A historical perspective of Lesotho’s political crisis

by Joseph Ngwawi – SANF 14 no 48
The current political challenges in the Kingdom of Lesotho can be better understood in the context of the country’s history of internal squabbles.

The mountainous kingdom, surrounded by South Africa, has a long history of political instability that dates back to the time when it attained its independence in October 1966.

Soon after independence a constitutional crisis arose when King Moshoeshoe II attempted to obtain wider personal powers in accordance with traditional rights.

When his attempt failed, the King was forced by then Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan to sign an undertaking that he would abide by the constitution, which gave executive powers to the Prime Minister.

This resulted in continued strained relations between the Prime Minister and the King.

When the opposition Basotho Congress Party (BCP) led by Ntsu Mokhehle won the next elections in 1970, Jonathan declared a state of emergency, and placed the King under house arrest, nullified the elections, suspended the constitution, and banned all political parties.

King Moshoeshoe II was forced into an eight-month exile in the Netherlands in 1970 but returned in December of the same year.

Meanwhile instability haunted Jonathan’s administration. Unable to contain it, he established an 86-member all-party National Assembly to draw up a new constitution and revoked the state of emergency.

This move split the BCP into two camps: one whose members were willing to accept nomination to the interim Assembly and the other led by Mokhehle who demanded a return to the previous political system.

In January 1974 there was an attempted coup led by Mokhehle which was suppressed, and saw a number of his supporters imprisoned.

Further political instability occurred in January 1986 when troops of the Lesotho paramilitary force, led by Major General Justin Lekhanya deposed the Jonathan government.

Lekhanya reinstated the King, who was to govern on the advice of a military council headed by Lekhanya himself.

However, relations deteriorated when Lekhanya dismissed three members of the military council and one member of the council of ministers, but the King refused to approve the changes.

Lekhanya suspended executive and legislative powers, forcing King Moshoeshoe II to once again go into exile.

In his absentia, his son Letsie III, ascended to the throne reluctantly, after promising not to dabble in politics.

On 30 April 1991, a coup orchestrated by Major General Elias Phitsoane Ramaema, a member of the military council, succeeded in removing Lekhanya as chairperson.

This encouraged Moshoeshoe to return on 20 July 1992 after two years in exile, but as an ordinary citizen, not as king.

Mokhehle, the veteran leader of the BCP, won a landslide victory in the country’s first multi-party elections in 23 years, which were held in 1993.

The Basotho National Party (BNP) alleged widespread irregularities and refused to accept the results of the elections and subsequently declined the BCP government’s offer of two seats in the newly established senate.

Reconciliation and peace did not last long. Army units fought each other in the middle of January 1994.

By then however, southern Africa was under-going interesting political reforms, including the transition in apartheid South Africa.

Crucial to Lesotho’s external affairs has been its relationship with South Africa. Completely surrounded, Lesotho relies heavily on its neighbour in almost all economic spheres.

Lesotho’s anti-apartheid stance at the United Nations and the then Organisation of African Unity – precursor to the African Union – in the first half of 1975 increased tensions between the two countries.

These mounted as Lesotho refused to recognize apartheid South Africa’s proclamation of an independent Transkei in October 1976.

The two countries’ ties deteriorated further during 1982-83 in the wake of South African armed raids against the African National Congress in Lesotho.

The tension between the two neighbours began to thaw after the end of apartheid although, as it is completely surrounded by South Africa, Pretoria continues to play a significant role in Maseru’s economic and political sphere.

For instance, when the army units fought against each other in 1994, the presidents of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe met in Maseru and agreed to establish a regional task force to monitor a ceasefire.

The initiative was historic and succeeded in containing the crisis, resulting in a truce in late January 1994.

There were, however, continued cases of indiscipline within the army. In mid-April 1994, rebel troops assassinated Selometsi Baholo, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance who had been kidnapped along with four other cabinet ministers.

This, coupled with the unresolved kingship issue as well as a three-week wage strike by the police and prison officers, made the country ungovernable; once again the government applied for external help.

South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe formed a commission to look into the disturbances in Lesotho.

On 17 August 1994 King Letsie III announced that he was suspending parliament and setting up a provisional council that was representative of all people.

The government declared the king’s announcement unconstitutional, which provoked disturbances in the country in which at least four people were killed.

The new South African government led by Nelson Mandela, together with Botswana and Zimbabwe, threatened to cut supplies to Lesotho. The pressure worked and Mokhehle’s government was officially restored on 14 September 1994.

In November of the same year, King Moshoeshoe II returned to his throne and his son Letsie III took the title of crown-prince.

King Moshoeshoe II was killed in a motor accident in January 1996 and crown prince Letsie was selected to succeed him by the college of chiefs.

In June 1997 Mokhehle resigned from the BCP following disagreements within the party over his leadership.

He formed a new party called the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), taking with him 40 of the BCP’s 64 members of parliament. The move enabled the LCD to secure a parliamentary majority, retaining its hold on government.

The BCP and several groups in the country challenged the action as unconstitutional, but the government remained in power.

In early 1998, Mokhehle retired from politics and Pakhalita Mosisili took over as the leader of LCD.

Lesotho’s second general elections since its return to civilian rule were held on 23 May 1998, with the LCD winning 79 of the 80 seats in the National Assembly.

The main opposition parties BNP, BCP and the Marematlou Freedom Party protested strongly to the Independent Electoral Commission that the poll was rigged.

The opposition parties succeeded in getting a court order calling on the elections to be audited and a nine-member committee, headed by South African Judge Pius Langa, was set up to probe any poll malpractice.

On 11 September 1998, junior officers of the Lesotho Defence Forces arrested 29 of their seniors including the army commander, and coerced him into announcing his resignation over national radio.

Immediately after the announcement, confusion reigned in Maseru and other parts of Lesotho, as citizens feared a government overthrow.

SADC Heads of State and Government meeting in Mauritius decided to release the final Langa report in the hope of calming the situation.

The Langa Commission acknowledged the occurrence of election irregularities but was vague in its findings and did not state any definite conclusions.

In a country where political tension had mounted to a breaking point, the release of an inconclusive report was the last straw. The four-months-old election chaos brought the economy to a virtual standstill.

Protesters maintained an all-night vigil outside the king’s palace demanding that the king annul the election results. However, because of the constitutional clause barring the involvement of the king in politics, he was powerless.

Mutinous members of the army seized arms and ammunition and expelled or imprisoned their commanding officers.

In light of this crisis the Prime Minister of Lesotho appealed to Southern African Development Community (SADC) for assistance to restore the authority of his government.

A combined task force of South African and Botswana forces entered Lesotho on 22 September 1998 to restore order but met with unexpectedly tough resistance.

In a give-and-take peace deal initiated by Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa in early October 1998, the Lesotho government agreed to hold fresh elections in 2000.

The opposition agreed to allow the LCD government to remain in power until then, and a Transitional Executive Committee comprising government, parliament and the opposition was put in place to facilitate the preparations for holding of elections.

Post-electoral dissatisfaction resurfaced after elections in 2007 as the opposition party refused to accept the results, plunging the country into a crisis.

This resulted in a negotiating team comprising the Heads of Churches in Lesotho and SADC facilitators being put in place by southern African leaders to address the situation.

This culminated in a SADC-brokered peace deal in April 2011 following more than two years of talks aimed at finding a lasting solution to the political challenges in the country.

Again, intra-party tensions led to the splitting of the ruling LCD, with Mosisili resigning from the party and taking with him several senior officials to form the Democratic Congress (DC).

Elections were held in May 2012, which were won by Mosisili but he failed garner enough votes to form a government.

The DC led by Mosisili could only manage to win 41 of the 80 contested constituencies against about 26 seats for the All Basotho Convention (ABC) led by Thomas Thabane, which then formed an alliance with the LCD and the BNP.

The three-party coalition government that many observers hoped would bring lasting stability to the country had faced challenges, resulting in the latest political crisis in the wake of an alleged coup plot by Lesotho’s military on 30 August.

Several explanations have been put forward for the events leading to the latest conflict, including allegations that soldiers seized weapons from several police stations and surrounded Thabane’s residence in Maseru. The military, however, denied staging a coup.

The latest political crisis was allegedly set off when Thabane, facing a vote of no confidence, suspended Parliament in June.

Another reason cited for the latest conflict is the decision by Thabane to dismiss Lesotho Defence Force commander Kennedy Tlali Kamoli, replacing him with Maaparankoe Mahao.

At a meeting between the Troika of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation and the coalition government on 1 September in Pretoria, South Africa, SADC agreed to send a facilitator to Lesotho to work with the coalition government as they implement the agreed roadmap.

In a joint statement with the SADC Organ Troika, the Basotho leaders announced that they would take steps to lift the suspension of parliament that had been ordered by Thabane in June to avoid a no-confidence vote.

The meeting reiterated the Basotho leaders’ commitment to the Windhoek Declaration of July 2014 in which they agreed to work together to restore political stability, stability, peace and security, and law and order in the country. sardc.net

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