Why Lesotho’s in such a mess and what can be done about it

Lesotho voters wait patiently to cast their ballot. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

In an interview following his recent return as Prime Minister of Lesotho, Tom Thabane has blamed the army for the country’s chronic political instability. Stating that his previous administration (after an election in 2012) was “scuttled” by the army, he went on to say that he now intended to neutralise the Lesotho Defence Force, even if it means getting rid of it entirely.

That certainly sounds a good idea. After all, what real use is a pondokkie (ramshackle) army? Okay, it gave a good account of itself when the South African National Defence Force entered the country to restore order when opposition parties disputed the result of the general election in 1998. But then that was one of the most ham-fisted operations in the annals of military history.

Anyway, despite its incompetence on that occasion, the South African army did impose control. Given that Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa, who is the 3000-strong military intended to defend the country from?

But whether Thabane’s latest government has the political capital to tame the army, let alone get rid of it, is questionable.

From the outside, politics in Lesotho looks inordinately complicated, with a mish-mash of competing political parties, fractious governing coalitions, and repeated interventions by the military. It’s a mess, but basically, it’s not that hard to unravel.

History of political instability

After a South African backed coup in 1986, Lesotho was returned to civilian rule in 1993, when an election returned the Basutoland Congress Party to power with a landslide victory and no opposition party representation in parliament.

This was a fault of the British style first-past-the-post electoral system, which produced hugely disproportionate results. A similar outcome was recorded in another election in 1998, although this time, the victor was the Lesotho Congress for Democracy.

Tom Thabane, Prime Minister of Lesotho. EPA/Michael Reynolds

This was the creation of the sitting Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, who had walked out of his own ruling party in 1997 after he had lost control of its party machinery. All this was too much for the opposition to stomach, and they poured their protesters on to the streets of Maseru, the capital. Mosisili called for help, and in shambled the South African National Defence Force.

The South Africans, acting for the Southern African Development Community oversaw inter-party negotiations which resulted in a new and fairer electoral system which combined the first past the post system with proportional representation.

It worked well at first, ensuring proportionate representation of opposition parties in parliament. It should have led to greater accountability, but it didn’t because Lesotho didn’t have the political culture of give and take to go with it.

In a country with little prospect of employment unless one can access government largesse, politics is about who can eat . In the political sphere, this means that politicians scramble desperately for position. If they lose out, they undermine those who win.

Since 2002 there has been a steady fragmentation of the once dominant Congress tradition, as party malcontents have hived off to form new parties, and to search out new alliances. Indeed, such was the threat to his position that Mosisili pulled his previous trick once again in 2012, walking out of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy to form the Democratic Congress.

But this proved his undoing, as in an election that year he lost out to a multi-party coalition formed by the All Basotho Convention led by Thabane, a former Lesotho Congress for Democracy minister. But Thabane’s coalition didn’t last long either, its disarray forcing the country into another crisis, and under SADC prompting, another election in 2015.

Politics and the military

Mosisili had sought to shore up his increasingly fragile political position through the support of the army. Thabane had sought to counter this by replacing Mosisili’s appointment of Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli as Commander by Brigadier-General Maaparankoe Mahao. This was when the serious trouble started.

Elements loyal to Kamoli staged an attempted coup in 2014 which led to Thabane and his fellow coalition leaders fleeing to South Africa. Although the coup was thwarted by the Southern African Development Community, which told the army to return to barracks, South Africa insisted that the latest crisis be resolved by the holding of yet another election.

This time round it was Mosisili who scraped home, displacing Thabane as prime minister by forming an unwieldy coalition of seven parties. It was unlikely that this would last for long, so Mosisili turned to the army. A temporary commander had been appointed to head the Lesotho Defence Force during the election campaign, when SADC sent both Kamoli and Mahao into exile .

When they returned after the election, Kamoli clearly expected to be reappointed to his position – and was. Meanwhile, prosecutions of soldiers involved in the attempted coup were winding their way through the courts, making Kamoli nervous. Amid this drama, soldiers were sent to detain Mahao, who was shot dead in cold blood (supposedly for “resisting arrest”).

Yet more crisis. Mosisili’s coalition began to unravel. He lost a vote of no-confidence in parliament. With SADC ensuring that he could not use the army to prop himself up in power, he had to face (yes, you’ve got it) another election, just a few weeks ago.

Pakalitha Mosisili lost a no-confidence vote.

By this time, Mosisili’s political credit was running on empty. But although Thabane’s ABC won 48 out of the 60 constituency seats, it was not enough to form another government, so along came another coalition. How long this one will last, remains to be seen.

What is certain is that the dominant faction in the army remains hostile to Thabane (even if it is loyal to Kamoli rather than Mosisili). Thabane’s estranged wife was assassinated even before he had been sworn in as prime minister, some saying that this was the army warning him to watch his step. This may give him sound domestic reason for wanting to do to the army what should have been done a long time ago: reining them in. But does he have the power to do it?

Demilitarising Lesotho’s politics

The best hope lies with decisive action by Southern African Development Community, for whom the troubled situation in Lesotho is a running sore. (South Africa’s deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, the regional body’s points man for Lesotho, must have a room permanently booked for him at the Maseru Sun).

But does the Southern African Development Community have the guts and the unity to do anything about it? Will they be prepared to impugn Lesotho’s “sovereignty”?

Anyway, quite how would they do it?

Demilitarising Lesotho’s politics won’t be easy. But if it doesn’t happen, there will be a constant replay of military intervention and changing political coalitions. There would be no shortage of donor assistance, perhaps to retrain foot soldiers as police. But the officer corps needs to be pensioned off. In toto. Full stop.

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