The lynching of Timothy Thahane
AFTER almost 46 years at the high echelons of powerful organisations Timothy Thahane knew answers to many questions.
So he thought, until 2014 when he got a question from the most unexpected of sources. His grandson asked him what the word ‘fraud’ means.
Here was a little boy who wanted to understand something that sounded simple but was more complicated than her young mind could comprehend. A few months earlier Thahane had been charged for fraud and bribery.
That was the import of the boy’s question.
In one case he was being accused of misleading a local bank to lend M18 million money to a group of vegetable farmers by misrepresenting that the prime minister had approved the project.
In another case he was accused of fraud and bribery over a M19 million wool and mohair deal the government had awarded to a local company.
“I did not know how to answer that question,” he says.
His grandchild is not the only one who had questions he could not answer.
“People who have known me for years, those I had worked with, those I had trained and those who had trusted me for years were asking me about the cases.”
Relatives, friends, colleagues and strangers were asking questions. Some of the questions were coming from South Africa where he had been Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa, and United States where he had been Vice President and Secretary of the World Bank.
The friends he had met when he was an ambassador were also asking about the cases.
In his career Thahane has been a director, ambassador, vice-governor of the central bank of Africa’s largest economy and vice-president of one of the most important financial institutions in the world.
In 1995 he was a leading the race to be the president of the African Development Bank.
Yet here he was in 2013 standing trial for crimes so incongruent with his reputation and stature.
“I was shocked, so shocked,” he recalls of the time he was charged.
Eventually Thahane disappeared from the public eye and kept a low profile.
“I was afraid to speak to people. I kept to myself”.
That did not help much because the cases didn’t disappear from both the courts and the public sphere. In the courts the prosecution kept postponing the case.
In the public gallery the media’s coverage of the cases was incessant.
At least once a month Thahane would wake up to screaming headlines about his cases. If the stories were not on the front page they were on posters plastered around town. Curiously, the stories were not about significant progress in his cases but something that looked like shenanigans on the part of the prosecution which kept on asking for postponements.
Only once in the two and half years did Thahane and his legal team ask for a postponement. And that was after the prosecution had set a trial date without informing his lawyers.
It became a routine that you would read stories whose only purpose was to announce a postponement. When it was not a delay it was a story announcing a new date for the case.
All that came to an end in spectacular fashion last week as the cases collapsed within 24 hours.
First to crumble was the fraud and bribery case related to the wool and mohair project. The state withdrew charges after Mosito Khethisa, former Principal Secretary of Finance with whom Thahane had been charged, cut a plea bargain deal to plead to charges of violating procurement regulations. Khethisa sentence to 12 months in prison or M30 000 fine.
Civa Innovations, a company represented by Mokhethi Moshoeshoe and had been charged together with Thahane and Khethisa, also pleaded guilty.
Moshoeshoe was let off the hook because he had been charged in his capacity as director of Civa but the company was ordered to repay the M6.5 million it illegally received from government.
But even at the moment of apparent defeat the prosecution still seemed to want a dignified exit. So instead of allowing Thahane to plead to the charges the prosecution simply withdrew them.
To a layman this would not matter because it amounts to the same thing for Thahane: freedom. The meaning at law is however more complex. In a withdrawal the prosecution is leaving open the possibility of reinstating the charges in future.
If Thahane had been allowed to plead not guilty and had been acquitted the prosecution would not have had the chance to bring the charges again.
With a withdrawal Thahane got his freedom but not the total vindication he would have enjoyed had he been acquitted.
Still Justice Molefi Majara did not mince his words about the prosecution. He said it was wrong for the prosecution to first bring charges against a suspect then seek to investigate later.
Such behaviour, the judge said, violate people’s rights to fair trial.
Thahane would however get the satisfaction that comes with an acquittal almost 24 hours later when High Court Justice Tseliso Monaphathi dismissed the fraud charges against him in the second case related to block farming.
The court’s verdict was emphatic.
“Evidence presented by Crown did not prove any prejudice to the government, or the bank; actual or potential,” said Justice Monaphathi. “Nothing has been said by the witnesses regarding the amounts of money alleged to have been paid to the farmers,” he added.
By that statement Thahane’s two and half years on an emotional roller coaster had ended. Yet for him it’s just the beginning of another phase that might take years. He now has to mend a reputation left in tatters by the cases.
“I now have to pick up the pieces and move on with my life,” he says. Apart from that he still has huge legal fees to pay.
The questions from those close to him about the case will probably linger on for years. What would he say when asked about the charges?
“I will say what I have always said, that the charges were unfounded and politically motivated,” he says with a straight face.
“It began with a political letter written to a local bank by one of the most senior members of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). To me that was the genesis of my troubles.”
In 2012 Thahane got wind that Mpho Malie, an LCD stalwart, had written to a senior executive of Standard Lesotho Bank complaining about Block Farming loans guaranteed by the government.
In the letter Malie had mentioned several senior government officials, including Thahane, as the people who had benefitted from the scheme despite that their role was only to act as mentors to block farmers.
Thahane would make strenuous efforts to clear his name with an appeal to the parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to investigate the allegations and a request to the LCD caucus to call Malie to explain his letter.
None of those happened.
The crux of his defence was that he had not touched a cent of the money borrowed to his block farming team in Mpharane, his home area. He also answered the allegations in newspapers and radio stations that were running with the story.
The worst was yet to come. In October 2013 Thahane was about to leave for the United States when Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing called him to his office.
“He (Metsing) told me that the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) wanted to press charges against me and asked if it was wise for me to proceed with the trip,” Thahane recalls.
Thahane said he told Metsing that he could not cancel his trip because he is waiting to be arrested. He left for the United States.
While there he heard that Khethisa who was also on a foreign trip had been called back to Lesotho and was going to be charged.
Thahane would also hear from his sources that the anti-corruption unit was planning to arrest him as soon as he landed in Maseru. He changed his flights, landed in Johannesburg and drove to Maseru. He was avoiding the embarrassment of being arrested at the airport.
A few days later he was at the DCEO offices for a four-hour-long interrogation. On November 4, 2014 he was charged. His dismissal as a cabinet minister came a day later with Metsing telling a press conference that Thahane had been removed to give him time to deal with the cases and “protect the image of the cabinet”.
At that time Thahane said he wanted the cases to proceed quickly for the sake of justice. The prosecution however seemed to have other ideas. It would be another two and a half years before justice was done.
Thahane says the ordeal has helped him appreciate the “level to which state resources, institutions and systems can be abused for political gain”.
He says he could afford his legal fees only because he has a modest pension from an international organisation.
“This was a war of attrition. They take you to court in the hope that you well get convicted or run out of money to defend yourself. You will be fighting government, an institution whose resources can be unlimited if the functionaries really want to destroy you.”
“Imagine what would have happened if these unfounded cases had been brought against a man who did not have the means to defend himself.”
He says people should not see his ordeal as an isolated case because the practice “of bending the judicial process to trample on people’s rights” is rampant in Lesotho.
As far as I can see this abuse of judicial processes is getting out of hand, he says.
To Thahane the manipulation of the judicial processes is another form of the corruption prevalent in Lesotho.
“This is not about Thahane but just another illustration of how our weak institutions can be corrupted by people pushing their own agenda.”
“My message to politicians is that they must do justice for the small and big. They must protect the common man. The principles of human rights, right to fair trial and human dignity must be respected.”
At 76, Thahane has no plans to continue flogging his CV around. So he will not have to deal with potential employers asking about the case.
Still that does not mean he has not lost out on some opportunities. For instance, some clients would not hire him as a consultant until he had been cleared.
It is possible that the damage caused by the charges might stay with him forever.
“The principles of justice apply whether you are a young man or a pensioner like me. There is still a violation of a human right and damage to reputation”.
Thahane says he will continue working with Harvard University and the University of California. He will also keep working to improve the lives of the people in his home area, he says.
His immediate plan is to write his memoirs.
“I want to inspire young people that with hard work and education you can reach your goals. I came from a poor family but managed to be part of the leadership of the World Bank.”
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