Lesotho at 50: The Politics of Dysfunction or the Dysfunction of Politics?

Lesotho at 50: The Politics of Dysfunction or the Dysfunction of Politics?

As the Mountain Kingdom nears the 50th anniversary of its declared independence from the United Kingdom, it appears that Lesotho faces a crisis in its military and political systems. By JOHN AERNI-FLESSNER.

There is a looming potential split in Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s ruling Democratic Congress (DC), the continued self-exile in South African border towns of opposition leaders including ex-Prime Minister, Tom Thabane, over professed security concerns around the continued presence Lesotho Defense Head, Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli, and worries about whether political gridlock over security-sector reforms will hinder development efforts by jeopardising promised aid money from abroad. The compounding crises, however, are not particularly abnormal in the history of Lesotho’s independent politics.

Whether 2017 will require yet another election for Lesotho could be determined shortly after the 50th anniversary celebrations when Parliament reopens, with the potential of a no-confidence vote looming. In short, independence in Lesotho for political leaders might feel about as festive as daily life does for the majority of the Basotho citizens, many of whom struggle to get by in a country long on political dysfunction and short on economic opportunity, even as they hope for solid governance.

The intertwining of political disputes with the security forces has been the independence legacy for 50 years now in Lesotho. Dating back to 1966, Lesotho politicians and political parties have split and splintered regularly, and politicians, police, and the army have never hesitated to form alliances designed to keep particular people and parties in power.

While elite politicians are preoccupied with a near-constant threat of personal, physical violence and the risk of assassination, rarely has this spilled into the Basotho population at large. This allows for the appearance of calm and stability for the international community, while the behind-the-scenes tension on those in politics remains so high that governing is relegated to a low priority.

Violence in Lesotho’s electoral politics dates to the colonial period. A 1964 shooting at a political rally claimed three lives as parties campaigned for the pre-independence elections. The Basotho National Party (BNP) prevailed in the 1965 polls, winning 31 of 60 Parliamentary seats, despite winning only 42% of the popular vote. The two opposition parties set the now-common pattern for contesting electoral results by unsuccessfully petitioning the Colonial Office in London for new elections, and then taking their complaints to the United Nations in New York and the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa.

At home, protests by opposition parties in conjunction with the constitutional monarch, Moshoeshoe II, continued even after independence as the parties pressed for new elections. In December 1966, opposition political leaders planned their biggest rally to take place at Thaba Bosiu, the mountain fortress of the first monarch Moshoeshoe and the spiritual home of the Basotho nation. The government obtained a court injunction to shut down the protest before it began, and the police opened fire from a roadblock set up to keep protesters away from the mountain. Ten were killed. While the opposition leaders and King Moshoeshoe II were swiftly absolved of any personal charges in the aftermath, the incident presaged how support from and control of the security forces would remain the key to holding political power in independent Lesotho.

The connection between support from security forces and political power was solidified in the 1970s and 1980s. The BNP held onto power after losing the 1970 elections only because the security forces (and the apartheid regime) supported their claim to power. A low level insurrection from a group called the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) launched by opposition leaders in 1974 kept pressure on the BNP government to maintain a tight hold on domestic security and to find funding to bolster the security forces, which they did repeatedly into the 1980s. The BNP government formally turned the elite police units into the Lesotho Defense Force (LDF) in 1982.

The BNP ruled Lesotho until 1986, when factions in the military overthrew them after the apartheid regime blockaded Lesotho’s borders. The period of military rule from 1986-1993 was marked by jockeying for power between various military factions, signalling that the security forces were as riven by divisions as the political parties were.

But the period of one-party rule by the BNP had so weakened the legitimacy of civilian government that the security forces were the ones calling the shots.

International pressure and the end of apartheid forced the military to relinquish control in 1993, but even after the first free elections since 1970, the LDF, as it is today, was never far from politics. Factions in the military fought a pitched battle outside Maseru in 1993, and portions of the LDF supported the constitutional monarch, Letsie III, when he launched a short-lived coup in 1994.

These events reinforced popular belief that political parties and the opaque hierarchy in the LDF were completely intertwined in jockeying for power. The period from 1993-2014 saw the military largely in the background, but that did not mean its leaders were playing no part in politics, or that popular concerns were driving government policy. In reality, the military lurked as another, hidden, political faction and governance in the public interest was the greatest casualty.

Elections after 1993 have increasingly been sites for political contestation as well, but these protests have largely centred on which politicians get into Parliament rather than being an expression of popular grievances. The 1998 elections saw widespread protest against Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s LCD government, which won 60% of the vote. That 60%, however, translated into 79 of 80 Parliamentary seats in a first-past-the-post electoral system. This protest (tacitly supported by the monarch and significant factions of the military) devolved into looting and violence after Mosisili asked for SADC military intervention, and a South African force of largely Zulu, Afrikaner, and Xhosa troops arrived. The violence, precipitated by SADC’s ill planned and executed intervention, left much of the Central Business District in Maseru and other major towns burnt and looted.

The 2002 elections, the first to incorporate Proportional Representation (PR) seats for non-victorious parties, mollified enough opposition leaders that no major protests happened, but by 2007, losing parties contested the manner in which these PR seats were apportioned. With the bar to gain access to Parliament strikingly low (in the 2015 polls, it took just over 1,900 votes for a party to gain a PR seat), what had been regular schismatic tendencies among political leaders turned into an epidemic. The 2015 polls featured 22 parties on the ballot in a country that has a population just over 2-million. This large number of parties suggests that Basotho politicians value, above all else, getting themselves into Parliament, which means that the concerns of voters are of secondary concern to the majority of political leaders.

The latest spate within the ruling DC and the governing coalition highlights how little governing the most-recent coalition has actually done. Whether PM Mosisili decides to form yet another political party in response to internal power struggles will probably impact who holds power after Lesotho’s 50th anniversary celebrations end, but it will not do anything to decrease Basotho cynicism towards the dysfunction of politics for personal gain that have marked the previous 50 years.

This cynicism has been heightened in the past three years with Lesotho’s 2012 coalition government acrimoniously falling apart over political disagreements between its two largest parties after only two years in power. The August 2014 coup/not-a-coup in Maseru saw sitting Prime Minister Tom Thabane flee into South Africa in the dead of night claiming an assassination attempt by factions of the LDF. The resulting gridlock in politics, mediated once again by SADC representatives, was only resolved by having new elections in February 2015 that returned ex-PM Mosisili to power at the head of a seven-party coalition. Thus, ordinary Basotho had to endure six months of almost no governance, as well as the costs of an early electoral campaign.

This type of dysfunction within the political system has left Basotho with a sour view of national politicians, with 82% of Basotho in a 2016 survey believing that political leaders mainly “serve their own political interests”. More than half of the country disapproves of the performance of their own MPs. Oral histories I conducted with people alive during the independence period suggest that a healthy scepticism of the motives of political leaders has always existed, but 50 years of governance failure has surely heightened this sense.

At its half-century mark, however, all hope is not yet lost for Lesotho. The promise of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project is still alive as construction begins on the 3rd massive dam to supply South Africa with more water, though a careful eye needs to be kept on where and how revenues accrue in Lesotho. With NGOs like the Transformation Resource Centre keeping the construction process under watch after the government’s failure to adequately resettle residents from previous dams, there is hope that the Polihali Dam construction will prove less disruptive to local communities.

But most important is the strength of local communities acting on their own behalf. Throughout the 20th century and to the present, Basotho worked on self-improvement projects built around communal community action. They have quietly worked with and without government assistance to construct water projects, schools, and public sanitation projects that have led to many of the quality-of-life improvements that Basotho have seen since independence. There is, to be sure, still much work to be done, but the institution of local government is somewhat more popular (46% saying they have “somewhat” or “a lot” of trust in the institution) than national politicians or institutions, suggesting that a combination of local government and grassroots initiative have been previously and could be further successful in the future.

While there is little evidence to suggest that Lesotho is on the verge of catapulting into the ranks of middle-income states like Botswana (which became independent the same week in 1966 as Lesotho), there is still reason to be bullish on a state that has a population that wants to support a government despite an unenviable record of failed governance. Basotho want to believe that their political systems can work, and they actively participate in local projects to bring about the services they want to see in their communities. If the dysfunctional nexus between politicians and the security forces can be severed to allow Parliamentarians to focus on governance and constituent concerns, instead of always looking over their shoulders in fear of political violence, they would find a population eager and willing to take on its share of the work. But it will take a bold new focus, probably from a younger generation of Lesotho politicians free from the entanglements of the recent past, to better prioritise national development so that Lesotho and the Basotho people can flourish in the next 50 years in the promise of the national motto: Khotso, Pula, Nala (Peace, Rain, Prosperity). DM

Photo of a Lesotho man by Michael Williams via Flickr.

John Aerni-Flessner is an assistant professor of African History whose work focuses on 20th century Lesotho. He is based at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State University (USA). His writing has appeared in academic journals including The Journal of African History as well as in newspapers and the collective blog His book manuscript on the history of development and independence in Lesotho will hopefully appear in 2017, and he tweets often on Lesotho affairs @LesothoJohn.


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