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Who is Thomas Thabane, and why is Lesotho’s army so scared of him?

Thomas Thabane’s house, a sprawling property on a hill overlooking central Maseru, is the house of a man who does not expect to live there long. When I interviewed him there in May, just days before Lesotho’s general election, there is still hardly any furniture in the rooms, and no art or photographs on the walls. The kitchen looks unused.

Thabane, admittedly, has had little time for decorating. The 78-year-old politician and his wife only returned from political exile in February, and they have been on the campaign trail ever since. But the real reason the house remains bare is that Thabane is confident. He thinks he will be moving house again: this time, into the prime minister’s residence.

He was right, as it turned out. In their third election in five years, Basotho voters gave Thabane’s All Basotho Convention 48 seats in parliament – not enough for a clear majority, but enough to allow him to form another coalition government. He is due to be sworn in on Friday morning.

Thabane has been in and out of government for nearly four decades. He has been an advisor, a civil servant, a parliamentarian, and held several cabinet portfolios over the years. But his first stint as Prime Minister was short-lived. His coalition government lasted just two years, toppled by an attempted military coup in 2014 that forced him into exile, and back into the opposition.

The dangers he faces are highlighted again by a tragedy on the eve of his inauguration: his estranged wife, Lipolelo Thabane, was shot dead by a gunman while driving in her village just outside Maseru. It is not clear yet whether this murder was politically-motivated, although the timing is very suspicious.

In our conversation, he recalls what it was like to be told by his protection team that his life was in danger. “It was in the evening. I was at the Lesotho Sun, having dinner there with my wife, and people quickly said get into the car. I said, look I’m eating. They said get into the car. I got into the car and came to South Africa and didn’t come back until recently.”

He says it could have been worse. “It was bad, but fortunately I was having dinner with the wife [current wife Liabiloe Thabane], so I escaped with her,” he says, breaking into a wide grin.

His levity masks the severity of incident – both for him personally, and for Lesotho, which has yet to recover its political stability. And he cannot rule the possibility of it happening again. He has yet to cancel the long-term lease on a property he is renting on a farm in Ficksburg, just across the border in South Africa. Should his family need it again, they have still got their bolt hole.

Thabane is clear about who is to blame for Lesotho’s chronic instability.

“[When the army was established], there was a debate in many quarters of Lesotho about the relevance of a fully fledged army, but we had it and we have it, and a lot of the instability has come from the army taking one side or other in the political arena. And my own administration was scuttled by the army. The reason they did was I was reminding them that the country was run by a civilian authority, and that represented a vote by the majority of the people. I think I overemphasised that message to my own peril.”

Prior to this election, analysts and civil society expressed fears that the army would again step in to prevent Thabane’s appointment, favouring instead his opponent Pakalitha Mosisili. But a firm intervention from South Africa ensured that any potential coup-plotters had no room to manoeuvre, with foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane unambiguously declaring that no coups would be tolerated “in our backyard”. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is scheduled to attend Maseru – with a sizeable South African security detail – in part to ensure Thabane’s inauguration goes ahead as planned.

Thabane is under no illusions about the continued danger posed by the army, and intends to neutralise them first – even if this means getting rid of Lesotho’s military entirely. “When we win, we will gradually look at examples in the world where there are armed people who are not a classical army, so that jobs would be kept and nobody will suffer and new recruits will undergo a less classical military training,” he said.

Costa Rica is one example, often mentioned in the Lesotho context, of a small country that has voluntarily demilitarised, using the money saved to invest instead in cradle-to-grave healthcare and strengthening democratic institutions. But it’s far from clear whether Thabane has the kind of political capital necessary to pull off such radical reforms, especially when his main political opponent – Pakalitha Mosisili, whose job Thabane is taking – is certain to stand in the way.

That’s not Thabane’s only ambitious plan. He also wants to reform the moribund Southern African Development Community (SADC), arguing that the region’s future depends on much closer cooperation.

“I think the regional issues, if properly managed, can remove poverty from Southern Africa. They can. If individual countries go this way, that way, this way, [then] there will always be something lacking in Lesotho, something lacking in Swaziland, something in Angola, something lacking in Mozambique, something lacking in somewhere. But if we truly upgraded SADC into the economic group that we thought we were forming, then things will improve.”

Thabane wants countries to play to their strengths: for example, Lesotho’s big dams can provide water to everyone, but the country needs someone else to grow enough food to feed its population. This requires a level of trust between countries that is not currently present; and, crucially, it means that leaders might have to stop getting so hung up on sovereignty.

“Sovereignty within a union like that could be qualified,” says Thabane, pointing to the example of the United States, where each individual state has devolved some powers to the federal government. Although it sounds like a radical plan, it’s not that radical. The African Union has long emphasised the importance of regional economic integration, but most African countries have been reluctant to give up any individual powers.

“If I have any breath left, I’m going to be making that noise very, very loudly within SADC. I’ve been looking around and found that most of the leaders within SADC are much younger than I am, I will try to use my age to say look, you are all young so listen to me,” jokes Thabane.

Thabane’s reformist agenda has made him popular with the donor community on which Lesotho is heavily reliant. But he will have to start quickly if he is to have any hope of pushing his plans through a political system which has proved strongly resistant to change over the last few years.

One thing, at least, is in his favour: he won’t be slowed down by having to move too much furniture into State House.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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