One of the reasons a national budget speech is such an important occasion is that it reflects the mood, goals and priorities of the administration. A budget speech transforms political rhetoric and campaign promises into concrete policies that address practical problems. In Lesotho, and other developing countries, the speech provides a benchmark against which development partners can gauge how far politicians are prepared to go, to literally put money where their mouths are.
Last week, Lesotho’s newly appointed minister of finance, Dr Moeketsi Majoro, a former employee of the IMF, made his maiden budget speech, and emphasised once again the new government’s commitment to the fight against corruption and wasteful spending. The four political parties in this coalition government — the second in three years — campaigned on a strong anti-corruption ticket.
Depoliticising bureaucracy and strengthening procurement regulations are some of the measures that the new administration is lining up to tackle endemic graft. Perhaps, the clearest sign of commitment to anti-corruption is the 40 per cent increase in the budget of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO).
These efforts are commendable.
Old wine, new bottles?
But, it is not the first time Lesotho’s finance minister acknowledges extensive venality in the public service and commits the government to rooting it out. One wonders why we should be optimistic about the government’s fresh commitment to tackling corruption.
In the budget speech of 2005, for instance, the finance minister and former employee of the World Bank, Dr. Timothy Thahane, announced that the government was “committed towards identifying and removing public service delivery bottlenecks and rooting out corruption” (see here). The following year, the minister made a further commitment “to reduce the scope for systemic corruption at all levels of government”.
As many waited for Thahane to lead the way, corruption charges were, instead, filed against him, his Principal Secretary (i.e the chief accounting officer in the ministry of finance) and a local businessman. They were accused of defrauding the government of 19 million Maloti (approximately 1,500,000 US Dollars).
Further to that, under Thahane’s watch Lesotho was confronted with one of its biggest corruption scandals as it emerged that a $30 million deal with an Israeli company to supply electronic national documents was not above board. An Israeli court later found this company guilty of bribing a foreign official, and fined it NIS 4.5 million ($1.15 million).
Tim Thahane and others before him failed to rein in corruption under highly favourable conditions of a dominant party system. During this time, the stability of government did not depend much on the use of ‘patronage’ as it will under the coalition government that Majoro finds himself leading.
Majoro and his colleagues may be eager to avoid the mistakes and failures of the past administrations, but the political realities on the ground will weigh heavily on their good intentions and the drive to tackle corruption.
Political imperatives over good intentions
The four-party coalition government has too many people queuing up for the disbursement of patronage of one form or other. There is a frightening legion of young people with college qualifications looking to the government for decent jobs. Some have been waiting for close to a decade to find meaningful employment in the civil service — Lesotho’s biggest employer. They are hungry and their patience has run out.
Yet as qualified as they are, their large numbers relative to job opportunities make it difficult to rely on merit alone for recruitment into the public service. The allocation of job and other resources on particularistic criteria will inevitably complicate the efforts to fight the high levels of nepotism, favouritism and cronyism (see here for shocking details on nepotism in Lesotho).
The unemployment crisis has forced many into the business sector. Yet, economic stagnation and the declining business opportunities mean that many of those trying their luck in the private sector increasingly rely on doing business with government through the tendering process. Many will not qualify for tenders if procurement regulations are strictly enforced.
Coupled with an extremely high inflation rate, the stagnant salaries in the public service provide strong incentives for public officials to continue tendering for government contracts — a practice that has brought Lesotho’s procurement process into serious disrepute. It will not be easy to convince most public officials, including chief accounting officers, to support whatever measures are put in place to eliminate such tender irregularities.
All coalition partners — particularly the newly formed Alliance of Democrats (AD), whose leader and the new deputy Prime Minister has prime ministerial ambitions — are eager to build their base and compete effectively in the next general election. Where the link between a political party and society is weak, and is currently the case with the AD, patronage, clientelism and corruption become integral elements of party building.
Members of parliament will continue to be under pressure to fulfil social expectations to cater for the personal needs of their constituents. One only needs to spend a few minutes in rural communities or on popular social media platforms to understand the expansive role that Basotho assign to their representatives. There is a widespread expectation that an MP must intervene personally, and using his/her own funds, in the personal problems of constituents. This creates a strong incentive for MPs to get involved in all manner of illicit dealings to meet the ever-growing financial demands that attend these expectations.
Unfortunately, the ‘political will’ is not enough to tackle corruption where it is endemic and performs the basic function of maintaining political stability. The current economic and political climate is not conducive for a serious assault on grand corruption. We should brace ourselves for more allegations of nepotism, fraud and kickbacks.
By Moletsane Monyake
University of Sussex