In this latest article on Lesotho, Roger Southall explains why Lesotho is at risk of military involvement in its politics as persistent political bickering increases chances of a possible fourth election in just eight years.
In 2017 the estranged wife of Lesotho’s prime minister Tom Thabane was shot dead in suspicious circumstances two days ahead of his inauguration. Now there’s a new twist in the saga: on 11 January authorities issued an arrest warrant for his current wife, Maesaiah Thabane, in connection with the murder.
The scandal has erupted amid a bitter dispute within Thabane’s All Basotho Convention and has culminated in his resignation. This is likely to destabilise the governing coalition, leading to an early general election and continued political instability in the small landlocked country of just over 2 million that is encircled by South Africa.
Thabane served a stint as Prime Minister between 2012 and February 2015 when divisions with the then coalition government led to an early general election. The successor government led by Pakalitha Mosisili of the Democratic Congress was in turn rocked by divisions.
After Mosisili lost a vote of no confidence, Lesotho was forced into another election in February 2017. In this latest contest, Thabane was returned to power at the head of a coalition led by his All Basotho Convention, backed by three other smaller political parties.
Two days before Thabane’s inauguration in 2017 his estranged wife, Lipolelo, who had refused to divorce him, was murdered. Her place was immediately filled by Thabane’s customary law wife, Maesaiah. For the moment, Lipolelo’s murder remained unsolved, one of those mysterious killings of prominent figures in Lesotho which occur all too frequently. Maesaiah went on the run after the police issued the arrest warrant and had not still not been found nearly two weeks later.
Maesaiah rapidly acquired notoriety for reputedly dictating who should be appointed to ministerial roles and who should be dismissed. She was accused of interfering directly with the allocation of government tenders. A trust fund she started, ostensibly to assist the poor and needy, was widely suspected to have been a money laundering scheme.
Thabane was already on the losing end of a bruising struggle to retain control of his party when police announced they wanted to question Maesaiah in relation to Lipolelo’s murder. He was left with little option but to resign.
Seeds of discontent
Lesotho is a poor country. Opportunities for employment in the private sector are few and far between. As a result there is a desperate scramble for jobs in government, the public services, the military and the police.
Worse, because the demand for resources far outmatches the patronage available, Lesotho’s political arena has become brutally competitive. It is characterised by battles between factions which stretch across the various political parties into the military and police. As a result, political life has been regularly punctuated by interventions by elements within the army.
Lesotho’s current malaise goes back to the assassination of the Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force, Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao in June 2015. Mahao had been promoted to the post by Thabane in place of Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli.
The assassination resulted in intervention by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which launched an initiative to bring peace, stability and good governance to Lesotho. The aim was to try and keep the peace and bring about stability.
Against this troubled background South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, acting as the facilitator of the reform process, managed to chivvy Lesotho’s political parties into signing an agreement to establish a statutory National Legislative Reform Authority in mid-2019. The agreement was hailed as an achievement but even at the time, its prospects of success seemed to be belied by political realities.
The question of who was responsible for Mahao’s assassination has never been resolved. Two senior officers, both fervent supporters of General Kamoli, were under criminal investigation for his murder. But, they themselves were gunned down after they had just shot dead the latest commander of the army, General Khoantle Motsomotso, in early September 2017.
All this frustrated the Mahao family immensely. Its bid to get at the truth was led by his brother Nqosa Mahao, vice-chancellor of the National University of Lesotho. It was also to lead to his direct involvement in politics.
Changing of the guard
Mahao had hitherto remained on the periphery of politics. But he emerged as the lead candidate for election to the deputy leadership of Thabane’s All Basotho Convention at its elective conference in February 2019. Thabane immediately regarded him as a threat and resorted to court action to block his candidature.
Conveniently, the case was heard by Acting Chief Justice Maseforo Mahase, who was appointed to the post by Thabane after he had suspended Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara from office some months earlier. Mahase ruled in favour of Thabane, but Mahao turned to the Court of Appeal. It overturned Mahase’s judgment, recording scathing criticism of her decision.
Mahao and his supporters proceeded to win the election and form a new National Executive Committee of the All Basotho Convention. But the result was immediately challenged by Thabane. Again the case went to court; again it was heard by Mahase; again Mahase ruled against Mahao and found reason to restore Thabane’s National Executive Committee in office pending new party elections.
Mahao inevitably went back to the High Court. It dealt with the case sporadically, until it finally declared in his favour in December 2019. Mahao’s National Executive Committee immediately proceeded to suspend Thabane’s membership of the party. But it made it plain he would remain Prime Minister until either he resigned or he lost a vote of confidence in parliament.
It was a comprehensive defeat for Thabane.
Uncertain times ahead
The outcome of the present political turbulence is unclear. Mahao appears to be the most likely immediate successor to Thabane as Prime Minister. Yet, if he takes office, it will be at the head of an extraordinarily fragile coalition.
Thabane’s followers continue to dispute the legitimacy of Mahao’s national executive committee. And Mahao will find securing a majority in parliament tough.
In short, Lesotho seems destined for yet another election – the fourth in eight years. And, yet again, it seems unlikely that any party will win outright. The result will be another shaky coalition, with the related risk of further involvement by the military in the political arena.
The SADC reform process was originally intended to be completed by the end of May this year. Currently there is no chance of that. If an election is called, there’s no knowing what the outcome will bring, and SADC may have to go back to the drawing board.