Lesotho’s future no clearer as Tom Thabane resigns

By Liesl Louw-Vaudran 21 January 2020

A file picture dated 02 April 2014 shows the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Lesotho, Motsoahae Thomas Thabane, arriving at the fourth EU-Africa Summit of Heads of States at the European council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

Would scrapping its borders with South Africa really solve Lesotho’s dire political problems?

First published by ISS Today

Just when it looked like things couldn’t get worse in Lesotho, the country was again plunged into uncertainty last week with the announcement by Prime Minister Tom Thabane, 80, that he was resigning.

His decision followed renewed calls to impeach Thabane and the indefinite suspension of Parliament at the end of 2019. The impeachment threat came from within his own party, the All Basotho Convention, which has been at loggerheads with Thabane for months.

The real reason for his resignation is however probably to be found in Thabane’s personal life, which has taken a dramatic turn since his wife went on the run from police. A warrant for her arrest has been issued for the murder of Thabane’s second wife in 2017.

It is still unclear what will happen now since Lesotho is governed by a coalition of parties in a very troubled political setting. For decades the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the South African government have tried to solve Lesotho’s political problems. The politicisation of the security forces is one of the main issues that SADC and various South African mediators, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, have been trying to resolve, with little success.

Earlier in January South Africa’s finance minister Tito Mboweni threw the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that Lesotho’s borders be scrapped and the country be made part of a confederal system with South Africa. Yet Mboweni isn’t advocating for annexing Lesotho, as some in South Africa might have suggested.

The reaction against Mboweni was immediate. Some strongly criticised him for talking out of turn, but others supported him. Mboweni spent many years in exile in Lesotho and feels he has the right to weigh in on an issue which is an old bugbear of his. As far back as 2014 he raised the same suggestion of a confederation with South Africa, but keeping Lesotho’s status as a sovereign country.

The defence force would be scrapped and some government departments merged, while creating a common border patrol. The confederation would also, Mboweni says, include eSwatini, South Africa’s other troubled neighbouring kingdom.

At the time though, Mboweni was not the finance minister. One would have expected the issue to be dealt with by the international relations minister, but following Thabane’s decision to resign, Ramaphosa sent former energy minister Jeff Radebe to Lesotho to discuss the situation with Thabane and others. It’s unclear why Radebe was selected.

Meanwhile, if it isn’t enough to have cabinet ministers commenting on Lesotho’s internal problems, South Africa’s left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have also become involved, calling for a united Africa, and pan-African solutions to the continent’s problems. The EFF already has a branch in Namibia, which got two parliamentary seats in the November 2019 elections.

Mboweni and EFF head Julius Malema are not alone in thinking Lesotho should benefit from scrapping some unnecessary departments and greater integration with its only neighbour South Africa. Over the years, several Basotho have argued for scrapping borders altogether and noted the cost savings of being integrated into South Africa.

University of Pretoria political science professor Roland Henwood, however, told ISS Today that Mboweni’s suggestion was unlikely to gain traction because it didn’t favour elites in Lesotho, who would have to agree to organise a referendum on the matter. ‘The problem in Lesotho is big man politics and you won’t solve that by scrapping the border,’ he said.

Besides, the African Union has agreed to maintain colonial borders on the continent. The only two exceptions, since the period of decolonisation, have been the secession of South Sudan and Eritrea, with rather disastrous consequences in both cases, Henwood says.

In Southern Africa, the issue of borders is as contentious as it is in the rest of Africa. Some say Lesotho should actually be much bigger, since half of South Africa’s Free State province is actually Basotho territory. Similarly, claims by eSwatini that large swaths of KwaZulu-Natal province actually belong to it have been around for decades, Henwood says.

The aim of scrapping borders would have to be to improve the lives of Basotho and, perhaps, eliminate the unnecessary cost of having an army that is constantly getting involved in politics. “It’s difficult to see how this will solve Lesotho’s problems,” says Henwood.

Still, Lesotho’s King Letsie III is often seen as a stable force in the country and many have argued that he should play a stronger role. If given extensive powers such as Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has in South Africa, he might agree to such a change, says Henwood.

Elsewhere in Africa, there are various political configurations, ranging from federal states such as Nigeria and Ethiopia to the confederal arrangement between Zanzibar and mainland Tanzania. So redrawing the map of Southern Africa is not entirely far-fetched, but seems unlikely for now. The political problems in Lesotho, with only two million inhabitants, are dire and have been for a while. Making them South Africa’s problems won’t make them go away.

At this point, the slow process of reforming the Constitution, notably by placing restrictions on the military, seems the route to go. This has been the aim of South African mediators over many years, with former Constitutional Court deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, as Ramaphosa’s special envoy, steering the process. Several rounds of multi-stakeholder dialogues have been convened and a plan of action drawn up for political reforms.

Arguably, scrapping the military altogether and entering into a new constitutional arrangement with South Africa would have the same end goal – keeping the military out of politics, but with the added advantage of saving costs.

With Thabane out of the equation, some of these reforms might be easier to implement, although he isn’t the only political actor who has been involved in infighting and floor-crossing in a very fragile political environment. DM

Liesl Louw-Vaudran is a senior Researcher, ISS


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