The All Basotho Convention’s contested deputy leadership: Another step into the abyss for Lesotho

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All Basotho Convention leader, Tom Thabane/CREDIT: Reuters
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Is there an end to Lesotho’s perennial political instability? Moletsane Monyake warns that unless the All Basotho Convention resolves its leadership wrangles, Lesotho’s comprehensive national reforms process and the government itself are in danger of collapse.

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The All Basotho Convention (ABC) — the party led by Lesotho’s current Prime Minister, Thomas Thabane held its elective conference on 1 February 2019. At the conference, all positions in the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), except the presidency were contested amidst intense factional battles that threatened to split the party.

The conference was closely watched both within and outside Lesotho for two reasons. First, it was, hitherto, the most hotly contested since ABC was founded by Thabane in 2006. Second, to the extent that the ongoing national reforms process hinges on a stable government, the possibility of sweeping changes in the leadership of the largest political party in government, which is currently beset with factional battles, was a major cause for concern. 

The national reforms were recommended by SADC following an attempt by the military to overthrow the Government in August 2014 and subsequent assassinations. Within a space of two years, two army commanders, Lt. General Maaparankoe Mahao and Lt. General Khoantle Motšomotšo were assassinated. The  comprehensive national reforms include reform of the constitution, security agencies, the judiciary, parliament, public service and the media. The deadline for the full implementation of these reforms is May 2019.

Mired in Controversy 

The lead-up to the elective conference was mired in a series of controversies. Most notably, the National Executive Committee mounted a sustained effort to prevent Professor Nqosa Mahao from contesting for the party’s deputy leadership position. NEC disqualified him arguing that he had not served in ABC for at least 24 months prior to his nomination. Party leaders from Korokoro Constituency who nominated Mahao disputed the basis of his disqualification – as a result, they were also suspended for indiscipline. 

The Korokoro Constituency Committee petitioned the Courts to nullify Mahao’s debarment and its members’ suspension by NEC. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tom Thabane launched a blistering attack on Mahao. He called him an imposter and a political vagabond, and instructed the party’s faithfuls to reject him. Following that attack, NEC wrote to Mahao demanding that he show cause why he should not be expelled for taking the party to Court. The ‘show-cause’ letter was quickly followed by a letter of expulsion, ending Mahao’s quest to compete for the second most powerful position in the party. 

These suspension and expulsion decisions were challenged in the High Court and ultimately, in the Court of Appeal on 1 February 2019. Minutes before the conference was due to start, the Court of Appeal declared Mahao’s expulsion from the elective conference unconstitutional. The Court also lifted Korokoro Constituency Committee’s suspension paving the way for both Mahao and the Korokoro Constituency Committee to participate in the conferences’ elections. 

Deputy Leader’s Position: Why is it so coveted?

In Lesotho, the leader of the political party that commands the majority in parliament automatically becomes the Prime Minister. In addition, in the event that the party leader steps down or is incapable of performing his Prime Ministerial functions, the party’s deputy takes over.  For that reason, the Deputy Leader’s post is seen as a critical step into the office of the Prime Minister. More so, when the leader is in the twilight of his career as is the case with Prime Minister Thabane, who is now 80 years of age. Due to his advanced age, there have been reports that he is increasingly forgetful and reliant on his young wife and some members of National Executive Committee to perform his duties. Also, there are rumours that the veteran politician will soon retire. 

The foregoing, significantly, raised stakes for the Deputy Leader’s post, which was contested by four candidates: Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro, controversial National Chairperson Motlohi Maliehe, Acting Deputy Leader Prince Maliehe and finally, the outsider, Nqosa Mahao. Besides Mahao, the other three candidates are current Members of Parliament for the All Basotho Convention. Regardless, Mahao won the position with 671 votes against his nearest rival Moeketsi Majoro who garnered 524 votes. Although Thabane unequivocally rejected Mahao, he did not publicly back any of the other candidates. Nevertheless, it is an open secret that his wife preferred Prince Maliehe who could only secure 236 votes. Interestingly, in January 2018, Thabane had appointed Maliehe, his wife’s preferred candidate, to be the party’s acting  Deputy Leader until the elective conference. 

The tortuous road ahead

It is worth pointing out that the majority of the 10-member NEC are drawn from Mahao’s camp. The fact that most NEC members were not reelected, and the fact that Mahao succeeded in spite of character assassinations by the party’s founder and leader indicate a groundswell of opposition against Prime Minister Thabane and his allies. This is partly because most delegates were disgruntled by the outgoing NEC’s dictatorial tendencies, and unwillingness to rein in Thabane’s ambitious and powerful wife. Indeed, the First Lady has created much disquiet within the ABC for allegedly interfering in the business of both the Government and Party since Thabane’s return to power in June 2017. 

Mahao and the rest of the new National Executive, many of whom have no experience in political party leadership at national level, face a mammoth task of uniting the warring factions and saving the party from looming self-destruction – which would potentially have calamitous consequences for national reforms. Some of the losing candidates — two of whom are Cabinet Ministers— have filed an application in the High Court to have the outcome of the elective conference nullified and have fresh elections in three months. Consequently, the High Court granted an interim order preventing Mahao and the new NEC from assuming the office until this matter is concluded. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has fired two Cabinet Ministers who won the Secretary General and Deputy Spokesperson’s positions for siding with Mahao’s faction. 

Impact on reforms and national development

The escalating factional fights within the largest party in the coalition government are most likely to culminate in a split. This could result in a vote of no confidence being passed against the Prime Minister leading to a premature collapse of the Government. A collapse of the Government will significantly derail or terminate the already sluggish reforms process.

Lesotho’s political instability has come at great cost to the country and its regional allies who funded a series of interventions by the regional body, SADC, to find lasting solutions to the country’s recurrent crises. Partly due to this chronic instability, the country is teetering on a fiscal cliff and is currently attempting to secure a financial rescue package from the IMF. Given current economic conditions, the country cannot fund another snap election for the third time in six years.

Moletsane Monyake is a Lecturer at the National University of Lesotho.

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