MASERU – SEINOLI Legal Centre, an NGO that casts itself as a fierce human rights defender, has found itself in a pickle after it waded into the raging battle between Kao Mine and its community. Seinoli’s core business is to provide legal services to communities whose economic, environmental and social rights have or are likely to be affected by large infrastructure projects like dams and mines.
It has successfully sued on behalf of communities affected by the construction of Katse and Mohale Dams.
Its roots are in the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), an ecumenical lobby group, under which it was formed in 2009 as a litigation arm before it branched out to be an independent organisation in 2014.
Since then, it has been a pain in the flesh for organisations like the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) as it seeks justice for people affected by the water project.
But after trying to dabble into the Kao Mine dispute Seinoli has found itself facing accusations of a serious conflict of interest that might damage its reputation. Its claims to be an independent organisation looking out for the interests of the small man are beginning to be questioned.
Seinoli tried to enter the fray in April when relations between the mine and the community were so hostile that a protest had left one villager dead and two others badly injured.
Sometime in April, Seinoli offered to assist Kao Mine to mend its troubled relations with the community.
While that was within its line of business a peculiar condition it attached as part of its peace-making effort is what has left it in a scrape.
In the proposal, Seinoli wanted Kao Mine to fund meetings to improve dialogue and create rapport between the mine and the community.
Attached to the proposal was a M363 000 budget Seinoli said Kao Mine should pay for the process. It wanted M150 000 to cover the travel costs for 15 trips three Seinoli officials were going to make to the mine.
Some M90 000 was for the accommodation of the three officials for 30 nights.
According to the budget the mine was to pay M40 500 to feed the officials during the trips.
Something the budget called “incidentals” was going to cost the company M9 000.
This is in addition to the M24 000 Seinoli said was for translations.
But the most curious part of the budget was the 15 percent project administration fee it charged.
That fee, usually charged by profit organisations, came to nearly M50 000.
Several questions arise from this proposal. The first is why Seinoli, as an NGO, wanted funding from a private company involved in the same dispute it was trying to resolve.
The second is why Seinoli would charge a 15 percent administration fee on a community project that would not generate profit.
The third is how Seinoli was going to be an impartial arbitrator between Kao Mine and the community after receiving funding from the mine.
The other issue is Seinoli’s close relations with the TRC, the same organisation accused of fanning the incessant fires at the mine.
Some observers say there seems to be a clear modus operandi in which the TRC stirs trouble for mines and Seinoli, its partner, comes in as a peacemaker.
While there might be nothing amiss about that arrangement the fact that Seinoli wants the mine to fund its efforts creates an impression of an organisation that is making its own timber.
But Mothusi Seqhee, Seinoli’s liaison officer, who submitted the proposal to Kao Mine, says there was nothing dubious about the request for funding.
Seqhee says it was the mine’s responsibility to provide the community with legal expertise to ensure that the community interacts with the mine on an equal footing. He says the proposal and budget were made at the mine’s request.
Seqhee says the budget was for the “specific work” Seinoli was going to do at the mine.
He insists that Seinoli is not receiving funding from any local institution.
The budget to Kao Mine, he explains, cannot be seen as a donation or funding to Seinoli.
“It was for the actual expenditure on activities to be undertaken to achieve the objective of helping to build relations between the mine and the community and to help organize the community to enable it to engage effectively,” Seqhee says.
And what about the 15 percent administration fee?
Seqhee’s answer is that this was because Seinoli’s experts were going to leave other projects and work to concentrate on the Kao Mine issue.
“In any case there were going to be other costs like photocopying and phone calls,” he says. He says Seqhee agreed in “principle to cover the costs for our intervention aware of the fact that Seinoli did not have funds in its current budget to deal with the Kao Mine issue”.
He says he finds the allegations that Seinoli is conniving with TRC to cause chaos in the mines as “baseless”.
He describes TRC as an ally that shares values and objectives with Seinoli.
“We complement each other: they deal with lobbying and advocacy while we handle litigation and community legal empowerment. Our roles are different but the objective is to achieve justice for communities affected by these huge capital projects,” Seqhee says.
“It is therefore unfair to say that we are working for each other. We are not anyone’s barking dog.”
Seqhee says they told the Kao Mine management that if they did not want to pay then the mine could provide the help in kind like accommodation at the mine’s lodge, meals at the canteen and transport.
He says they told Kao Mine that this was the same arrangement Seinoli had with Liqhobong Mine.
As it turns out, Liqhobong Mine has not had audible quarrels with communities since it involved Seinoli as an arbitrator, he said.
The TRC itself has not been very active in the Liqhobong area despite that Liqhobong Mine shares some communities with Kao Mine.
In fact the villagers around Liqhobong Mine have similar concerns as those of people around Kao Mine. Yet the pressure continues to pile on Kao Mine.
Seqhee says this does not prove connivance between TRC and Seinoli.
The Liqhobong community was aware of the help Seinoli was getting from Liqhobong Mine, he says.
Hlalele Hlalele, TRC’s Social Justice and Socio-Economic Rights officer, said he was not aware of Seinoli’s alleged request for funding from Kao Mine “because while we collaborate on activities we remain independent organisations pursuing different strategies.”
Seinoli’s proposal however appears to have fallen through around May after strongly worded emails between Seqhee and Kao Mine’s corporate chief executive, Mohale Ralikariki.
On May 22 Seqhee wrote an email saying Seinoli decided to “momentarily discontinue talk” on the proposal “to provide professional input and support as part of efforts to empower communities and facilitate good relations between your office and the community”.
He said this was because of recent events in the community especially the treatment of Tseko Ratia and “apparent attempts to silence and weaken the community”.
Ratia is the former Kao Mine employee who was fired for threatening colleagues with violence (look out for his story in the next few weeks). He is also the chairperson of the community liaison committee.
“In the wake of mining operations impacting adversely on communities and abusing human rights on a regular basis, it is our obligation as an organisation to put the interests of such vulnerable communities first,” Seqhee said. That email triggered an equally strong reply from Ralikariki, denying the allegations. Ralikariki said Storm Mountain Diamond (SMD), Kao Mine’s parent company, was not going to brook indiscipline and criminal activities from its employees.
“SMD has taken action (dismissing Ntate Ratia and laying criminal charges against him) with the understanding that Lesotho is still committed to the rule of law, that unlawful actions have consequences, and that unlawful conduct will still be met with the appropriate sanctions,” Ralikariki said.
“SMD’s actions are defendable — and SMD can be held accountable in the relevant forums and courts of law.”
Ralikariki said the company had evidence and information that “certain members of the Kao Community Committee, as well as certain NGOs in Lesotho, are acting in furtherance of some political agenda”. “SMD is saddened by the picture that emerges: that these vulnerable communities, and of their members, are pawns in the personal and political games of others, to their own detriment.”
“Communication to the broader community using these members of the Community Committee, fails, as information is hijacked, selectively distributed, and false news is spread,” Ralikariki said.
He said the company will continue to follow the principle “of fair and equitable treatment of communities” so their lives are better off as a result of the mine’s investment in their area.
Ralikariki said the company was tired of being accused of “regular human rights abuses”.
“Seinoli should refrain from publishing this vague, untrue, but extremely serious allegation,” he warned.
Seqhee responded a few days later, sounding conciliatory. He said his initial email was not meant to accuse the mine of any wrongdoing.
Seinoli, he said, had suspended the talks to safeguard its integrity, reputation and trust with the community.
“We have in no way defamed your good office in that email and we do not intend to do so despite your accusation,” Seqhee said.
“We hope to work together with you in the near future if your office is still amenable to the partnership.”
Lawyer in trouble
A local lawyer, Advocate Molefi Makase, is in soup after he flew into a rage, insulting his wife and smashing her phone at a police station.
It was not possible to establish why Adv Makase was so mad at his wife. He is now expected to appear before the Tšifa-li-Mali Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday.
Earlier on Tuesday, he was released from custody on free bail on condition that he attends remands.
Magistrate Mpotla Koaesa granted Advocate Makase bail after his lawyer, Advocate Kefuoe Machaile, pleaded that he had to appear for his clients in the Court of Appeal.
Advocate Makase is facing two charges of breaching peace and malicious damage to property.
According to the charge sheet, on October 5, 2023, within the precincts of the Leribe Police Station, Advocate Makase allegedly used obscene, threatening, or insulting language or behaviour, or acted with an intent to incite a breach of the peace.
The prosecution alleges that the lawyer shouted at his wife, ’Mamahao Makase, and damaged her Huawei Y5P cell phone “with an intention to cause harm” right at police station.
During his initial appearance before Magistrate Koaesa, Advocate Makase expressed remorse for his actions and sought the court’s leniency, pleading for bail due to an impending appearance in the Court of Appeal.
His lawyer, Advocate Machaile, informed the court that an arrangement had been made with the police to secure his release the following day, as he had spent a night in detention.
Advocate Machaile recounted his efforts to persuade the police to release him on the day of his arrest.
He noted that the police had assured them of his release the following day, which indeed came to fruition.
Following his release, he was instructed to present himself before the court, which he dutifully complied with.
Advocate Machaile underscored Advocate Makase’s standing as a recognised legal practitioner in the court.
Notably, he was scheduled to appear in the Court of Appeal but had to reschedule his commitment later in the day to accommodate his court appearance.
Advocate Machaile asserted that Advocate Makase presented no flight risk, as he resides in Hlotse with his family and has no motive to evade his legal obligations.
He respectfully petitioned the court for his release on bail, emphasising that he had demonstrated his ability to adhere to the court’s conditions.
The Crown Counsel, Advocate Taelo Sello, expressed no objection to the bail application, acknowledging that the accused had a forthcoming matter in the Court of Appeal.
Consequently, the court granted Advocate Makase bail without any financial conditions, with the stipulation that he must not tamper with state witnesses and must fully participate in the trial process until its conclusion.
Trio in court for killing ‘witches’
THREE elderly women were all stabbed to death with a spear during a deadly night after they were accused of being witches.
Three suspects, all from Ha-Kholoko village in Roma, appeared in the High Court this week facing a charge of murder.
They are Jakobo Mofolo, Oele Poto, and Pakiso Lehoko.
They accused the elderly women of bewitching one of Poto’s relative who had died.
The stunning details of the murder was unravelled in court this week, thanks to Tlhaba Bochabela, 32, who is the crown witness.
Bochabela told High Court judge, Justice ’Mabatšoeneng Hlaele, last week that he had been invited to become part of the murder group but chickened out at the last minute.
Bochabela said in March 2020, he was invited by Rethabile Poto to come to his house in the evening.
He said when he went there, he found Mofolo, Poto, and Lehoko already at the house. There were two other men who he did not identify.
“I was told that the very same night we were going to do some task, we were going to kill some people,” Bochabela told Justice Hlaele.
He said he asked which people were going to be killed and was told that they were ’Malekhooa Maeka, ’Mathlokomelo Poto, ’Mampolokeng Masasa.
They said the three women had successfully bewitched Rethabile Poto’s uncle leading to his death.
Bochabela said after he was told of this plot, he agreed to implement it but requested that he be allowed to go to his house to fetch his weapon.
He said Lehoko was however suspicious that he was withdrawing from the plot and mockingly said “let this woman go and sleep, we can see that he is afraid and is running away”.
Bochabela said the only person he told the truth to, that he was indeed going to his home to sleep instead of going to murder the three elderly women was Mofolo who also told him that he was leaving too.
He said he told Mofolo that he felt uncomfortable with the murder plan.
Bochabela said he left and when he arrived at his place he told his wife all about the meeting and the plot to kill the women.
He said his wife commended him for his decision to pull out.
“I told my wife to lock the door and not respond to anyone that would come knocking looking for me,” Bochabela said.
He said later in the night, Rethabile Poto arrived at his place and called him out but they did not respond until he left.
Bochabela said in the morning they discovered that indeed the men had carried out their mission.
The village chief of Ha-Kholoko, Chief Thabang Lehoko, told Justice Hlaele that it was between 11 pm and 12 midnight when he received a phone call from one Pakiso Maseka who is a neighbour to one of the murdered women.
Chief Lehoko said Maseka told him to rush to ’Mampolokeng Masasa’s place to see what evil had been done to her.
“I rushed to Masasa’s place and on arrival I found Pakiso in the company of Moitheri Masasa,” Chief Lehoko said.
He said he found the old lady on the bed, naked with her legs spread wide.
“I was embarrassed by the sight of the old lady in that state, naked and covered in blood,” the chief said.
He said he went out and asked Maseka what had happened but Maseka referred him to Moitheri Masasa.
Chief Lehoko said Masasa told him that there were people with spears who had threatened to kill him if he came out of the house.
He said Maseka said he knew that Masasa’s neighbour, ’Malekhooa Maeka, was a light sleeper and she could have heard something.
The chief then sent one Patrick Lehoko to Maeka’s house to check if she had heard anything but Patrick came back saying Maeka was not at her house.
“I immediately stood up and went to ’Malekhooa’s place,” Chief Lehoko said.
He said when he arrived, he knocked at her door but there was no response so he kicked the door open, went in and called out ’Malekhooa Maeka by name.
Chief Lehoko said he then lit his phone and saw her lying in bed covered in blankets.
He said he then went closer to her and shook her but she was heavy.
Chief Lehoko said he tried to shake her again one last time while still calling her out but he touched blood.
He said he immediately left and went back to tell others that Maeka seemed to be dead too.
“I decided to go and buy airtime from the nearest shop which I had passed through near ’Matlhokomelo Poto’s home.”
He said on his way he met one Sebata Poto who asked him who he was.
Chief Lehoko said he only replied by telling him that the two women, Masasa and Maeka, had been murdered.
He said Sebata Poto told him that “’Matlhokomelo has been stabbed with a spear too”.
Chief Lehoko said he rushed to ’Matlhokomelo Poto’s house where he found her seated in the middle of the house supported by her children with blood oozing from her chest, gasping for air.
“I stepped out and went to get airtime, but I found her dead when I returned from the shop,” the chief said.
The case continues.
Opposition fights back
THE opposition is launching a nasty fightback after Prime Minister Sam Matekane defanged their no-confidence motion by roping in new partners to firm up his government.
Matekane’s surprise deal with the Basotho Action Party (BAP) has trimmed the opposition’s support in parliament and thrown their motion into doubt.
But the opposition has now filed another motion that seeks to get Matekane and his MPs disqualified from parliament on account that they were elected when they had business interests with the government.
The motion is based on section 59 of the constitution which disqualifies a person from being sworn-in as an MP if they have “any such interest in any such government contract as may be so prescribed”.
Section 59 (6) describes a government contract as “any contract made with the Government of Lesotho or with a department of that Government or with an officer of that Government contracting as such”.
Prime Minister Matekane’s Matekane Group of Companies (MGC) has a history of winning road construction tenders. Other Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) MPs, most of whom were in business, had had business dealings with the government.
It is however not clear if the MPs were still doing business with the government at the time of their swearing-in.
Matekane’s MGC Park is housing the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which is a government institution established by the constitution, getting its funds from the consolidated funds.
The motion was brought by the Popular Front for Democracy (PFD) leader Lekhetho Rakuoane who is a key figure in the opposition’s bid to topple Matekane.
The motion appears to be a long shot but should be taken in the context of a political game that has become nasty.
Advocate Rakuoane said the IEC’s tenancy at the MGC is one of their targets.
“The IEC is one of the government departments,” Rakuoane said.
“It is currently unethical that it has hired the prime minister’s building.”
“But after the motion, he will have to cut ties with the IEC or he will be kicked out of parliament.”
The Democratic Congress (DC) leader, Mathibeli Mokhothu, said although the IEC is an independent body, it can still be regarded as part of the government because it gets its funding from the consolidated fund.
The Basotho Covenant Movement (BCM)’s Reverend Tšepo Lipholo, who seconded the motion, said the Matekane-led government “is dominated by tenderpreneurs who have been doing business with the government since a long time ago”.
“Now they have joined politics, they must not do business with the government,” Lipholo said.
He said some of the MPs in the ruling parties are still doing business with the government despite their promises before the election to stop doing that.
“Those who will not abide by the law should be disqualified as MPs,” Lipholo said.
“Basotho’s small businesses are collapsing day-by-day, yet people who are in power continue to take tenders for themselves.”
He applauded the Abia constituency MP Thuso Makhalanyane, who was recently expelled from Matekane’s RFP for rebellion because he withdrew his car from government engagement after he was sworn in as an MP.
“He set a good example by withdrawing his vehicle where it was hired by the government,” Lipholo said.
Rakuoane said during the past 30 years after Lesotho’s return to democratic rule, section 59 of the constitution has not been attended to even when it was clear that some MPs had business dealings with the government.
“This section stops you from entering parliament when doing business with the government. Those who are already members will have to leave,” he said.
Rakuoane said they are waiting for Speaker Tlohang Sekhamane to sign the motion so that the parliament business committee can set a date for its debate.
“The law will also serve to assist ordinary Basotho businesses as they will not compete with the executive,” he said.
“There are many Basotho businesses in business these MPs are in. They must get those tenders instead.”
The new motion comes barely a week after a court application aimed at disqualifying Mokhothu.
The government-sponsored application sought the Constitutional Court to declare Mokhothu unfit to be prime minister because he was convicted of fraud in 2007.
Mokhothu has been suggested as Matekane’s replacement should the motion of no confidence pass in parliament.
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