Ominous rumblings from Lesotho army ahead of election

A coup attempt saw Lesotho Defence Force soldiers chase Tom Thabane from his official residence across the South African border. (AFP)

A coup attempt saw Lesotho Defence Force soldiers chase Tom Thabane from his official residence across the South African border. (AFP)

In the first few months after Lesotho’s crisis in August, much of the blame was pinned on the aggression of the country’s military commander, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli. 

But now, just days before the kingdom’s February 28 election aimed at resolving the impasse, there are indications that Prime Minister Tom Thabane may have an entire rogue military on his hands.

The August 30 coup attempt saw Lesotho Defence Force soldiers chase Thabane from his official residence across the South African border. Simultaneously, troops attacked three police stations, killing one officer and injuring nine others.

For South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the lead mediator in the crisis for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a crowning achievement came in November when he exiled Kamoli from Lesotho.

Curve ball for Cyril
Cut off the snake’s head, went the rationale, and then nurture unity between the army and police and between the army and a democratically elected civilian command.

Yet today, ahead of the poll SADC moved forward by two years, the defence force has made a move that shows just how big the problem is. On February 13, the military issued a one-page declaration stating that, “in its quest to fulfil its mandated duties to protect the Basotho nation”, it would immediately begin “patrols and vehicle checkpoints” in “various places” nationwide.

Ramaphosa scrambled to nip this exercise in the bud, producing an agreement in which the government, the defence force, the police and Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) agreed that the army will “remain in barracks” and “only assist” if the IEC requests it.

Fears ahead of elections
Nevertheless, this manoeuvring by the defence force has sparked fears that voters may be intimidated or that violence may break out.

“The saddest part is that the prime minister, as commander-in-chief, is helpless to do anything about the [defence force],” said one local, who insisted on anonymity. “SADC and Ramaphosa must be very clear: if they’re truly for a lasting peace in Lesotho, they must bring the [army] to order and depoliticise them.”

The defence force’s public affairs office declined to comment on any article in which Kamoli is described as a “renegade”.

Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Ronnie Mamoepa, told the Mail & Guardian: “What’s important to note is that the mandate of the SADC mission is to bring political and security stability back to Lesotho. This is a process, not an event.”

When asked whether Lesotho’s civilian leaders were in control of their own military, Mamoepa said: “Refer that question to the Lesotho government.”

Background to a putsch
Lesotho’s military has long influenced the political scene: the August putsch was the sixth since the nation attained independence almost 50 years ago.

“The military has often been used to protect politicians, so politicians are used to protecting the military – and tend to shield them from investigation and prosecution,” says Dimpho Motsamai, a Southern Africa analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

In January, as Thabane intensified his anticorruption campaign – which critics said was his way of exacting vengeance on his political rivals – grenades were thrown at the home of his then-girlfriend, and another was tossed at the home of the national police chief, Khothatso Tsooana, whose agency is leading the corruption investigations.

Thabane accused the defence force of complicity, demanding that Kamoli turn over eight suspects for questioning. For months, Kamoli refused to honour this directive from his commander-in-chief. This was one of the reasons Thabane gave when he fired Kamoli on August 29 for insubordination. The next morning, the putsch was launched.

Military might
In a sign of their own fear, Lesotho police stayed off the streets for several days. Some fled across the South African border or hid at home or elsewhere. When Thabane returned to Lesotho after his flight to South Africa, he was escorted by armed South African special forces, who continue to guard him.

Six months later, Lesotho’s government seems no closer to taming the defence force.

Election planners have expressed concern that only the defence force has the helicopters to transport ballot boxes to the country’s most remote mountain villages. SADC’s remedy is now to include a police officer, an IEC official and a SADC observer on each chopper.

“One should always be concerned when military are involved in democratic elections, especially if the military does not respond to civilian command,” said one international official in Maseru. “It sends a signal that the rightful authorities are not in charge.”

Government officials charge that those who actually call the shots in the army are former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili – who appointed Kamoli as army commander during his term in office – and others close to his Democratic Congress (DC), Lesotho’s largest party.

Thabane’s All Basotho Convention is part of a coalition government that has ruled the country since 2012.

‘Wait and see’
A DC official scoffed at this “unsubstantiated” claim.

“I don’t see how the DC can begin to control the [defence force] when it’s no longer in power,” said party secretary general Ralechate Mokose.

“What we have is a professional army that will not conform to the wishes of the current prime minister, who wants to use the army and the police to prolong his stay in power.”

With elections fast approaching and each faction pulling out all the stops to win, many Basotho civilians worry that the crisis is worsening, not improving.

“We’re at the point where we’re all just helpless, without the physical or intellectual capacity to address this situation and find some solutions,” says Tsebo Mats’asa, a leading civil society voice and national director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Lesotho chapter. “We feel we can’t even ask questions, but instead just have to wait to see what happens.”

 

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