The Lesotho crisis has been rumbling now for over three years with several individuals trying and ruining their reputations in the process. A concerted process however was begun by SADC in July 2015 when it decided to set up an International Commission of Inquiry to investigate among other things the drivers of the Lesotho instability in general and the murder of Lt. General Mahao by members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) in particular. The Commission led by a respected Botswana Judge, Justice Phumaphi submitted its report to SADC in November 2015 and that was endorsed by the SADC Double Troika in January 2016 in its Summit in Gaborone, Botswana. The Phumaphi Report, as it has come to be known, has now become the basis upon which Lesotho’s international relations with its regional and international partners revolves. Indeed the Phumaphi Report recommendations provide the template which is used for judging whether to provide assistance and trade in those areas where accountability and rule of law are conditions for support.

Even before we venture into the key issues of Phumaphi and the conditionalities, we must remember that in these days of political and security crisis in Lesotho, the country is perhaps in its most vulnerable. There is a huge unemployment crisis which people hardly talk about, but if not dealt with, will explode sooner rather than later. While in the past the largest component of that unemployment rate was largely the unskilled workers, lately it has also ballooned to unemployed graduates. Secondly, statistics have recently indicated, that Lesotho has the 2nd highest HIV/AIDS prevalence in the world. That is a phenomenal challenge for a poverty stricken country which also has no credible health facilities to talk about. Thirdly, as things are the country is facing a huge food shortage as a result of not only unimaginative polices, but also the worst draught we have experienced for decades. Prime Minister Mosisili in December 2015 declared a food emergency and called for food aid from international partners. These are hard times.

Several pointers of our performance indicate that dark days are not far-off unless there is a change in direction. Implementing the Phumaphi Commission Report recommendations has an added urgency since the broader international community is now using that as a yardstick on which Lesotho will be judged. As pointed out in an earlier posting, both the African Union and United peace structures have now joined the campaign to have the Lesotho crisis resolved on the basis of the Phumaphi Report recommendations. Those are applying political and diplomatic pressure. The United States on the other hand is turning in the screws on the economic front. This is most uncomfortable in the context of the fragility of both the economic and political structures of Lesotho.

Key Issues of Phumaphi Report

As mentioned earlier SADC endorsed the recommendations from its Commission in January as per its Communique issued on 19th January 2016. This was reiterated by a subsequent letter to Prime Minister Mosisili in March 2016 where he was given timelines for implementing the decisions. The most significant of those decisions are essentially four:

  1. a) Relieve Kamoli of the Command of the LDF because of his alleged involvement in the crimes not only of High Treason, murder and violations of rule of law in other instances but also the perception that he is a divisive character within the force. A precondition for security review requires that the person who is at the centre of the crisis must give way lest he frustrates and interferes with the process;
  2. b) Restore the rule of law by suspending all those in the LDF who have cases ranging from High Treason to murder while their cases are being further investigated. The physical evidence which they have must be handed over to investigators. It’s normal in any democratic system that while investigations are undertaken those who can destroy or contaminate evidence must be removed from their positions;
  3. c) Ensure the return of the exiled opposition political leaders in conditions of security. In addition ensure that all exiled Basotho are provided with a safe return to the country;
  4. d) Undertake Constitutional, public sector and security review in order to minimise the recurrence of the situation in the future.

These are straight forward issues which any government which does not have blood on its hands should be able to accept unconditionally. The fact however is that for some in the government are deeply involved in the above transgressions by those elements in the LDF who are now the focus. But for others, there is unimaginable fear of Kamoli’s potential retribution if his carefully constructed haven was blown away. They are really afraid!

Enter the Americans! Future of Agoa Eligibility for Lesotho

As we are aware AGOA was enacted by the US in 2000 for qualifying African States to facilitate and improve duty free access to the US. From the beginning, AGOA was conditional on states to be committed to the observance of the rule of law; make efforts to combat corruption; have economic policies to reduce poverty; and protect workers’ rights. It was thus a reward for those countries which are focused on improving the livelihoods of their people. Market access has been a major reason for some of the factories which have moved to the different factory shells in Lesotho over the past decade. Statistics indicate that around 40,000 jobs have been created as a result of market access to the US. Granted those are low wage factory jobs, but in a country beset by high unemployment and poverty, that is not something that can be sniffed off. The overall impact around the factories and in those areas the workers come from has been observable.

One of the issues which is part of the AGOA framework is the periodic reviews that determine continued qualification. This is not an arrangement where once one is in they continue to have access. Thus the relevance of the Phumaphi Report for Lesotho’s continued qualification. Even before the report was endorsed by SADC, another US government institution (MCC) which had previously granted Lesotho over US$300 and was considering a new compact, raised the alarm about the rule of law in Lesotho. It made it clear that it was expecting clear progress in implementing the Phumaphi Report recommendations in issues of accountability and reigning in the LDF to be under civilian control. When those discussions were going on, some in the Lesotho government were arguing that there is no relationship between that and AGOA. They seemed to think that now that AGOA has been extended, it would not raise any concerns. Lesotho’s Finance Minister, ‘Mamphono Khaketla operating under this uninformed basis went so far as to tell Parliament in February 2016 that: “ I am happy to report that our trade relationship with the US remains strong and there is no threat to Lesotho’s continued Agoa eligibility”.

She overdid her emphasis because AGOA, as already pointed out, just like MCC are conditional facilities which can be withdrawn if a party to them fails the review. The ringing bells should have sounded to Khaketla, when she received a letter from MCC on Lesotho’s continued participation in MCC and the issues about Phumaphi Report. But she should have trembled when on the 19th January 2016, US Ambassador to Botswana became the first dignitary to have visited SADC Secretariat and received the Report. He went further to state clearly that the US supports SADC on the Lesotho issue. Institutions which are funded by the US government may be many but they do not have walls around each other. They communicate. But more importantly, they are instruments of US policy. Let those who don’t know learn!

In a major blow to Lesotho recently, Ambassador Froman, US Trade Representative in a letter to Lesotho Trade Minister, Setipa spelled out that the current review of Lesotho’s eligibility for 2016 is confirmed but for 2017 eligibility will depend on the monitoring of the restoration of the rule of law and specifically the implementation of the Phumaphi Report recommendations. Lest the point is not clear, Froman went to specifics. He pointed out that the US would focus on security sector reform aimed at transforming the LDF into a professional army. “…security sector reform process that seeks to transform the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) into professional and cohesive institution that is fully subject to civilian control, respect the rule of law, and enjoys the confidence of Basotho.” He goes on to deal with the allegations of torture of the detained soldiers and whether they are accessible to international humanitarian organisations to verify the conditions of their detention in the light of the SADC Report findings. In essence this letter places the ball squarely in the hands of the government. The future livelihoods of more than 40,000 Basotho are dependent on a sensible reaction by the government.

The initial reaction however seems incomprehensible. Khaketla was in denial from the beginning. Setipa’s responses in the press conference, if accurately captured are plain naïve. He seems to think than UK retailers can in a sense substitute the bigger US market. He should know better why Chinese firms have started production in Lesotho and the other South East Asian countries rather than produce from their home country. It’s production costs. Without free tariffs they would not be competitive.  As for what Deputy Prime Minister Metsing is reported to have said one can only marvel at the evasiveness. It is obvious that he has no clue about what this is all about. He is reported to have said that there are people who would relish Lesotho being removed from eligibility to AGOA. This is a simple matter of Metsing ensuring that the government complies with its international obligations and not about people wishing Lesotho ill. In his position, more than all in those of others, he should have understood  that he is dealing with the livelihoods of thousands of Basotho. He cannot therefore play the game of blaming people who are sounding the alarm that if Metsing and his partners don’t fulfil the obligations of AGOA, the country would suffer irreparable harm.

It is worrying that Metsing is reported to have said that he will not suffer the consequences of his actions. It is perhaps indicative of the callousness of the government that he can actually publicly say that he personally will not suffer. The last I knew people in government don’t take decisions based on whether they personally will benefit or suffer. Metsing is reported to have said:

There are people in this country who so desire that Lesotho’s beneficiary status under AGOA could be withdrawn…….Theirs is a very unfortunate quest because if it collapses (AGOA), Metsing will not be individually affected or any of the ministers. Those who will suffer most are people working in the textile factories who will lose their jobs as a result.

We may wish to take examples from Swaziland, which was removed from eligibility to AGOA in 2014. As we speak now, several factories which were affected have closed down. They continue to close down and the impact in the areas around the factory sites are telling the whole story. Burundi has just been removed Agoa and one hopes that Lesotho does not follow.

The issues are very clear, If Lesotho is to remain within the AGOA system of market access to the US, then it has to comply. Conditionalities are not always good, but when they support cases of the downtrodden rather than authoritarian governments, I will always be in the forefront in their support. Where would this country be if it was left to the whims of this government?