Africa

Lesotho soldiers deployed by PM Thabane on Saturday return to barracks

By Peter Fabricius 19 April 2020

Pretoria may have warned Tom Thabane his suspected “military coup attempt” would not be tolerated.

Lesotho’s army withdrew from the streets of Maseru late on Saturday after Prime Minister Tom Thabane had earlier deployed the soldiers to “protect” him in what seemed a desperate ploy to avoid being ousted by Parliament on Monday. 

Military police, acting on Thabane’s orders, had surrounded national police headquarters and patrolled the streets of the capital earlier in the day, but had disappeared by late evening, leaving Maseru calm, informed sources said.  They suspected that Thabane may have recalled the military to barracks after warnings from South Africa.

For several hours on Saturday, rumours swirled that the military police had arrested national police commissioner Holomo Molibeli – a foe of Thabane’s – and two of his deputies. But when local journalists finally contacted him late in the evening he insisted he had not been arrested.

Daily Maverick could not confirm if Pretoria – which is the official envoy to Pretoria of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – had, in fact, intervened to pressure Thabane to call off his action.  A spokesperson for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation also could not confirm reports that former minister Jeff Radebe, and deputy ministers Candith Mashego-Dlamini of International Relations and Zizi Kodwa of State Security would travel to Lesotho on Sunday to assess what was happening.

There had been earlier fears that Thabane had deployed the army in what some called a “de facto coup attempt” to pre-empt an expected move by Parliament on Monday to pass a vote of no confidence in him and force him to resign.

This followed a Constitutional Court decision on Friday ruling that his suspension of Parliament on March 19 for three months was irrational and that Parliament should be reconvened on Monday. Thabane is widely believed to have suspended Parliament to avoid a vote of no confidence as many members of his ABC party and two coalition parties have defected to the opposition, almost certainly leaving him without a majority. 

If the court decision is implemented and Parliament does meet again on Monday, its first order of business will likely be to propose a vote of no confidence which Thabane will lose, forcing him to step down.

The embattled 80-year-old Prime Minister who faces charges of complicity in the murder of his divorced wife in 2017, recently assured his ABC party and the country that he would resign in July. But many Basotho suspect that he was just buying time as he tried to find some way of clinging to power. This might help him to avoid or at least delay the murder charges. 

Thabane announced on national television on Saturday morning that he had deployed the army to “restore peace and order,” saying some law enforcement institutions, which he did not name, were undermining democracy.

“This is to avoid putting the nation in danger,” he said, without spelling out the danger.

Thabane’s announcement sparked fears of a bloody clash between the military, mostly loyal to Thabane, and the police which is more aligned with his opponents.

The meddling of the two security forces in politics has been a frequent cause of instability in Lesotho and is the key issue that is supposed to be addressed by a national dialogue and reform process brokered by SADC.

The reforms were scheduled to be completed by next month but this deadline seems certain to be missed. 

On Friday the High Court also blocked Thabane’s attempt to fire national police commissioner Molibeli.  Thabane has been increasingly at odds with Molibeli and the top brass of the police force – most recently over their arrest this week of Thabane’s ally,  Police and Public Safety Minister Lehlohonolo Moramotse, for allegedly violating the government’s coronavirus lockdown regulations by buying liquor.

One observer said with the defection of the bulk of Thabane’s MPs, and his loss of the two important court cases on Friday “ all the doors for him to stay in power have been closed.”  And so it seemed that Thabane had deployed the army as his last hope for clinging to power. 

Now that he seems to have been persuaded to abandon that desperate ploy, will he shuffle off the political stage at last on Monday? Or does he have another trick up his sleeve?

“We’ll have to wait and see what happens this weekend,” the observer said. DM

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