The sudden death of High Court judge, Thamsanqa Nomngcongo, last Thursday could not have come at a worse time for Lesotho’s ailing judiciary.
The learned judge took his last breadth at a time when justice delivery has ground to a halt, primarily because of underfunding and many other tribulations including gross incompetence in the justice delivery value chain. So dire is the situation of underfunding that the judiciary has failed to recruit the required number of judges to avert a prolonged crisis. In the meantime, crime continues to take root. We are now known more for homicides more than for our clean water and shiny diamonds.
Just to prove how underfunded the judiciary is, in May this year, the High Court and Court of Appeal Registrar, Advocate ‘Mathato Sekoa, said the government had allocated a measly M937 366 to be shared by all the country’s courts including the High Court and Court of Appeal.
Adv Sekoai told journalists in Maseru at the time that the meagre amount was for the first quarter of the 2021/22 financial year from April to June 2021. The M937 366 budget for all the courts was much less than the M1, 3 million electricity debt owed by the Maseru Magistrates’ Court alone.
We cannot begin to imagine how the government expects the entire court system to use such a paltry amount to cover their operational costs which include electricity, gas, coal, water, fuel, stationery and telephone bills, among others.
It goes without saying that the paltry allocation is in contravention of section 118(3) of the constitution which mandates the government to “accord such assistance as the courts may require to enable them to protect their independence, dignity and effectiveness, subject to the constitution or any other law”.
But should we be surprised. Perhaps not. Successive governments appear uninterested in ensuring an efficient justice system to protect their vested interests. A weak judiciary is a boon for perennial looters.
All in all, the judiciary was allocated just M11 million when it required at least M25 million for operational expenses for the 2021/22 financial year. Of that M11 million, she said the High Court had only been allocated M463 788, 55 for April, May and June 2021. That surely is a tragic joke.
The cash crunch had even forced the judiciary to temporarily suspend the recruitment of seven new judges of the High Court.
When the recruitment process resumed last month, it was revealed that only two out of the initial seven posts would be filled due to lack of funding. Now that Justice Nomngcongo is no more, that means the judiciary is worse off than it was in August when the decision to recruit only two new judges was made. Already, the judiciary is sitting on thousands of untried cases due to the unavailability of resources.
There are now only seven judges left to deal with the huge backlog of cases following the latest demise of Justice Nomngcongo and the passing on of two others last year – Justices Lisebo Chaka-Makhooane and Lebohang Molete — as well as the retirements of Justices Semapo Peete and Teboho Moiloa in 2020.
It only stands to reason that the government should up its game and allocate the required resources to build a competent judiciary. If that is not done, then ours will continue to be a vicious cycle of lack of justice delivery and escalating crime. Investors will stay away for no one wants to be invested in a country where they expect to be dodging bullets instead of counting their returns in the safety of their verandas.
As stated by respected lawyer Advocate Letuka Molati in an interview with our sister paper, the Sunday Express, Lesotho needs at least 10 more judges to even begin thinking of alleviating its huge backlog of cases and to ensure speedier delivery of justice.
The ripple effects of the underfunding of the judiciary and the comatose justice system will continue to be felt by every Mosotho. You just don’t know when the next murderer will turn up at your doorstep or when you hear that your neighbour has been gunned down.
The wanton killings that have seen us now ranked as the murder capital of Africa are a direct consequence of a government that does not take its work seriously or simply doesn’t care. How else can anyone explain the paltry allocations to the judiciary when the focus should be on fighting ever escalating crime levels.
And when a government fails to recruit adequate judges – who are already ill paid anyway compared to their counterparts elsewhere – then a nation is doomed.
As we have said repeatedly and as will never tire to opine, we are going nowhere as a country as long as we remain synonymous with crime. The Latin America countries with which we are now lumped are failed states run by drug barons and their proxies. That is certainly not a position to be for any country that seeks progress for its people.
The only thing the government can do to change our battered image is to invest in crime busting agencies to improve their operational capacities. That begins with the judiciary which must be well capacitated to handle criminals put through the system. An effective and well-equipped police force to probe crimes thoroughly and an efficient prosecution service to nail perpetrators are other important pre-requisites.
Unfortunately, Lesotho has neither. It doesn’t look like we will have any in the foreseeable future with the kind of lip service being paid to fighting crime.
May Justice Nomngcongo rest in eternal peace. But may his death and the further crisis it has spawned open the eyes of our leaders and get them to begin taking themselves seriously. We need more judges, magistrates and well-trained police officers in the streets. Either that or we remain a failed state.