Africa

Nowhere to run as Lesotho’s prime minister faces an undignified exit

By Peter Fabricius 30 April 2020

File photo: Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane arrives at the White House in Washington DC on 5 August 2014. Photo: Michael Reynolds/(EPA).

Lesotho’s main political party, the ABC, has reportedly given embattled Prime Minister Tom Thabane an ultimatum to resign by this weekend or be ousted by a vote of no confidence in parliament next week.

The ultimatum follows the passing of legislation this week that would deny Tom Thabane the stratagem of dissolving parliament and calling for fresh elections if he loses such a vote of no confidence.

Thabane, 80, seems now to have run out of options to cling to power although the wily politician may yet have another trick up his sleeve. 

Under pressure from the ABC after a series of scandals, culminating in his wife Maesiah being charged for the murder of his ex-wife Lipolelo in 2017, Thabane agreed in January to step down by the end of July.

But his opponents do not trust that promise, especially after he called out the army to protect him 10 days ago, raising fears that he was mounting a de facto military coup to stay in office.

That prompted a visit to Lesotho by ex-cabinet minister Jeff Radebe- acting as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s representative – and an agreement after meeting all the main players that Thabane should be allowed a dignified, graceful and secure retirement.

The agreement did not include a timetable though sources close to the negotiations told Daily Maverick that Thabane would go as soon as the ninth constitutional amendment bill had been passed which would prevent a prime minister dissolving parliament if voted out of office. But Thabane told the Lesotho Times he would not be rushed out of office and would leave in his own time. 

The National Assembly has already passed the ninth constitutional amendment and on Tuesday this week, the Senate also passed it. It now only needs King Letsie’s signature to become law. That could happen as early as this week.  

On Wednesday ABC spokesperson Montoeli Masoetsa told the Lesotho Times that if Thabane did not leave before then, a motion of no confidence in him would be tabled in the National Assembly this coming Monday or soon thereafter. “There is no hiding place for him now,” the paper quoted him as saying. “If he wants to leave disgracefully through a no confidence vote, that is well and good… It’s his choice.”

Thabane himself founded the ABC but most of its MPs have deserted him to join the main opposition Democratic Congress (DC) and other smaller parties in forming a new government in waiting that seems to enjoy a clear majority of the 120 seats in the National Assembly.  

Lesotho Times also quoted DC deputy leader, Motlalentoa Letsosa, saying Thabane must now leave to enable the formation of the new government without any further delays.

“It’s evident that he (Thabane) has to go as he has run out of options. Dissolving parliament is no longer an option for him. If he doesn’t step down voluntarily, we will use the new law to make him leave. He ought to have long gone if he really wanted a graceful and dignified exit,” he said.

And the paper said Thabane suffered another blow when the National Assembly spurned his attempts this week to achieve a six month state of emergency, fearing to give him a leeway to use security agencies to cling to power.

Under the ninth constitutional amendment now passed by both houses, a prime minister who loses a no confidence vote will be forced to resign within three days of such a loss. He would no longer have the option of advising King Letsie III to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections unless that decision were backed by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly’s 120 members.

The bill has also amended Section 83 of the constitution to strip the prime minister of his powers to unilaterally prorogue – suspend-  parliament without the backing of two-thirds of the 120 legislators.

It has also amended Section 90 to enable legislators to be appointed to act in place of the prime minister whenever the latter is absent. Currently, only the deputy prime minister or cabinet ministers can act in place of the prime minister.

The amendment bill was overwhelmingly approved by the National Assembly on 12 March 2020. A week later on 20 March 2020, Thabane unilaterally “prorogued” parliament until 19 June 2020 citing the need to stop large gatherings as part of the fight against the coronavirus (Covid-19). The premier’s critics accused him of really seeking to thwart the bill’s progress. The prorogation effectively stopped the Senate from debating and voting on the bill.

However, on 17 April 2020, the Constitutional Court nullified the prorogation, paving the way for the passage of the ninth constitutional amendment which now seems to be finally bringing Thabane’s turbulent political career to an end. DM

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