The battle has just begun

The battle has just begun

MASERU – THE 1998 fires that left Maseru and Maputsoe in ruins were still smouldering when Matsepo Molise-Ramakoae received an unexpected call from her bosses.
A senior civil servant for over two decades, Molise-Ramakoae was used to being moved but that call left her bewildered.
She was being appointed principal secretary of defence, a position both hot and toxic.

The government was looking for a person who could restrain a belligerent army that left to its own devices for decades.
The army had been at the centre of Lesotho’s political instabilities since 1966 and its fingerprints were all over the chaotic scenes of 1998 that had almost shoved the country over the cliff.
Dozens were dead and cities destroyed, leaving the country on the brink of disaster.

For once it seemed the politicians, the exuberant puppet masters of the army, were suddenly accepting culpability in what was the darkest moment in the post-colonial era. It was them who had turned the army into the monster it had become.
The innocent blood on the streets was on their hands as much as it was on the army’s.

Of course, there had been a coup and a ruthless regime that had lost an election but refused to hand over power. But none of those had pushed the country so close to a point of no return like the 1998 fiasco.
The evidence was there for all to see: lives had been lost and Lesotho was nursing its fraught relations with South Africa while being labelled a pariah state in the region.
Property worth millions has been damaged and the povo’s anger was palpable. Having looted the shops during the fiasco Basotho were squirming as they trooped across the border for supplies. Years of steady economic development has been wiped in a few weeks of madness.

It was a terrible time for everyone but things were about to get worse for Molise-Ramakoae.
She was being asked to control an army that everyone was handling with thick gloves.
She had been sent to grab a raging bull by its horns.
So the appointment had stunned her.

Molise-Ramakoae recalls that her first reaction was to ask herself the rhetoric but loaded question: “Why me?” The civil service was teeming with men with more experience than her.
Perhaps the politicians who instigated the mess were better placed to clean it up.
After all, this was their pyre to put out.

Molise-Ramakoae agonised over the appointment but it soon dawned on her that she had no choice but to accept the job. And so she entered the lion’s den with her eyes open.
As PS she was expected to cut the military’s profligacy that politicians had allowed to go unchecked for fear of angering the soldiers. Within a few days in the office she came across evidence of a force that has been handed a blank cheque of sorts to pamper itself with copious amounts of food in a sea of poverty.
When she tried to close the taps there was a massive backlash from the men in uniform. “The army could not understand why their requests should go through me. They said I was incapable of understanding their operations because I was a civilian,” Molise-Ramakoae recalls.

In meetings with senior soldiers she was constantly fielding aggressive questions about her motives for cutting the budget. This was a highly polarised era in which everything was explained and perceived in political terms.
Molise-Ramakoae had to fend off allegations that she was an agent of politicians bent on undermining the army.

No matter how clearly she explained her role the suspicions lingered on even after the army had resigned to the fact that she was now in charge of their budget.
The relations would improve somewhat yet occasionally the top soldiers would slip back to their pre-1998 tendencies. Still, Molise-Ramakoae stood her ground for she understood that theirs was nostalgia of power they used to enjoy.

“They were refusing to accept that things had changed.”
She recalls how the army would request huge rations for minor operations. “Most of the meat and tinned food would make their way to the villages where soldiers used them as baits for hungry young women and girls.”

She faced stiff resistance even when she tried to explain that the government could no longer afford to fund their feasts.
One of her roles, apart from trimming the defence budget, was to manage the uneasy relations between the army and civilians. Here too the soldiers pushed back because they were being told to return to the barracks, their rightful place but one from which they could not pull the strings for their political masters.
The army viewed any attempt to create a distance between them and the politicians as a way of curtailing the power they had enjoyed for decades.
Although Molise-Ramakoae had no experience in military matters she had received ample training to prepare her for the engagement. She had spent months on a civil-military relations course in Mexico. There was also help from the teams from Zimbabwe and Botswana.

The problem, she says, is that whereas she understood what needed to be done the army had no appetite for any drastic change.
Molise-Ramakoae looks back at that time with pride because she succeeded on her mission.
By the time she was moved to another assignment the defence budget was no longer the second highest in government. “Their allocation had moved from number two to around ten.”
Relations between civilians and the army improved and politicians largely kept their paws out of military matters. In the years that followed the army was consigned to the barracks and peace prevailed.

The subsequent increases in the defence budget were to fund the military’s social development projects like building roads, clinics and bridges. They needed the helicopters to help with distribution of books, undertake rescue operations and ferry election material to remote areas.

The old habits have however returned in recent years. Now a politician and an All Basotho Convention (ABC) MP for Matsieng No.45, Molise-Ramakoae is horrified at the regression.
Politicians are once again pulling strings in the army. The trouble that have rocked Lesotho since 2014 is threatening to push the country back to the dark ages.
Two commanders are dead and the army is divided along party lines. Dozens of soldiers are in jail awaiting trial for crimes ranging from attempted murder to murder. One of those is Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, the former army commander accused of causing the trouble at the instigation of politicians who are now in opposition.

The security reforms are trying to solve the very problems that Molise-Ramakoae thought she had sorted as the first principal secretary of justice. She now has to play the role of a politician in finding the solution. Yet her position about the army has not changed with her new role. She says now as in 1998 and before that the problem remains the politicians who interfere with the army.
“Everybody thought the military was the only source of power. Politicians used the military for self- advancement. They have infiltrated the military again. We went back to the history.”
She says the divisions in the parties are reflected in the army as well.

“They (politicians) made sure they had the army on their side.”
Reforming the army, she opines, starts with soldiers and politicians changing their attitudes. “Politicians must keep their hands off the army and the army should stay out of politics. After that we have to clearly define the role we want our military to play.”

Molise-Ramakoae thinks she has a template that should be followed.
“The military’s role in Lesotho should be largely ceremonial. We don’t have any external threats to worry about because we are surrounded by South Africa. There is no possibility that South Africa will invade this country.”

She believes the army should be kept busy in building roads, clinics and schools, helping to fight stock theft in border villages and assisting in disasters.
“That means we have to strengthen their engineering unit. Their discipline and skill will help in national construction projects.”
“They have very good doctors and nurses who can assist in our health sector.”

Molise-Ramakoae looks much younger than 64. She was raised in a family of eight in Morija.
Mother was a domestic servant and father a miner who was always away from home.
But his absence did not mean that he loosened his grip on the family.

Molise-Ramakoae recalls him as a strict man with a good heart and a passion for education and a good heart.
Food was not in abundance but they always had enough to eat because their mother would work the fields to supplement their father’s meagre earnings.
At that time Morija was a booming little town dominated by evangelical missionaries from France. Molise-Ramakoae saw the value of education from a young age.
She would admire the French nurses and doctors who worked at Scott Hospital.

“I wanted to be a doctor because I like the life they lived. My mother worked for one of the doctors and she would bring us some of the second hand clothes that were beautiful.”
That desire was still burning when she finished her secondary education at Lesotho High School.
Fate however intervened before she could start her journey in the medical field.
A high school sweetheart had swept her off her feet and proposed marriage.

Her father was not pleased and he refused to be part of her dowry negotiations and wedding preparations.
“That was his way of showing that he was not amused. My grandfather handled everything”.
Her father would eventually relent but only after putting conditions for giving his blessings to the marriage.
“He said he would only allow the marriage if my husband agrees to allow me to go to university.”
In 1974 she had her only child, a girl.

She joined the civil service as a cashier at the post office where she remained for five years before she enrolled at what is now the National University of Lesotho for a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Management. It is that degree she says would be both a “curse and a blessing” in her career.
A curse because she was one of the few who had studied management and the government thought it could post her in all ‘problems areas’.
She says it was blessing because it helped her climb up the ladder faster than her peers.

Her first job after university was senior management analyst in the Prime Minister’s office. She remained for nearly ten years until she left for the Netherlands for a Masters in Public Policy and Analysis.
On her return she was posted to the Auditor General’s office to start a new department called performance audit. There she lasted for a few years before someone in government decided that her management degree would come in handy as a director at the Ministry of Tourism and Environment. She recalls the six months she spent there as her most miserable time in the civil service.
“I didn’t like the job. It wasn’t for me. I cared about the environment but did not like the job.” “Luckily, the government was launching the Police Directorate and I was posted there”.
The experience and insights she gathered at the directorate have put her in a position to contribute to the reforms as well. She says there is an urgent need to revamp the police service to make it “more professional and equip it with the modern policing methods”.
A detour to the defence ministry was followed by appointments as PS of Communications, Chief Protocol Officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and commissioner in the Police Complaints Commission.

She says being protocol officer was tough but exciting because there was always something new to learn. Being a commissioner, she says, left her disappointed because the police never warmed up to the unit because “they treated it as a watchdog instead of a necessary partner in improving their work”.
By that time her marriage had long crumbled. She is not too comfortable discussing the nitty-gritties of her divorce. The little she says is that there was some alcohol and abuse involved.
She doesn’t blame him for the trouble because she believes circumstances played a big part.

“He was working away from home and he started drinking, a habit he never had. After that things fell apart.”
Molise-Ramakoae however says her separation from her husband did not affect relations with her in-laws, with whom she still has a strong bond.
“They never accepted that I was divorced from their son. Even when he died I worked with his wife to arrange the funeral. They remain my family even today and I am happy to be one of them.” Being a single parent has taught her to juggle roles.

“One moment you are a father and the next you are a mother. And you never know if you are playing the roles very well.”
Molise-Ramakoae’s frustration with the government began to build up as she was being shifted from post to post within the civil services.
“I didn’t like that I was being shifted around. It was as if they were using me for their fighting. I was always the one they pushed to problem areas.”
So when Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, a minister then, left the Lesotho Congress for Democracy to form the ABC she was one of the first people to join.
“Ntate Thabane was also frustrated. We were crying together. We were both not happy.”

She would learn that the political terrain was not easy when she failed in her first attempt to be MP for Matsieng in 2006.
“I had left the civil service. I realised that you need to be connected to the people for them to trust you.”
Connecting with the people is what she did for the next five years.

With her victory in 2012 came the appointment to become the deputy minister of finance.
She had not reached the pinnacle of civil service but she was close and determined to make the best out of it. Her first challenge was to learn the job and to understand the political dynamics.
“I understood that I had to learn about managing the national economy. I was willing to be guided, that’s why I never had a problem with my minister like other deputy ministers.
These days Molise-Ramakoae spends her time in her constituency or in parliament.

She believes the parliament is where the real hard work is. She is focusing on problems affecting women. “I want to end violence against women. I want to pull them out of poverty and stop early marriages. The parliament is the right place for me to achieve that because I can push to change the laws.”
She seats on the committees on public accounts, social cluster, PM’s ministries, foreign affairs and business. Molise-Ramakoae is also the chairperson of parliamentary women’s caucuses locally, regionally and the Commonwealth.

Staff Reporter

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