The All Basotho Convention (ABC) says Deputy Prime Minister Mathibeli Mokhothu, who leads its main Democratic Congress (DC) coalition partner, should step down from his post if he is charged with human trafficking. The ABC position announced by its secretary-general, Lebohang Hlaele, is the latest indication of growing rifts between the two anchor parties of the current governing coalition which took over government in May 2020.
Mr Hlaele said stepping down would be the honourable thing to do as this is exactly what ABC leader, Thomas Thabane, did in May 2020 when he stepped down from the post of prime minister. Mr Thabane was hauled to court over the 14 June 2017 murder of his ex-wife, Lipolelo Thabane.
He then launched a constitutional court application for an order that he can’t be charged while remained premier. There has been no further action against Mr Thabane despite that he is no longer premier after his party forced him out.
The ABC party position on Mr Mokhothu was communicated by Mr Hlaele, and party spokesperson, Montoeli Masoetsa, at a press conference in Maseru yesterday. Others who attended the press conference were deputy chairperson Chalane Phori, Women’s League chairperson Malelaka Lehohla, the party’s Maseru constituency chairperson Amin Mphethe and Qacha’s Nek chairperson, Bokang Matsipa.
Those who did not attend include deputy leader Professor Nqosa Mahao, chairperson Samuel Rapapa, Deputy secretary Nkaku Kabi and deputy spokesperson, ‘Matebatso Doti. Even though they did not necessarily have to be all present since party positions are supposed to be communicated by the secretary general and the spokesperson, it is also common cause that the ABC is riven by factions. It’s thus not clear whether Prof Mahao backs the position announced by Mr Hlaele.
Mr Rapapa last night told this publication that the press conference had been sanctioned by the party at a meeting of the NEC and district representatives on Monday.
He however, said he had been personally opposed to the holding of the press conference because the party did not hold a similar media briefing when it was announced that coalition partner and Development Planning Minister Selibe Mochoboroane would be charged with treason alongside former Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing and others.
Mr Hlaele and others held the press conference in the wake of allegations of Mr Mokhothu and other senior DC officials’ alleged complicity in human trafficking activities alongside a Pakistani, Rana Qamar.
The allegations are contained in a High Court application by an immigration officer, Mapeete Jonathan, challenging her transfer from Moshoeshoe I Airport to the head office of the immigration department in Maseru.
In her court papers filed last month, Ms Jonathan alleges that she is being transferred as punishment for refusing to allow Mr Qamar to “traffick” two Pakistanis into the country through the airport earlier this year.
She further alleges that she was reliably informed by a fellow immigration officer that Mr Qamar, who is married to a Mosotho woman, is close to Mr Mokhothu and other senior DC officials. He is said to have given the DC six campaign vehicles during the last elections in 2017, giving him leverage over the DC leadership to demand her transfer after she refused the two Pakistanis entry into the country in March this year.
Human trafficking has become a thorny issue in Lesotho and it could cost the country development assistance from the United States government.
Lesotho has been placed in tier three–the lowest tier in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report for 2020.
US Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, is on record saying under normal circumstances, a country in Tier 3 on human trafficking like Lesotho would have already lost all development assistance from the US.
However, she said she had recommended a waiver of any punishment against Lesotho to enable Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro to act on the issue since he had only come to power recently in May this year.
She said Lesotho had until February 2021 to act against trafficking to get the country off Tier 3 and maintain its eligibility for development assistance.
These she said, included passing legislation to combat trafficking as well as ensuring that law enforcement agencies “investigate the many credible allegations of official complicity in human smuggling and human trafficking”.
Such pressure from the US government has pushed the government to take decisive measures against suspected trafficking activities.
The allegations against Mr Mokhothu and the threats by the US government to withdraw crucial development assistance over human trafficking concerns prompted the ABC to address the media on the issue yesterday. But the mere fact that the ABC saw it fit to call a press conference to berate its coalition partner instead of first seeking private discussions first, as would be expected in any cordial working environment, is seen as the latest ample confirmation that all is not well between the governing coalition’s key players.
Speaking at the press briefing, Mr Hlaele, said that the ABC was firmly against human trafficking. He said it was incumbent upon Mr Mokhothu to go to court and clear his name. He said if the deputy prime minister was charged with the crime, the ABC would then sit down to discuss the future of the coalition where the DC is the second biggest party after the ABC.
“We saw the affidavits which talk about the deputy prime minister and DC leader and our understanding is that he should go to court and clear his name,” Mr Hlaele said.
“The ABC despises human trafficking. Our party stands firm in that those who are complicit in the trafficking of people should be taken to court and justice should be done without any mercy. All Basotho regardless of status are equal before the law.
“The ABC clearly understands the demarcations between politics and rule of law hence we say every suspect must be taken to court regardless of their status. We stand against human rights abuses irrespective of who the perpetrator is.
“Our stance is clear that a person is innocent until the courts prove otherwise. When that happens, we will pronounce our stance.”
However, ABC spokesperson, Mr Masoetsa was less diplomatic. He said as soon as the police declared Mr Mokhothu a suspect in human trafficking crimes, he should step down like Mr Thabane had done.
“Now that there is an affidavit (alleging human trafficking against Mokhothu), we expect the police to take it from there with thorough investigations. When the police announce that they have tangible evidence, we will tell him (Mr Mokhothu) to step aside.
“We can’t sacrifice our (ABC) leader (Thabane) and afterwards feel pity for our political rival (Mokhothu).
“Human trafficking is a global crime which our development partners have expressed concerns about, saying our government does not appear to be doing much about it.
“It would be a shame if the trafficking of people emanates from within the government as the harsh decisions which they (development partners) will implement against us will affect even those who have no stake in those issues. We will not support that and we urge the courts to work hard regardless of who is involved,” Mr Masoetsa said.
After Mr Masoetsa’s speech, Mr Hlaele reiterated for the time being the ABC remained in partnership with the DC in government.
He also rubbished allegations that he was behind the trafficking allegations against Mr Mokhothu in order to collapse the government.
“The guilty ones are always first to make noise and look for ways to shift the blame. But the truth is that I have nothing to do with the allegations,” Mr Hlaele said.
The fact that Mr Phori attended the briefing is also a very curious matter. Mr Phori was staunchly opposed to the ABC/DC coalition unless it was led by his political grandmaster, Mr Thabane. He is one of Mr Thabane’s allies agitating for the collapse of the current coalition.
Mr Hlaele on the other hand is also said to be laying the groundwork for his ascendancy to become ABC leader. His newly found dalliance with Mr Phori, with whom he once staunchly fought while Mr Hlaele himself, was still firmly in the Mahao camp, seems noteworthy.
Meanwhile the DC secretary general secretary general Tšitso Cheba could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Last week, he accused unnamed members of the ABC’s NEC of spearheading a smear campaign against Mr Mokhothu.
Although he refused to identify the ABC members, Mr Cheba said his party had received information that “some top officials and partners in the coalition government are behind a smear campaign against the DC and its leadership”.
“We have tried to deal with this matter in a very diplomatic way. We know who is behind the smear campaign that our leader is involved in human trafficking which of course is pure lies.
“Although we cannot mention names for now, we received an intelligence report at the end of October 2020 that there were some senior ABC officials who were planning to launch an attack against the DC and its leadership,” Mr Cheba said.