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A threat to basic individual freedoms

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THE new Communications (Subscriber Identity Module and Device Registration) Regulations 2021 which were gazetted recently could represent the biggest threat to our individual freedoms.
The regulations will give the government of Lesotho sweeping powers to access and monitor all mobile communications.

All mobile phone users will need to register their sim cards, residential addresses and biometrics which will all be kept in a central database.
Critics say state security agencies will have access to this database and could use it to track down perceived government opponents and critics.

What this means is that the government will ultimately have the power to intrude into the private lives of virtually every individual on Lesotho soil.
There are fears that the government could use the new regulations as a coercive instrument for control of critics.
That’s what makes these regulations scary.

In present form the new regulations represent the biggest threat to our basic individual freedoms as stipulated under the Constitution.
Basotho, we believe, have a right to privacy. They should enjoy the right to free expression and association.
It is these freedoms that define who we are as Basotho which are now under threat.

We believe the regulations in their current state will seek to significantly reverse and curtail the people’s individual freedoms.
That is why we believe the government has a responsibility to clearly explain and justify why such an intrusive law would be necessary in a democratic society.
So far, we have not had any cogent argument by the government why such a law would be necessary.

Of course we do not deny that the government may, in certain cases, need to intercept information for national security purposes.
But there must be a clear justification for such intervention.
It would appear that is not what the new regulations are all about. The regulations appear to have been promulgated on the basis that Basotho are inherently wicked and are up to no good.
That is wrong.

The majority of Basotho are peace-loving citizens and harbor no intentions to topple the government through undemocratic means.
There is therefore no reason why the government would be so keen to monitor their daily communications which are generally mundane.
The new regulations will have a chilling effect on human rights defenders in Lesotho who may be unnerved by the mere fact that they are being watched.

But the new regulations are not a surprise. There has been a clear shift in southern Africa in recent times with governments moving towards greater surveillance of their own citizens.
Such laws are a boon for repressive regimes north of the Limpopo.
Lesotho, which has done fairly well over the years in respecting citizens’ rights, must resist the temptation to copy and paste some of these repressive laws which dictatorial governments have used to keep their people under leash.

Instead, Lesotho’s citizens are crying out for greater openness. They want to enjoy their basic freedoms without threats that they could fall foul of an insidious law crafted by their own government.
The government of Lesotho will need to explain and justify to an apprehensive populace why we need the proposed legislation which critics say might be used to muzzle opponents.

Without the consent of the governed, the government will have a tough time implementing the new measures. Simply put form the new legislation represents a threat to our basic freedoms.

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Home affairs must deliver

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PARLIAMENTARY portfolio committees have a way of extracting honest answers from public officials and ministers.

Thanks to a session of the Law and Public Safety committee on Tuesday, we now know why Basotho are not getting passports and Identity Documents (IDs).

Home Affairs Minister, Lebona Lephema, blamed it on the lack of funds.

The only shocking part of that revelation is that it is coming from a minister of a government that promised to deliver basic services like passports and IDs.

They promised that this was not going to happen but the list of services this government is failing to deliver is now embarrassingly long.

We find it disappointing that it had to take some pointed questions from a committee for the public to get that obvious and simple explanation from the minister.

The ministry should have made that announcement without prodding. It’s simple public relations.

Equally puzzling is why this crisis was not raised when the MPs were discussing the Ministry of Home Affairs’ budget for this year. The MPs knew of this problem months ago but none seems to have remembered to forcefully push for the ministry to be allocated enough funds to produce IDs and passports.

There are no surprises when it comes to passports and IDs because those numbers can be easily predicted. The ministry can easily estimate how many people will need to renew their passports and IDs in the next few months.

Both can be predicted to the date.

The government cannot therefore claim that it underestimated the budget allocation or there has been some unexpected surge in applications and renewals.

The fact is that it just didn’t prioritise the production of IDs and passports. This crisis is therefore self-inflicted.

But the other reason for the ID and passport crisis was buried somewhere in the minister’s testimony.

He said after struggling with the middleman the ministry went straight to the manufacturer of the passports.

That direct interaction was supposed to make business easier and quicker but there was another problem.

The minister said the manufacturer rejected the government’s letter of credit and demanded cash upfront.

The company was not being unreasonable because the Lesotho government is notorious for not paying suppliers. The treatment that the Ministry of Home Affairs is getting from international suppliers is the deserved harvest of a terrible reputation earned over the years.

We cannot get favourable payment terms or use letters of credit to do business with international companies because we cannot be trusted.

We have squandered our goodwill and we are now being treated like a rogue country that should not be treated according to international business practices.

We believe the reputation can be regained and money can be found.

But those are not the ultimate solutions. We believe the government could be wasting a crisis. This might be the opportunity to move to a digital ID. Gradually phase out the physical ID by encouraging those with smartphones to use digital ones.

Perhaps it is also time to increase the passport fees.

Surely M130 is not a fair fee for a passport. It also explains why some people deliberately lose their passports when they have overstayed in South Africa. They know they can easily afford a new one.

We are not saying the government should not subsidise passports but that the public should pay its fair share. Maintaining the current fees doesn’t help the public or the government.

The fact that many are willing to pay more for their passport is proven by the large number of people paying M630 for an emergency passport.

It is also common knowledge that many people are paying a premium through bribes. The solution is to set the right fee to raise enough to produce passports and force people to value them.

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ABC must allow free, fair contest

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THE former ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) party is back in the news, for the wrong reasons once again.
This time, the party’s National Executive Committee has conspired to block four candidates from contesting for the highly coveted position of deputy leader at an elective conference set for this weekend.

Over the last two weeks, Basotho had to bear the bad news with a spate of increases in the prices of basic commodities.
The Lesotho Flour Mills, the country’s biggest milling company, announced a seven percent price hike on all maize products. The increase is with effect from next Monday.

Those that have been blocked include former Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka, Kefeletsoe Mojela, Katleho Molelle, and Lekhetho Mosito.

Mphaka told this newspaper this week that he has since instructed his lawyers to challenge the ban in the High Court.
That was to be expected.

On the face of it, the decision to bar the four looks irregular and highly unreasonable for a party that touts itself as a democratic party.

It would appear there are individuals within the ABC leadership who are not comfortable to allow a democratic process to elect a new leadership. They want to ring-fence the deputy leader’s position for their own cronies.

That is sad.

If party leader Nkaku Kabi fails to handle this dispute well, he risks yet another damaging split that would leave his party’s seriously weakened.

That is a possibility if history is anything to go by.

At one point, Professor Nqosa Mahao stood on the cusp of the deputy leader’s position until former party leader Thomas Thabane came up with a similar excuse to block Mahao. It all ended in tears for the ABC.

Mahao was to later walk out of the ABC with a sizeable chunk of supporters ahead of the 2022 elections. The result was that his departure severely weakened the ABC as seen from the general election results of 2022 where the ABC received a thunderous clap from voters.

Kabi risks going through a similar patch if he resorts to underhand tactics to block any potential rivals. We hope Kabi is not in any way linked to the decision to block the four.

There is fear among some ABC leaders that the four command grassroots support and could win outright if allowed to contest. It would be highly undemocratic to bar the four from contesting on the basis of a flimsy excuse that they were not in the party’s committees.

Kabi must not seek to surround himself with pliable “yes-men and women”. He must allow the best minds within the ABC to contest for leadership positions if the party is to make any inroads ahead of the next general elections.

That would allow the ABC to renew itself.

That starts with the elective conference this weekend. Any attempts to muzzle that democratic process will likely backfire for the party and its leadership.

At the heart of the ABC’s troubles is the party’s dismal failure to renew the leadership structures. While former party leader Thomas Thabane was a charismatic leader when he was at his peak, he made terrible mistakes by seeking to hang on to the leadership position when he was way past his sell-by date.

Thabane never made any plans for a smooth succession process. He had to be hounded out of office after he was accused of masterminding the assassination of his estranged wife Lipolelo Thabane in 2017.

Two years after Thabane left, his sad legacy of bungling continues to haunt the ABC.

It is precisely for this reason that Kabi must allow an unhindered contest for the deputy leader’s position. That is the best he can do to prepare the party for succession.

 

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Time to act to avert hunger

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A surge in food prices will likely make life miserable for Basotho in the coming year. Their situation had already been precarious in the previous year as the effects of Covid-19 continued to linger.

Over the last two weeks, Basotho had to bear the bad news with a spate of increases in the prices of basic commodities.

The Lesotho Flour Mills, the country’s biggest milling company, announced a seven percent price hike on all maize products. The increase is with effect from next Monday.

A ton of maize, which was trading at between M3 700 and M3 900 in January, is now costing a staggering M5 300. The result is that the high cost of maize will now be transferred to the consumer.
The surge in the price of maize is a result of crop failures in the southern Africa region due to high temperatures and erratic rains. The shortage has now triggered a surge in the price of maize.

Much more worrying was a warning by Lesotho Flour Mills that Basotho should brace for yet another round of price increases in the next two months.

The company warned that the wholesale price of maize could hit as high as M8 800 per metric ton.

It is not just the price of maize-meal that has gone up. Other basic commodities have also gone up in the last few weeks.

The price of fuel has gone up. A surge in the price of fuel will likely see a knock-on effect on the prices of basic commodities such as maize-meal and bread.

The result is that transport operators are likely to demand a review of taxi fares in the next few weeks. If the government rejects the request for a hike, we are likely to see protests on the streets.
With food in short supply, the prospect of food riots must not be discounted. We are heading into unknown territory for Lesotho. The general hardships could trigger instability in Lesotho.
This is not fear-mongering. It is real.

The massive price increases on the back of a jobs carnage in the textile sector, which is the second biggest employer in Lesotho.

At least 15 000 jobs have been lost in the textile sector in the last few months as companies closed.

What has compounded the crisis is the fact that no new jobs are being created. Instead, we are shedding jobs at an astonishing pace. The massive job losses have increased the levels of hardships in Lesotho across all levels.

This is deeply worrying.

While this is a matter of grievous concern, we do not see any concerted efforts by the government to prepare for the troubled times ahead.

Nearly every country in the southern Africa region is scrambling to put in place contingency measures to deal with the disaster. We are hearing very little from Lesotho about the plans to deal with the crisis.

Basotho are waiting to hear from the government what sort of safety nets it will put in place for the poor. They want to hear what orders the government has put in place to acquire enough maize for the next year.

We hope the government is not banking on some donor out there to avert the crisis. While donors might be welcome they must complement what the government is already doing for its own people.
The time to act is now.

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