Over the past few years, top-level politics in Lesotho has been defined less by elections and more by a spate of violent deaths — one of which threatens to collapse the government yet again.
For nearly a decade, no prime minister in Lesotho has served a full five-year term. Political instability has forced unscheduled general elections in 2015 and 2017, and incumbent Thomas Thabane has now declared that he will not see out the rest of his term.
Punctuating these votes have been a series of high-profile murders that continue to cast a long and ominous shadow over the mountain kingdom.
The first unmistakable sign that something was very wrong came in June 2015, with the killing in suspicious circumstances of former army chief Maaparankoe Mahao. At the time of his death, Mahao was embroiled in a bitter fight for power between Thabane and his arch-rival, former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili. The latter had just won an election, unseating Thabane in the process; weeks later, Thabane’s favoured army chief — Mahao — was found dead. Eight soldiers have been charged with murdering Mahao.
Regardless of whether Mosisili was involved in the murder, the scandal that followed played a major role in undermining public confidence in his government, leading eventually to the 2017 election — which Thabane won.
Shortly after Thabane’s victory, however, another army chief turned up dead. Lieutenant General Khoantle Motsomotso was shot dead in his home in September 2017 by two army officers who had recently been fired. The attackers — who were killed on the scene — had been implicated in Mahao’s murder too.
In between these two assassinations was an even more mysterious crime: the killing in cold blood of the prime minister’s second wife, Lipolelo Thabane, while she was driving with a friend along the winding mountain roads outside the capital, Maseru. The timing was strange: she was killed on June 2017 14, just two days before Thabane was due to be sworn in for his second stint as prime minister, and there was no clear motive.
The couple were separated: Thabane had campaigned with another woman, Liabiloe Ramoholi (now known as Maesiah Thabane), by his side, whom he described as his wife. During his first stint in office, Thabane had gone to the Constitutional Court in an unsuccessful effort to have Ramoholi declared as the official first lady instead of Lipolelo Thabane.
As the Mail & Guardian reported at the time of the murder: “We don’t know who murdered Lipolelo Thabane, the estranged wife of incoming Prime Minister Thomas Thabane. We don’t know why she was murdered. What we do know is that her death plunges Lesotho into yet another period of dangerous political instability.”
Two-and-a-half years later, this political instability looks to have claimed another scalp: that of Thomas Thabane himself. Shocking reports from investigators into Lipolelo Thabane’s murder suggest that the prime minister’s personal phone was traced to the scene of the crime, and that he has been called in for questioning. His third wife, Maesiah Thabane, is also wanted for questioning by the police — but she has gone into hiding.
The scandal has been seized on by Thabane’s rivals within his own party, the All Basotho Congress, which has turned against him. This has forced the prime minister to announce his retirement — although, crucially, he has not given a timeline for when he will step down, saying only that he will be guided by constitutional processes.
“Truth be told, I have become of age and my strength has lessened, hence I announce before you today that I have an intention to step down and when such time comes I will let you know,” the 80-year-old Thabane said last Friday.
In that event, King Letsie III will be forced to call yet another general election — Lesotho’s fourth in eight years. There is no guarantee that a new vote will bring any more stability to the country, however. Repeated political interventions by South Africa, under the guise of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) mandate, have not helped either.
Meanwhile, the prolonged crisis has fuelled the arguments of sections within the South African government who are not sure that the country should exist at all.
As Finance Minister Tito Mboweni tweeted: “Those who think that SADC or some political internal goodwill will solve this crisis don’t understand both the political economy of the Lesotho state or the political economy of Lesotho society. My view: the solution is Southern African. Remove the border!”
Although that may be an extreme solution — and hugely unpopular within Lesotho — there can be no doubt that the country’s current political system is not working, and that some kind of radical shift is required.