/ 25 September 1998

The two versions of the Langa report

As mutinous Lesotho troops take to the hills in preparation for a drawn-out struggle, we re-examine the report that caused all the trouble

William Boot

The Southern African Development Community’s mishandling of the Langa commission of inquiry and its inability to publicly admit that the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD)had fraudulently stolen the May 23 elections are at the heart of Lesotho’s descent into turmoil.

The suspicion that the Langa report was doctored before it was released is more than just opposition paranoia. Only weeks ago, passages and details from the interim report of the commission leaked from the locked rooms where it was being compiled.

Among other observations, the interim report cited “gross irregularities” in the way Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)had handled not only the compilation of the voters’ roll, but also the electoral process itself.

In fulfilment of the commission’s brief to find a way forward for crisis-ridden Lesotho, the interim report called for the elections to be annulled and fresh elections to be held under international supervision.

Later, before Deputy President Thabo Mbeki’s aborted trip to Lesotho, where he was to release the final version of the commission’s report to political role players, sources very close to the process confirmed the following: that the contents of the report were “highly explosive”; that there could be difficulties in maintaining order in the light of expected anger against the LCD government which recorded a landslide “victory” in the disputed elections; and that the major problem facing the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC)troika of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe would be to manage proposed new elections in Lesotho.

In the event, Mbeki did not make the report public on that occasion – though at a subsequent briefing Minister of Defence Joe Modise confirmed that he had had every intention of doing so, until his troika partners intervened to have it referred to the SADC’sMauritius summit for strategic consideration.

Nor was the increasingly controversial document published at the summit itself – apparently, despite the supposed need for a summit-level stand on the Lesotho issue, not to mention the extreme volatility of the situation inside the country (with a military insurrection in progress), time constraints prevented its discussion.

Not only that: as SADC chair, President Nelson Mandela reversed the earlier argument and declared that the summit was in fact not the appropriate forum for the publication of the report; but that it should be taken up directly with the principals inside Lesotho.

With questions growing out of questions, more days elapsed. Lesotho slid deeper and deeper into crisis with junior officers in the military deposing their seniors, and, while stopping short of declaring a coup, effectively preventing the LCD government from operating.

And still the report, dated September 9 in its final form, was not made public until September 17.

Why? The report which finally saw the light of day is in many respects dramatically different to the interim one, and cops out on every score. Far from containing potentially explosive revelations of election fraud and gross irregularities, and far from looking to the management of new elections, it makes vague reference to the need for streamlining the electoral process and deepening democracy.

It admits that there could have been irregularities in the elections, but fails to find that the will of the people was not reflected. It is profoundly unsatisfactory.

Furthermore, it ignores the evidence of what actually appears on the page. For instance, the commission notes that when it came to examine the sealed white bags in which election materials are required by law to be stored as safe record of elections, they found that 95% of the bags had been unsealed, and in some cases, attempts had been made to reseal them.

To most observers, this would probably constitute prima facie evidence of irregularities. The commission however apparently accepted the Lesotho IEC’s explanation that certain documents needed to be “accessed” for auditing purposes. Similarly, the commissioners take grave note of peculiarities in dates of birth as recorded in the voters’ roll as compiled by the Lesotho IEC.

These were uncovered by South African-based forensic auditors OF&A and show what the auditors bluntly describe as a “scientifically impossible concentration” of births on particular days.

But when they come to assess the implications, they merely note that their own auditors were not able to access the relevant materials, and furthermore that the Lesotho IEC said that political parties were kept fully informed of every aspect of the registration process.

To pause here for a moment: the lack of access to the voters’ roll afforded to opposition parties was the subject of a Supreme Court action, where judgment was delivered in favour of the opposition; by the same token, the failure of the Lesotho IEC to make records available would on the face of it appear enough cause to question the freeness and fairness of the elections in terms of the commission brief – which explicitly includes an investigation of the role of the Lesotho IEC in the election process.

Uncontested allegations that in flagrant violation of the Lesotho IEC’s mandating legislation, logistics for the election were handled by the Lesotho Defence Force’s Tactical Intelligence Bureau, are met with the rather limp and unsubstantiated claim that Lesotho IEC officials were also always present.

Never mind that the intelligence bureau is frequently accused of acting as a secret police for the LCD government, that its signatories were the chief of the defence force, the LCD prime minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tom Thabane.

Never mind that in the run-up to the election, frequent allegations were levelled against the intelligence bureau of making inconvenient opponents of the government, including an academic demographer who was the first to question the compiling of the voters’ roll, disappear.

Examples of such seemingly incomprehensible naivety are legion in the pages of the report as it was finally released.

But what is important in this context is not the total weight of the evidence, but the conclusion the commissioners chose to reach: that despite the fact that by their own admission they were not in any position to judge conclusively, they decided that the will of the people had in fact been reflected in the election results.

How could they legitimately reach such a conclusion on the basis of a situation where they themselves note that key documentation was “in such a state that no reliable conclusions could be drawn from it”?

As the report itself notes, documentation (which, if properly handled, would have guaranteed the fairness of the elections) left the commission in a position where it was unable to decide either “that the elections were rigged, or that fraud is excluded”.

Nor does the commission’s solution to the problem convince: it takes the actual ballot papers as sole record – despite opposition arguments that these could reflect inflated voter numbers, that there was substantial evidence of spare ballot papers in existence, and so on.

The commission itself notes in this regard the difficulty created by evidence of tampering with the ballot boxes and temper bags and the “incorrect filing of electoral matter”.

The questions raised here will be asked more and more as the turmoil in Lesotho continues, as it almost certainly will.

And so will questions like why South Africa chose, in such a dubious situation, to commit not only its troops, but also its international reputation, to propping up a government that it could not clear of electoral fraud.