Complex politics, unchecked army a recipe for disaster in Lesotho


Why Lesotho? As shots rang out in the capital of the mountain kingdom last weekend, many were wondering why interference in politics by the Lesotho army is such a recurring occurrence in the country.

Of the 15 member states of the Southern African Development Community, the tiny Lesotho is the one most prone to coups and attempted coups. Analysts say a largely unchecked military and a complicated electoral system that lends itself to personal rivalry could be the cause.

André Roux, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, says a small army, led by a handful of generals who have become a law unto themselves in Lesotho, is “a classic recipe for a coup”.

Add the lack of training and insufficient civilian oversight of the Lesotho Defence Force and this is a volatile mix that could easily lead to instability, he says.

The politicisation of the army has been evident in Lesotho in the past few months.

Public threat
Army chief Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli had, in fact, publicly threatened Prime Minister Thomas Thabane several times since the beginning of the political strife among the coalition partners in the country earlier this year.

His sacking by Thabane last week is considered to be one of the reasons for the latest unrest.

“You have the appointment of a new chief of staff and the incumbent is visibly unhappy about it,” says Roux.

Those siding with Thabane, however, say the army’s intervention this time is linked to Thabane’s anticorruption drive. Thabane’s political rival, Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, appeared in court last month on charges of corruption, which he claims are unfounded and part of a smear campaign against him.

The meddling by the military in politics in Lesotho can be compared with that of several smaller West African states that regularly fall victim to coups d’état, says Roux.

Coup history
Of the member states of the Economic Community of West African States, only Senegal has never experienced a coup in its postcolonial history.

Tsoeu Petlane, director of the Transformation Research Centre in Maseru, says professionalising the military and drawing up a legal framework for military appointments was part of reforms instituted in the early 1990s in Lesotho.

This was somewhat successful, but was eroded when a fraught electoral system led to the political crisis in 1998. South Africa then intervened in the face of a military coup and more than 60 people were killed, including eight South African soldiers.

Petlane, who is also a research fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs, says, following the 1998 crisis, a new electoral model that combines the traditional constituency-based, first-past-the-post electoral system with a proportional system was adopted.

“The constituency-based system does lead to more accountability to voters in a specific area, but it excludes smaller voices in Parliament, because it eliminates all those who lose out to the ultimate winner,” he says.

Lesotho has about 15 political parties, says Petlane.

Current instability
The current instability came about following elections in 2012 when the Democratic Congress (DC), the party of former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisile, received the biggest number of seats in Parliament but smaller parties clubbed together to form a majority.

The coalition partners – Thabane’s All Basotho Convention, Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and the smaller Basotho National Party – soon fell out, leading to all sorts of infighting. On June 11, an agreement was signed between the LCD and the DC. This created the likelihood of Thabane being voted out by a motion of no confidence and he subsequently asked King Letsie III for permission to suspend Parliament. The suspension was granted for a period of up to nine months.

Petlane says the suspension was legal, according to Lesotho’s Constitution, and had been used twice in the past, for shorter periods, to ensure the speedy promulgation of legislation.

Members of the Lesotho coalition travelled to New Zealand in July this year, sponsored by the Commonwealth, to study the mixed electoral system in that country – one of the few systems in the world similar to that of Lesotho.

Petlane, however, says the trip had been planned before the suspension of Parliament in June and was not directly linked to the collapse of the coalition.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran
Liesl Louw-Vaudran is an independent journalist and Africa expert. She lived in Senegal for many years and has reported from over 20 African countries. She is a regular commentator on African issues in the local and international media. From 2002 to 2008 she was the Africa Editor at Media24 newspapers in South Africa and still contributes to newspapers such as the Mail&Guardian in Johannesburg. Liesl also works as a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies, notably as editor of the African Union Peace and Security Council Report.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday