of Lesotho’s textile factory worker.
What makes this even more morally apprehensible is that the “honourable” members who have failed to do the honourable thing of paying their debts are now said to be “entitled” to more interest-free loans. In other words, a bad debt is written off and rewarded with access to more debt, again with government as the guarantor. This is happening in the context in which 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, and where the government is said to be unable to sponsor all students admitted at various higher learning institutions, particularly the National University of Lesotho. These payments are being effected by the very government leaders who, as recently as April this year, complained about the fiscal irresponsibility of the previous administration, and as a result slashed the budget by approximately M3 billion with capital budget suffering the most.
Sadly, this is not the first time the legal framework is being used to justify the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. As recently as 2006/7, the Lesotho government invoked an obscure regulation to allow statutory employees to purchase its luxury cars for less than 5% of their current value; pricey Mercedes Benz cars were bought for as little as M4000 /280 USD (which is equivalent to what each MP earns as an allowance for lunch in 3 weeks). That caused a huge public furore in the urban areas and partly accounts for the modest performance in the 2007 snap election of the then recently formed All Basotho Convention (ABC).
Any law, policy or regulation that enables a government to do what the Lesotho government did in 2006 or inherit the private debts of individual legislators as it is currently doing, is intrinsically ‘corrupt’. Indeed as Dan Kaufmann argues, corruption includes “some acts that may be legal in a strict narrow sense, but where the rules of the game and the state laws, policies, regulations and institutions” have been shaped in ways that privilege private interests (of especially the ruling elite). In other words, corruption is not only confined to the output side of the political process, wherein officials violate laws, regulations and procedures for private gain. It encompasses the building and maintenance of a corruption-prone legal framework in order to promote and protect the interests of the political elites and their cronies. It is this type of corruption that cripples the entire political process and renders democracy meaningless for a majority of ordinary citizens.
The foregoing notwithstanding- and herein lies the conundrum- even if Lesotho’s laws explicitly prohibited these actions, there are grounds to suspect the government would have still gone ahead and executed its corrupt intentions. There are several incidences in which state officers blatantly ignored the laws when their private interests were at stake. Recent examples include refusals by the former Communications’ minister and the current commander of Lesotho Defence Forces (LDF) to vacate offices after they were legally removed. The LDF has defied several court orders in the past and recently failed to comply with the ruling to release the soldiers suspected of mutiny and hold them in open arrest. An audio clip that airs regularly in one of the local radio stations features the former Minister of Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs (and currently, minister of Defence) as stating that ‘It DOESN’T MATTER WHAT THE LAW SAYS; no one has the right to prorogue our parliament ”. These are the indicators of the level of systemic corruption that characterises the political economy of Lesotho. In this country, laws and regulations do not mean much (if anything) when they are seen to clash with the interests of the government of the day or powerful individuals within it.
This is the context within which political pundits ought to have interpreted the DPM’s bold contention that government ought to inherit the debts of individual legislators. Seen in light of systemic corruption, that behaviour was not irrational or ill-advised. The suggestion came from the place of assurance that in a country where corruption is not an aberration, but a system in its own right, he would not suffer major political consequences. It is the same assurance that underpins Prime Minister Mosisili’s decision to spend- without flinching- a whopping 15 million (1 million USD) buying Principal Secretaries out of their contracts because his cabinet is uncomfortable working with senior officers who were employed by the previous administration.
The fish rots from the head down
With an ever increasing access to media, more Basotho, especially the youth, are becoming aware of the extent to which public power is being used to advance private interests. This has severe consequences. Firstly, it is eroding institutional trust and the sense of patriotism especially amongst the youth, at an alarming rate. It is becoming more and more difficult to convince young people to love and serve their country; why should they love the country when the political leadership doesn’t care about it?
Secondly, this rampant political corruption is directly linked to poor service delivery, vandalism and misuse of public resources (cars, telephones etc) by public officers and the increased normalisation of petty corruption by street level bureaucrats. The sharp increases in retail bribes for drivers’ licences and number plates is indicative of the fact that most public officials, taking cues from elected leaders, are (mis)using their positions for illicit financial benefits. This can only end when political leaders get their act together and resolve to collectively stop this rot from spreading further and wrecking more havoc on Lesotho’s fragile economy and politics.
University of Sussex