Op-Ed: Will political and security unrest deepen in Lesotho?

Op-Ed: Will political and security unrest deepen in Lesotho?
The Parliament of Lesotho. All the major parties in Parliament signed a pledge in May to pass the so-called Omnibus Constitutional Bill by the end of June. (Photo: Supplied) Parliament of Lesotho (pictured) has to vote into law crucial reforms ahead of the October 2022 general elections. (Photo: OER Africa via Flickr)

Political instability and the security crisis in Lesotho might well get worse because of volatility in the leadership ranks of important public institutions. By JOHN AERNI-FLESSNER.

In early September 2017, two high-ranking officers walked into the office of Lieutenant-General Khoantle Motšomotšo, the head of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), and gunned him down. The assassination of Motšomotšo was the second assassination of an LDF commander in two years – Lt-General Mahao was murdered in June 2015. A third ex-commander, Lt-General Tlali Kamoli, was arrested last week to face questioning over his alleged role in the killings. By JOHN AERNI-FLESSNER.

These problems in the LDF have deepened political tension in the Mountain Kingdom. The “4×4 coalition” of Prime Minister Tom Thabane is trying to implement SADC-recommended reforms and to that end they have requested an SADC intervention force to help keep the peace. The on again-off again intervention faces an uncertain future because of the regional bloc’s inability to commit, and the fears of an intervention being met with more violence. Finally, last week it was reported that Thabane was in a South African hospital in ill health, though his spokesperson denied this, claiming he was in Dubai on official state business. In short, political instability and the security crisis in Lesotho might well get worse before they get better because of volatility in the leadership ranks of important public institutions.

Lesotho has been dogged by political instability in recent years, and the populace has a now 50-year history of having to endure governance that has not lived up to citizens’ expectations. Politics have become even more unstable in recent years, with three general elections since 2012. None of the post-2012 coalition governments has made a serious run at completing a five-year tenure of office, largely due to security concerns. Basotho rightly ask when the political situation (and its concomitant security machinations) will stabilise, allowing MPs to govern rather than run permanent campaign operations.

As chaotic as politics has been recently, there is a case to be made that it could very well get worse – and potentially much worse – before it gets better. If the Prime Minister’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) or any other major party were to face a need to transition leadership, the schismatic impulses of Lesotho politicians could be unleashed all over again. The 2017 general election in a country with roughly two million people featured 29 parties, with seven entrants being new. Of the new parties, two made it into Parliament, one on each side of the aisle. The successful new parties all arose as a result of splits within other, longer-established parties. The frequency with which parties split means that leaders often spend as much time looking over their shoulders worrying about internal rivals as they do attempting to govern or operate effectively in opposition. Thus, the possibility of leadership transition threatens to undermine the limited stability present in the current political system.

The SADC, for its part, has dallied for almost two months on whether to send its stabilisation force to Lesotho. Recent reports on whether it will send the force are confusing at best, obfuscating at worst. In September the bloc said it would send the force and Namibia, among others, has authorised a deployment, but SADC is delaying. Perhaps the commanders and leaders sense the real danger of sending troops – the public memory in Lesotho of the bloody and disastrous 1998 SADC intervention is long and fraught. The body has given itself until early November to make a decision – a deadline that is rapidly approaching and could easily be missed.

Added to the uncertainty, now, is the illness/not-an-illness of the prime minister. In addition to making it harder for coalition partners and government officials to co-ordinate their message on the desirability of the SADC intervention, it also throws into question the leadership of the largest party in government. Thabane founded the ABC in 2006, leading a bloc of MPs out of the then-ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). As the only leader the party has ever known, it is not clear if the ABC has a clear succession plan, or if there are credible candidates who could hold together the party if the health issues of Thabane prove to be real and/or get worse. Thus, the looming uncertainty is not just from SADC, but also from within the Lesotho political structure.

And it is not only the ABC that would probably face a contested leadership battle. Successions to party leadership in Lesotho have historically not led to smooth or easy transitions. With most major party leaders in their 60s or 70s, even if Thabane’s purported illness proves to be no big deal, many parties could expect a generational transition relatively soon, though the experience of Robert Mugabe-watchers in Zimbabwe should forestall active predictions as to when.

This makes the announcement last week by Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki, the leader of the Alliance of Democrats, that he wants to create an exit strategy for himself from politics, so noteworthy. Rarely have Basotho political leaders departed before circumstances like death or incapacitating disease dictated. With the likelihood of party leadership battles leading to the splintering of current parties, however, the depressing conclusion to draw might be that generational turnover in political leadership could lead to even less stability in Lesotho’s political system. Given how easy it is to form a new party, and the relatively low threshold of votes needed to get a seat in Parliament, there are few incentives to stay in a political party where the path to leadership is blocked.

All of this points to a conclusion that is probably both unnerving and stupefying for the majority of people who have experienced the utter political turmoil of the past half decade: Political and security unrest in Lesotho threatens to get worse before it gets better. DM

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 book, Dreams for Lesotho: Independence, Foreign Assistance, and Development is forthcoming from the University of Notre Dame (USA) Press in early 2018. He tweets on the Mountain Kingdom @LesothoJohn.

Photo: Lesotho Parliament (OER Africa via Flickr)


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