The politicisation of the public service

The politicisation of the public service

Continued from last week……………

When, notwithstanding the king and BCP’s opposition, the British gave independence to Lesotho under BNP rule, Mokhehle is reported to have said: “Give Jonathan independence, but give him an army too”. The forms of training that the BCP sent their followers to receive in Ghana, before independence, included police training.
For his part, among criticisms that Moshoeshoe II levelled at Chief Jonathan’s government, at a pitso at Ha Ramabanta on 11 December, 1966, was the fact that, Chief Jonathan had filled the Department of Police with his European appointees.

The king saw this as an abomination given that, in his view, the Police Department “…controls the hub of the administration of Lesotho…”
The central position that the king and politicians allocated to the army and police went a long way to give character to party-politicisation of the public service in that, political parties gave particular attention to the party-politicisation of the police and, later, the army.

Accordingly, under BNP rule after independence, the police and the army became important targets of BNP Youth League and organisations associated with it, particularly the LYS. Much of their party-politicisation of the public service focussed on security apparatuses.

The BNP Youth League had been founded in 1964, and quickly became useful to the leaders of the party in providing security in instances where BCP Youth League threatened to prevent BNP pitsos. The League was founded on quasi-military principles because, according to the founding leader: “…fundamentally, the main thing was that it must be a Youth that had discipline…”
The LYS was established in the early 1970s. As with the League, young people recruited to the group were trained, by Israeli instructors, on nationhood, order, and discipline. On completion of their training, they were expected to provide leadership by “…keeping others in line…”

According to the founding Director, the Service was independent of both the BNP and government: LYS recruits did “…not sing [BN]Party songs…”, and LYS was “…never a government department…” Nonetheless, the songs that LYS trainees sang “…praised the Prime Minister…”, and the money that ran the organisation came from public coffers, in a form of subvention.
A guiding principle of leaders of BNP youth organisations, and one which they followed, was that:

I want to be honest [with], and fair to, you. It is a fact that, in any government, the party will entrench itself with its members. And its members are card-carrying members…liphephechana.

Based on this principle, and despite claims that LYS was ‘independent of both government and party’, many of the recruits to the Service were sons and daughters of members of the BNP because, as ABS said:

I do not want to mislead you by saying we…were not partisan in our recruitment. We were partisan…Messages were sent out to [BNP] committees [in villages]…that they must provide [recruits]. We were not taking any Mosotho child.

These quasi-military party and semi-public formations became a means of fulfilling BNP’s desire to fill different security apparatuses with party loyalists.
Special attention went to the Police Mobile Unit, which later became Lesotho’s army. The pieces fell in place nicely: as with other political players, BNP leaders attached special significance to force as a means of conducting politics; LYS training and experience in BNP Youth League fitted military career; the Lesotho army was being created from scratch and there were no hindrances associated with those who might have been appointed under colonial rule; and all opportunities that were available could go to BNP loyalists.

In this way, the League was able to influence the manner of the founding of the youngest public institution of its size by supplying it with recruits from the structures of the ruling party:

There at the Police Mobile Unit we tried to put in BNP Youth. I am not quoting names… The police…we did the same thing. In the government, we did the same things. But we did not kick out BCP members.

In all these activities to fill all available public service positions with members of the BNP, little consideration was given to qualifications and experience. Exception seems to have been made with postings to diplomatic service, where leaders of the League had to agree to the posting of “…some of the government servants [who were not always card-carrying members of the BNP]…”.
Even there, however, they “…also tried to insert our own people, if we had them…” PLM’s assessment of the League’s programme to fill public service positions with party members was that, it “worked well”, and was successful.

Thus, a ‘purge’ of the public service began with excluding those considered members of opposition parties from recruitment to public service. It rose dramatically, and became a culture, after Chief Jonathan seized power, in 1970.

From then, until the 1980s, people wishing to join the public service had to produce liphephechana obtained from BNP structures in their villages, as evidence that they were members of the BNP.
This drive, to ensure that only members of the BNP and those without any association to the BCP found employment in the public service, intensified even further after the launch of Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) activity in Lesotho, and culminated with BNP Youth League’s forceful ejection of public servants from their offices, in the early 1980s.
The view of a former BNP Youth Leader is that, individuals who were dismissed from the public service, during BNP rule, were not dismissed because of their political convictions, per se, but because they were

…fanatics [of opposition parties] who were refusing to work and obstructing work. Those ones had to be removed. And many of them, when they left, they [were given jobs] at the University.

Regarding activities of the BNP Youth League, in the early 1980s, to remove, by force, public servants considered opposition parties’ supporters — including Tom Thabane — from their offices, he said, this was work of a clique within the BNP Youth League led by individuals, within the party, who had seized, and were using, the organisation to advance personal ambitions.
The ‘true’ BNP Youth League remained committed to supporting continued service of non-BNP public servants who were not ‘fanatics’, and who did not ‘obstruct work’.
The story of party politicisation of Lesotho’s public service cannot be complete without mention, albeit brief, of the Public Servants Act, 1985. By this Act, Chief Accounting Officers at government ministries stopped to be called ‘Permanent Secretaries’ and became known as ‘Principal Secretaries’.

Permanent Secretaries were essentially career public servants who rose through the ranks to become Chief Accounting Officers of government ministries.
Initially, under military rule (1986-1993), the Act was largely ignored and tendency was to appoint career civil servants to positions of principal Secretaries, even if political affiliations were also considered.

After 1993, however, Principal Secretaries became out-and-out political appointees picked from among members of ruling parties; many without any background and understanding of the public service, which had always been considered very necessary for appointment to position of Chief Accounting officer in a government ministry.

What impels Ruling Parties towards Party-politicisation of the Public Service?

As can be seen, today, party-politicisation of the public service has become a cancer which has spread throughout the state and para-state institutions; politicians perpetrate it almost as if they are addicted to it.

Not only does it look like politicians find it irresistible but they have established legal frameworks that have made it look normal.
Where institutions and processes — such the Public Service Commission — exist which are intended to appoint public servants on merit, politicians see them as stumbling blocks, and they interfere unduly in such bodies’ work; where possible, they side-line them.

Ruling political parties use various justifications for appointing party members to public service positions and discriminating against members, and those considered members, of opposition parties.

As in above, in some cases parties who come to power accuse public servants they find in office of being “fanatics” of opposition parties “who refuse to work and obstruct work”.
In other cases, leaders of incoming political parties claim, as Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, in 2015, that it is expected that an incoming political party will appoint its own supporters to implement party’s plans and policies on the basis of which the party was elected; the implication being that, public servants-in-office are not conversant with the incoming party’s policies, and have no ideological and other commitment to them.

This is an important point to elaborate on for what it means regarding the level of political development among Lesotho’s political elite: fifty years after the country’s independence, Lesotho’s political elites still cannot make a distinction between state business, on the one hand, and party business, on the other.
Indeed, for many of them, the distinction does not exist, and many state issues are decided by National Executive Committees (NECs) of ruling parties.
This, often, means that squabbles and instabilities in ruling parties have a bearing on state and national political stability.

The ‘truth’ behind party-politicisation of the public service seems to lie elsewhere than in the ‘noble-sounding’ justifications put forward by leaders of ruling political parties.
As LBM pointed out, under Chief Jonathan’s government, concerns about commitment and quality of work were not reasons for appointing BNP loyalists to public positions, and discriminating against those known, or perceived to be, supporters of opposition parties. Instead, when they urged Chief Jonathan to sack Ma-Congress, his Ministers’

…complaint was just that their people [BNP followers] were unemployed…and places have been filled with these [BCP] people…yes. So, [they were saying], let our people (i.e. BNP supporters) be brought and be given these jobs…

This remained the case under regimes that followed Chief Jonathan and military dictatorships from the early 1990s: in this economy where the public sector continues to be the main employer, and the main source of economic activity, all political parties that come to power feel immense pressure to favour their supporters in public service appointments and awarding of public sector contracts.
Among others, this fills politicians with the need for a tight control over government departments and institutions in order to take full charge, not only over the operation of such institutions but, more importantly, in order to gain power over appointments.
This is an age-old problem which can be seen, in Lesotho politics, as early as the period immediately after independence. One of ACM’s complaints, when he first became Minister, in 1966, was that control seemed to be exercised by civil servants, and not politicians like him:

…[it was not clear] just what the minister’s job was, because, until then, the Director of Education was vested with all authority on matters related to education in the country, and it did not look like there was any authority left for a minister.

The sense one gets from this need for control, in 1966 and in 2016, is that, perhaps the nature of Lesotho’s circumstances is that, there is not enough ministerial business for politicians, and they are drawn to compete with public servants over matters that fall within authority of public servants.
Once in ministers’ hands, such control affects not only the quality of appointments to public service positions but also the ability of government departments and institutions to act independently of politicians’ influence and other institutions, and it affects public institutions’ ability to intervene impartially and professionally in public affairs. As Max Weber observed,

…if political parties are involved in any sort of selection of officials by election, they quite naturally tend to give decisive weight not to technical competence but to the services a follower makes to the party boss.

Equally important, where political parties are involved in appointment of public servants, appointments are made at a cost to a stable public service; at a cost to an able public service; at a cost to accumulation of knowledge and experience necessary for good government and stability.
Many of the experiences that the public service went through in the period from 1966 to 1993 discussed above will be familiar to those who have observed and encountered the public service since 1993.
As in the period immediately after independence, party-politicisation of various sectors of the public service continued unabated after 1993 — those who came to power in 1993 justifying the practice by arguing that they inherited a public service made up of supporters of the party that previously formed government.

The practice intensified even further after 2015 elections, with politicians justifying their party politicisation of the public by a facile argument that, each ruling party should appoint its own supporters to key public service positions when it comes to power, as this was the only way to guarantee that its election manifesto is implemented.

This contributes to persistence of political instability in Lesotho, in two ways, at least. First, the public service will perpetually be destabilised each time a different political party forms government.
Second, appointed on the understanding that their mission was to serve a ruling party, public servants appointed by previous ruling parties will see themselves as part of opposition against the newly elected ruling party, and participate in political and other activities intended to undermine the newly-elected ruling party.

BY: Motlatsi Thabane

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