Crisis and Priorities: a need for a pragmatically transformative people-centered strategic socio-economic development Post COVID-19

Photo by Alexandros Karantges on Unsplash

1. Introduction

Amidst all the empty political rhetoric, platitudes and proses in Lesotho, COVID-19 is disrupting the health, cultural, social and economic order at a neutrino speed and magnitude unknown to history.  Notwithstanding the political wrangling and shenanigans, the virus with its effects is wreaking havoc and revealing chronic challenges Lesotho has had for the longest time.

The lockdown deployed as a containment measure to minimise the spread of the virus and to enforce strict social-distancing recommendations had the economy taking a substantial hit and dire socio-economic consequences are to follow long after. The people – the poor and underprivileged, feel the full wrath of the effects of the pandemic.

Since independence, Lesotho has faced myriad difficulties, challenges and obstacles. She has been locked in a vicious cycle of poverty, indolence and apathy and none attendance to these problems spells a cataclysmic apocalypse. The problems confronting this country have been in perpetual existence, but little or no attempt was made to bring them under control. The advent of COVID-19 has amplified all these problems because those who led failed to set priorities.

The depth and duration of COVID-19 is shrouded in extraordinary uncertainty not even explainable by Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in Quantum Mechanics. With the crisis set to persist, the underlying problems are set to deepen and widen.

Additional to the COVID-19 health crisis, Lesotho is embroiled in multifaceted and multidimensional crises. Unemployment, abject poverty, gender inequality, depleting natural resources and economic inequality are on the rise and the government has neither expressed any will to curtail nor devised any pragmatic plan of action to mitigate them. In addition, the effects of COVID-19 present a human crisis threatening food security and nutrition of thousands of people. Is there a responsive agricultural sector to mitigate this?

Apparently, the country has grown so accustomed to foreign debt, huge budget deficits, poignantly low reserves, low government revenues, low economic growths, high inflation rates, nepotism, corruption and cronyism as if they are its periodic priorities. The government operates on a budget deficit and the currency reserves are being depleted or are rather low. With the advent of COVID-19, all these problems are amplified and the citizenry is feeling the full brunt of the negative impact of these factors.

From 1966 up to this day, was there no diagnosis for these historical ailments facing this country? Is Lesotho a state that has never had any plan of conquering factors impedimental to her development and growth? How come the country is faced with problems with historical roots and apparently little was done to bring them under control?

How come a state claiming over 50 odd years of independence has virtually non-existent health system and its “leaders” tremble at thought of COVID-19’s full grip? Is it because it was not evident that health is essential to life? Is it not heart breaking that as at July 2020, the health sector was expected to put on an A-game with only two ICU facilities donated by a corporate in a country that has had eight prime ministers since 1966?

What were the priorities of Mr Mosisili’s administration that ruled this country for almost 2 decades? In Messrs Thomas Thabane and Mosisili’s administrations, was there no political will to device and implement policies adequate and sufficient to improve the health, education, agriculture and trade sectors? Was it not evident that without the right priorities, when a disaster of historic proportions struck, the very existence of the state would be at stake?

Are the past premiers and administrations to blame? What role have they played in the underdevelopment of this country?  This essay has no interest in the blame game: what matters is to diagnose problems in their historical context to attempt solutions. The blame games politicians’ play when confronted with issues make matters worse. They often try to avoid taking responsibilities and to be held accountable.  However, there is always a need to map out where there is fault to apply the perfect or fitting remedies, which in this instance are the priorities Lesotho has had in a historical context.

2. Why is the country in such a mess?

Ideally, health professionals would be fighting COVID-19 around the clock risking their lives to save the lives of others in well facilitated hospitals or health centres with all the needed infrastructure and equipment in place but this is not the case. It is just a matter of imagination that institutions of higher learning, National University of Lesotho in this instance, would have sufficient subvention in order that the scientific labs be well equipped for scientists to be formulating solutions to break COVID-19’s grip. As a side note, the National University of Lesotho’s Innovation Hub deserves a round of applause for incredible initiatives to find solutions to the country’s problems in the absence of political will to assist.

This essay wonders why this country is in this mess. One of the most astounding questions has been how did an enclave of about 2 million people state which does not even measure up to the size of some of the municipalities in the Republic of South Africa become one of the poorest economies?

2.1 Polarised Politics of Hatred, Vindictiveness, Division, and Cynicism

The second coming of constitutional democracy in 1993 must have heralded euphoria of moral and economic values based on the assumption that the ultimate repository of power is the people.

Unfortunately, the solemn aspirations of a constitutional democracy were turned upside-down and polarised politics of cynicism, vindictiveness and anger prevailed. Instead of prioritising sectors meant for unshackling of minds from the bondage and excesses of colonisation and the building of a sustainable economy, the politicians whom the people mandated to lead the nation to a path of sustainable development instead led it into a pernicious system of politics of hatred, division, exclusion and mudslinging.

This vindictive system has sustained politicians at the helm to the disadvantage of the citizenry so much that the chaotic history of this nation has not only been repeating itself but has rhymed consistently. This created a political system with Eco-Chamber Effect where politicians are elevated to a cult status and accountability on major policies aimed at development and growth is but a non-existent phenomenon.

Just like in religious beliefs, a blind following is what the politicians achieved. This cult has had the electorate dishonouring their country in the name of the love they accord to a politician whose cynicism and self-interest prevail over national interest.

This Eco-Chamber Effect kept this nation divided. Consequently, the people were manipulated to abdicate and discard their moral code, values and aspirations that hold them together as a people for political expediency. The values circumscribed around “Botho” were discarded and the people accepted a misplaced theory driven by divisive politicians that there are identifiable ideological and moral differences between people based on allegiance to different political parties.

During his last days as the premier in 2017, Mr Pakalitha Mosisili appealed to this divisive theory devoid of practical reality, which is at best misguided. He even accorded to the electorates’ irreconcilable qualities of oil and water. The theory by the long serving premier was at best meant to insinuate and maintain the status quo and as a measure of last resort to salvage and incite those still delusional from the artificial difference not to hold him to account for his maladministration and misplaced priorities.

2.2 Malfeasance, corruption, cronyism and patronage

Despite over 50 odd years of a claim to independence, the torch of deliverance most fared for at independence has been shattered and political miscreants bent on malfeasance, corruption, kleptocracy and social injustice have hijacked the state. It is evident that from 1970 when Mr Leabua Jonathan hijacked the constitutional democracy to impose a dictatorial regime, the priorities shifted from the people to individual gratification.

Since the dawn of constitutional democracy in 1993, the greatness of the state was gradually replaced with complacency, political decadence, incompetence and mediocrity. Frantz Fanon’s predictions regarding the moral bankruptcy of the ‘new ruling bourgeoisie’, which will be unscrupulous in its quest to accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor masses has been turned into a prophetic statement repeatedly.

Politicians sacrificing long-term socio-economic development of the state at the alter of short-term selfish and malevolent prosperity became the order of the day. For politicians, government and parliament have been diverted from being public serving institutions to get rich quick schemes.

With no priorities, the country’s social and economic development gradually went on a downward spiral. State plunder, corruption, decadence and mismanagement of public funds had politicians steering the country straight to a cliff or an iceberg like the Titanic. It is as if the electorate vote to be led on a pack of engineered white washed lies with foreign corporate entities and foreigners sucking dry the country.

Say less of the patronage and crony system by which ministers are appointed – a blatant misuse of prime ministerial prerogative, which compromises the quality of services to the ultimate repository of power, the people. All these were prioritised or rather tolerated by the politicians at the expense of infrastructural development, health system, economy and education. The patronage system was just a sugar coating. A fledgling health, decreased quality of education, food insecurity, abject poverty, unemployment and economic inequality were horrid results bordering on disaster.

COVID-19 has only projected and amplified these long standing problems to a disastrous status. At the receiving end of this terminal kleptomania and malfeasance are the people – the poor, underprivileged and the general development of the state.

According to the Auditor General Report of 2017, the scourge of corruption and mismanagement of public funds poignantly threaten the macro-economic stability of the public fiscus. Mismanagement of public funds and rampant corruption, which the laudable Public Accounts Committee proceedings exposed as an entrenched phenomenon among public servants, have retarded the development and socio-economic growth of the country. 

Over the years, these malevolent self-serving practices by politicians in government have put at the centre stage the integrity of public resource flows, delivery of public services and mismanagement of capital allocated to service delivery. Clearly, endemic corruption and mismanagement of public funds by the government and public servants have compromised the battle against chronically complex challenges like the fledgling health system and healthcare, quality education, unemployment and inequality. Despite adopting a liberal constitution, there is still utter contempt, disrespect for both political, socio-economic rights, and freedoms hence the neglect of those whom the constitution guarantees welfare and well-being.

In essence, corruption is an assault on the constitution as it undermines directly the socio-economic rights that the government has an obligation to guarantee. Corruption is an endemic war against the constitution as it stifles the state’s financial capacity to deliver on socio-economic rights that are intertwined and indivisible to the political rights.

Undermining, democracy, corruption is an assault on the people, the ultimate repository of power and the key resource that needs to be prioritised for a sustainable development. This essay asserts, with conviction that the drafters of the constitution did not relegate socio-economic rights to a status of non-justiciable Principles of State Policy to be ignored by politicians who are actually disclosed agents to serve the principal – the people.

2.3 COVID-19 as a Pretext to achieve political ends

Some 2-3 months before the first COVID-19 confirmed case, faced with an emergency of a virus whose health risk was high and deployable measures to combat it would have a huge economic toll on the economy, what did the then premier Motsoahae Thabane prioritise?

What did he prioritise in his capacity as the prime minister when a real potential health and economic catastrophe was on Lesotho’s doorstep? He used it as a pretext to undermine the importance of other institutions like Parliament in the fight against COVID-19 and purported to use it to hold onto power cynically for egotistic ends that had nothing to do with the welfare of the people who gave him the mandate to serve.

Even at that moment, that collective the people entrusted to serve did not set the right priorities. In the heat of the panic, the prime minister even admitted in a national address on state television that he did not even know what PPE is albeit  that the health professionals were threatening to down the tools if the premier and his administration did not see to it that the same was availed.

After closure of parliament on the pretext of COVID-19, the premier’s decision was constitutionally challenged. On Friday, 17th April 2020, the High Court sitting as the Constitutional Court found that the former Prime Minister Mr Motsoahae Thabane did not apply his mind to the issue of proroguing Parliament by not taking into account the role of Parliament to allocate resources to deal with the health emergency posed by COVID-19.

In his originating application, the Prime Minister failed to respond to the averment that he failed to take into account the importance of Parliament in fighting COVID-19 and that failure amounted to an admission and the Prime Minister’s version was palpably implausible considering that it is needed most to authorise emergency funding to deal with the pandemic. The Court found that the Prime Minister by ignoring the fact that by “proroguing Parliament, its constitutional financial-resources-allocative capacity which is crucial to fighting the scourge of COVID-19, would be virtually crippled, and, therefore, render his decision irrational.”

Faced with a pandemic of historic proportions, the prime minister engineered political grenades to add to the constitutional and political crises that have cloaked the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. The prorogation of parliament indicated an unambiguous disregard for fundamental tenets of democracy and an abominable disregard of constitutional values from a pair, the PM and DPM, which should be the embodiment of the highest values.

The use of COVID-19 as pretext to sideline parliament for 3 months came at a moment when political decisions of immense importance regarding the pandemic and governance were to be made. Prorogation challenged the core democratic constitutional concept of checks and balances, disregarded the importance of separation of powers and was an attempt to erode the executive’s accountability to parliament. It was also a sheer overreach of the Prime Minister that would have embroiled the Office of the King in political battles. This was also violation of the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs through their democratically elected representatives as per section 20(a) of the Constitution.

3. Beyond and Post COVID-19

COVID-19 has placed the whole political and socio-economic spectra at the tipping point of history. Lesotho is at the turning point of history with failing and inadequate health systems, poverty, colossal youth unemployment, weak institutions, poor education, failing public policies, rural underdevelopment, gender and socio-economic inequalities, poor service delivery, limited infrastructural development,  human rights violations, impunity, persistent military upheavals and political instability. Lesotho stands at a transitional phase from politics of hatred, polarisation, division, vindictiveness and cynicism to politics of development.

It hurts that it needed a pandemic that actually kills to reveal that the country is in dire need of adequate and sufficient health facilities and that research and development is essential in providing solutions in times of crisis. The COVID-19 disruption in education has caused rethinking of how the whole school system operates from nursery to tertiary, majors to prioritise, the span students need to complete a grade or a degree.

Importantly, COVID-19 has thrust into the mainstream the 4th Industrial Revolution and the effective use of technology. Most schools need to embrace this challenge despite the implicit lack of skills and equipment to provide distance education effectively.

With immediate effect, the government needs to prioritise health spending for testing and medical equipment; remunerate doctors and nurses; ensure that hospitals and makeshift clinics can function. The Disaster Management Act empowers the government to utilise available resources necessary to cope with the emergency and to mobilise strategic reserves of commodities, equipment and other resources.

In a sense, the government is empowered to use all necessary available resources to assist all the sectors substantially hit including the health sector. This essay does not intent to bring into dispute whether NACOSEC is properly constituted under DMA or not. However, just en passant, it is very critical but it is not part of the substance of this essay.

With the fiscal and financial measures in place, there is a need to ensure strict implementation to offset liquidity pressures from turning into solvency problems, which Kristalina Georgieva, IMF Managing Director, notes will make recovery hard. In the long run, there will be a need for macro-economic stabilisation which will ensure stability of social transformation and development processes. Georgieva recommends reduction of stress to the financial system and avoidance of the contagion and also the need for a plan of recovery.

Beyond COVID-19, the country is desperately begging for transformative and ethical leadership, cohesion and good governance which are important elements for a prosperous future of this fragile economy according to Professor Dhiru Son. This is the kind of leadership bereft of cronyism and patronage where a leader appoints undeserving and incompetent personnel to positions of power and governance as paybacks or rather due to his or her relations to them. This is the system Alexander Hamilton and the drafters of the United States of America Constitution scolded.

There is a dire need for the assembly of the right team of people with the right priorities in the national interest and sustainable development to benefit the people over short-term personal interests. Having the right priorities will help in the choice of the right people to advance common good and the just course of development. Otherwise, wrong people at the right positions with no priorities or right priorities with wrong people in positions of power are a recipe for disaster.

4. Burkinabe’s (under Thomas Sankara) and Singapore’s Experiences

4.1 Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew

In his memoirs, Lee Kuan Yew emphasised the importance of transformative and ethical leadership when he wrote:

“My experience of developments in Asia has led me to conclude that we need good men to have good government. However good the system of government, bad leaders will bring harm to their people. […] The single decisive factor that made for Singapore’s development was the ability of its ministers and the high quality of the civil servants who supported them.”

Having attained independence around the same time as Lesotho, with a small population density and small area, Singapore shares so many similarities with Lesotho. However, one of the significant differences between these two states is Lee Kuan Yew who had an exceptionally transformative leadership style which prioritised the welfare and sustenance of Singaporeans – the people. It may be of interest to note that Singapore had no natural resources and the future was full of uncertainty after falling out with Malaysia.

Corruption was endemic in Singapore but her leaders had political will and a deep sense of mission to establish a clean and effective government for the benefit of the people – the poor and underpriviledged. Lee Kuan and his team made sure from the day they took office in June 1959 that every dollar in revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grass roots as one dollar, without being siphoned off along the way. Their fight against corruption was not just for the sake of it, they had a definite priority in thought, the social capital – the people.

The charismatic autodidact, Patrice Lumumba is credited to have said “the problem with Africa is those with power have no ideas and those with ideas have no power.” While it has been the case that the electorate in the majority of African states and other parts of the world have an affinity to those without ideas, it was not a mistake Lee Kuan could afford for Singapore.

He made sure Singapore invested in education to nurture the “best and brightest minds” as a long-term investment to acquire quality ministers to serve Singapore. Education was also prioritised in order to capacitate and train competent skilled public servants. While it was said that Singapore had no natural resource, she invested in the greatest resource, her social capital.

As no country has it all figured, Lee Kuan knew how important policy diffusion is. Pragmatic acculturation is the practical definition of Singaporean models by which Lee Kuan and his team formulated the relevant public policies. He adapted, modified and contextualised policies from companies and states in earnest effort to emulate each country or company in whatever sector it was leading in.

Just like a human being reading books, Singapore either corrected the mistakes other countries make or avoided doing the same mistakes. This essay will not single out models for inspiration from which Singapore under their transformative and ethical leadership formulated their public policies that ultimately prioritised their social capital, the people. Lee Kuan Yew engendered and founded the smallest but second most developed economy in Asia and Singapore stands with no foreign debt, high government revenue with a consistent surplus and a 2% unemployment rate.

4.2 Burkina Faso and Thomas Sankara

Thomas Sankara’s transformative leadership style is a bit too ambitious and the values he promoted and stood for are glaring from select speeches in a book titled “Thomas Sankara Speaks”. When Thomas Sankara took over Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, on the 4th August 1983, just like when Lee Kuan took over Singapore, the country was ranked among the poorest in the world. Just like Singapore the country had a population of about 7 million people. Amazingly, Sankara’s pragmatic socialist policies that ultimately prioritised the people, took only 4 years to take Burkina Faso to a self-sufficiency level.

Thomas Sankara was only 33 years old when he initiated what has been termed one of the most profound revolutions in history. He became the mouth-piece of the marginalised, the exploited, the underprivileged and the oppressed and through people centred policies, Burkina Faso grew at record speed.

As stated in the preface to “Thomas Sankara Speaks”, what marked him above the rest was his confidence in the revolutionary capacities of ordinary human beings to refuse to accept economic bondage of a class society and its consequences, ecological devastation, social disintegration and plunder wrought by workings of the capitalist society itself.

His presidency prioritised the health system, education, and agriculture. Under Sankara, Burkina Faso invested in the often neglected group termed by Linah Mohohlo as a group with “extraordinary levels of energy and creativity, as well as hopes, ambitions and dreams” – the youth. Empowerment of women to break age-old stereotypes stood on top of his agenda.

His government funded the building of infrastructure and it is said that the Burkinabes’ built their own railroads and this increased the sense of ownership among the citizens in the government’s undertakings. Just like Singapore, Sankara’s government effectively implemented far-reaching anti-corruption efforts.

5. Conclusion

For Professor Dhiru Soni, the recipe for Singapore’s success was “the ‘shared vision’ collectively owned by the nation’s leaders with a national zeitgeist to invest in its key resource – its people.” Lee Iococca points out, “there is no magic …, people and priorities…it is that simple.”

It did not take Burkina Faso and Singapore a shortcut to maturity or socio-economic growth and development – there was no formula but the will to transform the socio-economic landscape for the benefit of the people. It did not take a fictional messiah, fairies or kobolds to ignite socio-economic growth but the will, experimentation, determination and bold action from its leadership to address the priorities in the national interest to benefit the people.

Both Burkina Faso and Singapore are living proofs that there is no magic about development but a pragmatic approach in formulating economic policy rather than adopting dogmatic strategies. A pragmatic approach to socio-economic policy does the same function as a business plan in companies and the success of the CEO is judged on whether as a going concern, the company is better off than when he or she started.  Did Messrs Thabane and Mosisili leave the country in a better position than when they took over?

The country is in a mess and COVID-19 has revealed so much of the country’s developmental challenges. It is wise to admit that this country’s development is on a downward spiral stifled by politicians who either malevolently or negligently never thought creatively to prioritise the needs of the principal, the people who give mandate to agents (politicians) to assist in the development of the country.

In this day and time, the world is at a tipping point of history and only the people also bear the responsibility to save themselves by being true to their values. Only, we the people can save ourselves from being captives to artificial and self-imposed shackles and chains.

The nation needs to be realistic to identify, analyse and prioritise its problems. As the saying by Henry Wadsworth goes, “the heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.” This essay reiterates this quote and notes that just like human beings, states grow gradually from earnest effort of its citizens. States that refuse growth panic and run around like headless chickens because they never had any priorities set and followed them through.

Individually and collectively, the citizens bear a responsibility to ensure that post COVID-19, the country avoids neglecting issues that are urgent, such as the fledgling health system, poor education system, corruption and cronyism. Above all, the country is desperately begging for foresighted, transformative and ethical leadership centred on the people, cohesion and good governance that are important elements for a prosperous future of this fragile economy.