Rocky road: Lesotho’s political turmoil

Katie Silvester

Spotlight: Lesotho

The country has its second coalition government in three years, but the political uncertainty has seen security deteriorate in the mountain kingdom

Chinese / Lesotho project

© OER Africa CC BY 2.0

Politics in post-independence Lesotho have been something of a battlefield, causing instability for the whole country at various junctures over the last five decades. There have been coups and the South African military had to intervene – at the request of the government – in the late 1990s to help restore peace. Even the royal family have not always been safe, with the King having to live in exile for a while in the 1970s. Just last year the Prime Minister fled to South Africa in fear of his life, after a vote of no confidence went against him in Parliament.

The modern state of Lesotho was forged in the early 1800s. Moshoeshoe I, a minor chief of the Bakwena, gathered a following among tribes trying to protect themselves against Zulu and Matabele raids. After successful resistance, Moshoeshoe became chief of the local Basotho and other tribal groups. He was also proactive in establishing relations with missionaries, especially French Catholics, whom he encouraged to establish missions and schools, and to advise him on negotiations with Europeans.

When the Boers set out on their Great Trek in 1834 in search of new territory, the savvy Moshoeshoe sought the protection of the British Crown – an alternative he preferred to annexation by the Boers. In 1868, the nation, then called Basutoland, was granted British protection and its borders, virtually unchanged today, were drawn up the following year. In 1871 Basutoland was annexed to the Cape Colony, but removed from Cape control 13 years later to come under direct British rule.

Lesotho became independent on 4 October 1966, with Chief Leabua Jonathan as Prime Minister and Moshoeshoe II as King.

The nation’s most recent troubles began after the general election in May 2012, which initially resulted in a peaceful transfer of power when Democratic Congress (DC) Prime Minister Bethuel Pakalitha Mosisili was succeeded by All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader Tom Thabane, the first change of prime minister since 1998. Thabane had come to prominence as a minister in the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) government, which was headed by Mosisili at the time. In October 2006, Thabane left LCD to form the ABC, along with 16 other LCD MPs.

In the meantime, Mosisili and 44 other members had also left the ruling LCD to set up DC. Thabane became Prime Minister in 2012, despite the ABC not polling the most votes. Mosisili’s DC had won the most seats (48) in the 2012 election, but did not have a working majority, so the three opposition parties (ABC, LCD and the Basotho National Party) formed a coalition, with parliament electing Thabane as Prime Minister.

By June 2014, divisions had appeared in the ruling coalition, culminating in a motion of no confidence against Thabane. Two months later, Thabane fled to South Africa, alleging that the army had attempted a coup and saying that he feared for his life. The South African government provided a security escort so that Thabane was able to return to Lesotho in early September of that year. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) initiated a process of mediation between the political stakeholders, which was facilitated by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. This resulted in the signing of the Maseru Facilitation Declaration on 2 October 2014, which committed all political parties to the reconvening of Parliament on 17 October 2014. The declaration limited the business of that next Parliament to discussion about the budget and matters relating to the holding of elections; and to the holding of elections in February 2015.

In National Assembly elections in February 2015, Mosisili’s DC won 47 seats, Thabane’s ABC 46, the LCD 12 and the BNP seven. Neither DC nor ABC won a majority of the 120 seats in Parliament so, after negotiations with the smaller parties, the DC announced in March that it would form a coalition government with the LCD and five other smaller parties. Mosisili was, once again, Prime Minister.

The reinstatement of Mosisili as leader seems to have done little to promote peace and stability, however. In June it was reported that all opposition leaders, including Thabane, had fled abroad. Thabane, now leader of the opposition, claimed to have been the target of an assassination plot. Former Lesotho army commander Maaparankoe Mahao was also killed by soldiers in June, with opposition parties and civil society telling Cyril Ramaphosa, South African Deputy President and SADC facilitator, that there were splits within the army and that the government did not seem to be in control of the armed forces. They spoke of a deteriorating security situation, saying that ordinary people – and some soldiers – were in fear of their lives when Ramaphosa held talks in Maseru in June.

Mosisili disputes claims that the government is not in control of the army, however, saying: “The army has no power or political ambition as far as we are aware. Therefore the relationship between the Coalition government and the army is strictly professional.” See page 15 for more of Mosisili’s views on the army.

The killing of Mahao has caused particular concern among the international community, especially as it happened under the watch of newly reinstated lieutenant-general Tlali Kamoli who was head of the armed forces at the time of the alleged attempted coup in 2014.

George Robinson, an international affairs consultant for MWW, a US-based communications agency, says: “Lesotho has never been politically stable, and election results have always been fraught with dispute. The death of Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahoa, which spurred the latest round of unrest, was just another chapter in the long-running saga of Lesotho’s army being beyond any kind of legitimate control. The decision of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to reinstate Tlali Kamoli as Mahoa’s replacement after this was unforgivable, given that Kamoli is widely-believed to have staged the failed coup that led to elections earlier this year. It shows that Mosisili has little appetite to bring peace back to Lesotho.”

The government initially agreed to a SADC-led Commission of Inquiry into the killing of Maaparankoe Mahao and other security issues in Lesotho. Botswana Judge Mpaphi Phumaphi is chairing the enquiry. However, the government has been largely boycotting the enquiry, unhappy that so many of the hearings have taken place in South Africa, where Thabane and various ex-soldiers remain in exile.

“Given the power that the army holds, bringing it back into line will be no easy matter,” cautions Robinson. “Sadly, many feel that sanctions are now the only viable answer. The US and EU have already said that if Lesotho does not sort out its problems, aid will be discontinued. One of the first steps could see Lesotho removed from the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This should be a last resort, however, as the people hurt the most by this will be Lesotho’s rural poor.”

In a country where many people live below the poverty line, political instability does nothing to raise the standard of living and diverts the focus of the government of the day from dealing with some of the every day concerns that affect the lives of the population. One in five people in Lesotho don’t have access to a source of improved drinking water and 70 per cent have to live with inadequate sanitation facilities – a similar situation to other developing countries in the region.

Only 64 per cent of children complete primary school. Access to health care is limited in the most remote areas, though a network of hospitals, clinics and health centres provide basic facilities across most of the country. The country looks to have failed to meet its Millennium Development Goals on maternal and child mortality, which sought to reduce under-five mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015 and reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters in the same timescale. Just 62 per cent of births were attended by qualified health staff in 2009 – again this is not dissimilar conditions in other lower middle-income countries, but the UN was aiming for this figure to reach 100 per cent in all countries by 2015.

But the health statistic that stands out the most is that life expectancy is a shockingly low 49 years, due to the spread of AIDS.

“Little is done about the country’s crippling AIDS problem,” adds Robinson. “It is famously said that there are two types of people in Lesotho: those infected by AIDS and those affected by it.”

Mosisili blames the escalation of the AIDS crisis partly on the previous government (see page 16). Robinson, however, thinks that poverty is the underlying reason why AIDS has such a grip on Lesotho, when other African countries have had more success in stemming the number of deaths.

“AIDS is exacerbated by food insecurity, with much of the population having to choose between putting food on the table or buying medication,” he says. “This is a vicious cycle, with Aids killing many farmers, meaning that the food crisis only gets worse. Charities like Sentebale are left to fill in the gaps, but they can only do so much.”


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