South Africans woke up on Saturday morning to the disturbing news that a coup d’état was taking place in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and that the country’s prime minister had fled, fearing for his safety.
Many took to Twitter to express their surprise at the events. Apparently, few people have been paying attention to the political infighting in the country since the 14-year rule of former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili came to an end after elections in 2012. ‘#Lesotho! Lesotho? Dear me, does it still exist?’ was the reaction of political satirist Evita Bezuidenhout on Saturday.
‘We don’t want disturbances in another province of South Africa’, opined another commentator on Twitter about the country that is surrounded on all sides by South Africa.
The power struggle between Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, leader of the All Basotho Convention (ABC), and Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) had led to the suspension of Parliament in June this year, and provided the backdrop for the events of the past few days. A politicised military – with a very disgruntled Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, who was sacked as the head of the Lesotho Defence Force on Friday – provides the other clue to the unrest in Lesotho, which has been a long time coming.
If ordinary South Africans weren’t following these events, the South African government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) certainly had been. At the end of July, following a visit by President Jacob Zuma to Maseru to try and break the political impasse, the country warned the army to toe the line in a statement that surprised more than one analyst.
At the time, no one even spoke of any rumblings in the army. Zuma and Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba tried several times over the last few weeks to speak to the leaders of the fragile governing coalition, which includes the ABC, the LCD and the Basotho National Party (BNP). In hindsight, it now seems these talks had little effect in changing the fundamental breakdown of the relationship between the key players in Lesotho.
What happened in Maseru this past weekend is still not exactly clear due to a blackout of information allegedly imposed by the military on Saturday. According to the Lesotho Times, the country’s most reputable newspaper, the army stormed several police stations and seized their weapons. One policeman was killed in the process. Although the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) denies it, insiders confirm that South African special forces did help to escort Thabane out of the country on Saturday morning, when he claimed he was fleeing for his life.
A flurry of emergency meetings in Pretoria between SADC foreign ministers, which included those from the SADC Troika and from Zimbabwe, now leading the organisation, followed the events.
A statement released on Monday afternoon following talks between Zuma and the two main protagonists, as well as a minister from the other coalition partner, the BNP, paints a picture of political foes ready to make a commitment to work together. According to the statement, the leaders have now agreed on a ‘road map,’ to be presented to King Letsie III in order for the suspension of Parliament to be lifted swiftly, and for the partners to iron out their differences.
The immediate priority is to ‘speedily restore stability and security’ in Lesotho, according to SADC. The regional organisation is promising to assist Lesotho by sending an ‘observer team’ to the country. It is clear from the statement, however, that SADC is not going to send troops to placate the army, as was requested by Thabane on Sunday.
The idea of a military intervention in Lesotho leaves most South Africans with a bitter taste in the mouth. In 1998, just a few years into democracy, more than 60 people were killed in Lesotho when the SANDF intervened to try and stop a coup. For now, SADC is clearly favouring a political solution.
Does this mean all is solved? Dimpho Motsamai, a researcher in the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division of the Institute for Security Studies, says that characteristic of the Lesotho crisis is the unwillingness of the political partners to negotiate in good faith. On numerous occasions, mediators were assured that they would iron out their differences, but in fact, no matter what they tell SADC, the relationship between Thabane and Metsing is beyond repair. ‘SADC has been flogging a dead horse. The coalition cannot be built up again,’ she says.
A few weeks ago, the political leaders travelled to the Namibian capital of Windhoek on the invitation of Pohamba and also made a statement, released on 30 July, promising to work together and reaffirming their ‘commitment to move expeditiously to address any outstanding issues, with the aim to enable the coalition government to serve the best interest of the people of the Kingdom of Lesotho.’
The ink on their signatures was barely dry when the leaders started clashing again. Metsing had, in fact, hardly left Maseru airport when police took him into custody on corruption charges – a move he sees as an effort by Thabane to discredit him. ‘The problem is the lack of honesty by coalition partners in the interparty dialogue talks. The partners aren’t negotiating honestly and in good faith,’ says Motsamai.
There is not much SADC can do under these circumstances. ‘You can just do so much as an outside facilitator, but if there is not good faith or political will, it doesn’t matter how many meetings you’re going to have, nothing is going to come out of that.’
What, then, are the likely scenarios for the future? For SADC and South Africa, the immediate priority is to restore calm and order in Maseru so that people can go back to work and stop panicking. A stable Lesotho is important for South Africa, whether the man and woman in the street are aware of this or not. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project provides crucial water supplies to Gauteng – one of the richest provinces on the African continent, but sadly without any major water sources.
If Parliament opens in the next few days, a vote of no confidence in Thabane cannot be excluded – especially since an earlier agreement, on 11 June, between Metsing and Mosisili’s Democratic Congress (DC) still stands. Mosisili, surprisingly, has the majority of 48 seats in Parliament, but due to the complicated game of alliances between the smaller parties he was forced to take a back seat. Perhaps not for much longer.
Ironically, if this scenario prevails, says Motsamai, Metsing will still remain deputy prime minister. ‘Initially he didn’t want to go into a coalition with Mosisili because he didn’t want the job of deputy.’ All the fighting with Thabane wouldn’t have enabled him to get closer to the top job, apparently.
What to do about the military? Motsamai insists that it would be erroneous to believe the entire army is supporting the opposition moves against Thabane. Rather, she says, the unrest is largely due to a small group of ‘rogue elements.’
The sacked Lt. General Kamoli is, in fact, guilty of insubordination and arguably even treason for leading the army to attack police barracks on Saturday and attacking the residency of the prime minister, she believes. The army insists it was only trying to stop the police from handing out weapons to youths who were poised to halt a march by Metsing’s LCD, planned for Monday 1 September.
Reports of gunshots heard in Maseru on Monday evening didn’t come as good news to those who had wished for a rapid restoration of calm in Lesotho, though these reports are still unconfirmed. Zuma, who was appointed chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation at the last SADC summit in Zimbabwe in August, might have to talk tough to make sure Lesotho’s politicians stick to their commitments to work together. He would probably want to avoid any more dawn raids to rescue a neighbouring head of government fearing for his safety.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an ISS consultant.