POLICE are investigating claims that former Foreign Affairs and International Relations Minister, Lesego Makgothi, was bribed by the Moroccan government to abandon Lesotho’s long-held support for Western Sahara’s right to independence from Morocco last year.
Mr Makgothi served in the previous Thomas Thabane administration which was succeeded by the current Moeketsi Majoro-led government in May this year.
Authoritative government sources this week said he was suspected of receiving bribes to unilaterally change Lesotho’s position to that of “constructive neutrality” on the issue of Western Sahara’s decades-long struggle for independence.
There was an outcry in the country last October when Mr Makgothi announced that Lesotho no longer supported Western Sahara’s right to independence. Local civic organisations led the protests against Mr Makgothi’s pronouncements and this prompted the government to issue a statement reaffirming Western Sahara’s right to independence that same month.
However, Mr Makgothi travelled to Morocco last December and again announced that Lesotho had resolved to be neutral on the issue.
In May this year, then Deputy Home Affairs Minister and Basotho National Party (BNP) deputy leader, Machesetsa Mofomobe, alleged that Mr Makgothi was part of a cabal of loyalists of the then First Lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane who were bribed to ensure that Lesotho abandoned its support for Western Sahara’s independence. He however, did not say who had paid ‘Maesaiah in “American dollars” for pushing for neutrality.
Mr Mofomobe is now Deputy Foreign Affairs and International Relations minister in the current government.
Earlier this year, Mr Makgothi denied claims that he or anyone had been bribed to push for a neutral stance on the Morocco-Western Sahara issue.
His mobile phone repeatedly rang unanswered when he was called for comment yesterday. Police spokesperson Superintendent Mpiti Mopeli initially asked for time to speak to the police officers tasked with the investigations before responding to questions on the issue. He did not answer his mobile phone later in the day.
However, government sources said the police were currently investigating Mr Makgothi and other ministry officials over the bribery allegations.
“The police are investigating former minister Makgothi on allegations that he received monetary rewards for announcing a stance of neutrality in the Morocco-Western Sahara matter.
“The foreign affairs ministry’s principal secretary (Retired Colonel Tanki Mothae) was asked to release officials from his ministry to assist the police with investigations.
“The police have already questioned three senior officials from the ministry. Among other things, the police wanted the three to shed light on Mr Makgothi’s travelling arrangements to Morocco where he announced Lesotho’s neutrality.”
Another source said the police also asked questions surrounding Mr Makgothi’s alleged ownership of a farm in the Free State province.
“The police asked if the three ministry officials knew anything about claims that Makgothi received money for adopting a neutral stance on Western Sahara. They wanted to know if Makgothi used part of that money to buy a farm in the Free State,” the source said.
Rtd Col Mothae confirmed that some of his ministry’s staffers were called in for questioning over the matter. He however, would not say if Mr Makgothi was also being investigated.
“Yes they (ministry officials) were summoned to explain to the police how certain things unfolded at the time. Lesotho’s (changed) position on the Morocco- Western Sahara issue was surprising. I was advised that the police would like to find out exactly why this position was taken all of a sudden.
“It is possible that the police were suspecting other things which I would not want to disclose because I was not one of those who was questioned,” Rtd Col Mothae said.
Morocco has laid claim to Western Sahara (also known as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic) ever since Spain relinquished control of the North African territory in 1957.
Various efforts to resolve the long-running issue have been initiated without success, including a 1991 United Nations-brokered referendum which flopped after Morocco and the Polisario Front (the main political party in Western Sahara) disagreed over who should vote. The Polisario Front wants complete independence from Morocco.
Rtd Col Mothae yesterday criticised the stance of neutrality which was proclaimed by Mr Makgothi, saying it compromised Lesotho’s integrity on the international front.
He said Mr Makgothi’s position was at odds with that of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) who support Western Sahara’s right to self-determination.
He said things have since returned to normal after the current foreign affairs minister, ‘Matšepo Ramakoae, reaffirmed Lesotho’s support for Western Sahara’s right to independence.
“We have a very solid policy when it comes to the Morocco issue with Western Sahara. Lesotho’s position is always aligned to that of the African Union, SADC and many others who say that Morocco should grant Western Sahara independence.
“We have always held that position but there was a misalignment last year whereby all of a sudden there was a statement withdrawing Lesotho’s principled position. That shook our relationship with the AU, SADC and many other countries who wondered what had happened to us.
“It was very disappointing at the time because we changed positions and goalposts as though we didn’t know where we stood. It was embarrassing but the (current) minister of foreign affairs (Ramakoae) attended to that matter and this showed that Lesotho takes its (international) relations seriously.
We are happy that we are back to normal in the international arena and playing our role as we should be doing,” Rtd Col Mothae said yesterday.