Maseru

The end of the road for Lesotho’s prime minister?

Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane on June 03, 2017 in Maseru, Lesotho. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Felix Dlangamandla)

Parliament is expected to meet on Monday to vote Tom Thabane out of office. 

Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane may finally run out of boltholes on Monday 11 May when Parliament is expected to meet and finally vote him out of office – if he has not resigned earlier. But yet another twist in the long saga of trying to dislodge this wily, controversial 80-year-old leader should not be ruled out. 

His political opponents insist they, at last, have him cornered, after mustering the support of 78 MPs from nine of Lesotho’s 12 political parties, an 18-seat majority in the 120-seat National Assembly and more than enough to oust him. 

But first, they have to get past the Speaker of Parliament Sephiri Motanyane who is an ally of Thabane’s and seems to have been doing his best to stall the prime minister’s departure. On Friday the leaders of the new coalition which was formed to oust him presented letters to Motanyane explaining why he should allow an effective vote of no confidence. They said they had assembled enough votes to carry the vote and to form a new governing coalition. 

But Motanyane resorted to a parliamentary procedural technicality, telling the leaders that they had not explained in their letters what would happen to the existing coalition which Thabane leads. 

So the leaders went off to amend their letters which they will present to Motanyane on Monday.

Their new letters are expected to explain to Motanyane that the four-party ruling coalition which Thabane assembled has disintegrated. Even from his own ABC party, 34 MPs have defected to join the opposition coalition with the DC party as the main partner, leaving just 18 MPs loyal to him. Two junior parties in Thabane’s coalition have also defected. And five smaller parties have also joined the coalition. 

Some observers, including diplomats, are still hoping that Thabane will announce his retirement before he is voted out, fearing instability in the turbulent country. So far, Thabane has insisted on keeping everyone guessing. 

Last week he appeared to have announced on national TV that he could leave as early as May 29. But then his office told local media he had misspoken and only intended to leave on July 31 – as he had announced in January. 

One ruse Motanyane might use on Monday to further delay Thabane’s removal would be to refer the matter of a vote of no confidence to the committee which handles parliamentary business. This could add days to his political life. 

Lesotho sources told Daily Maverick that as a result, the opposition parties might not call their move a “vote of no confidence”. But it is not clear what they could call it otherwise. 

Other local sources believe that Motanyane might pull other procedural rabbits out of his hat. 

Thabane’s departure had already been delayed for several weeks by the passing of the ninth amendment to the constitution which was finally enacted last week after both houses of Parliament had passed it and King Letsie III signed it into law.

The amendment would deny Thabane the option of dissolving Parliament and calling fresh elections – as he had been expected to do – if he lost a vote of no confidence. In the constitution as amended, he is obliged to resign from office after such a vote.

After the National Assembly – but not yet the Senate – had passed the ninth amendment in March, Thabane suspended Parliament, ostensibly as part of Lesotho’s Covid-19 lockdown measures – though many suspected his real reason was to avoid a vote of no confidence against him. 

On April 17 the Constitutional Court ordered him to reopen Parliament. The next day he called out the army, saying this was necessary to protect the country from individuals and institutions seeking to undermine law and order. The opposition called this a “coup attempt” and the soldiers returned to barracks that evening. The next day, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is special envoy for Lesotho of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) dispatched ex-Cabinet minister Jeff Radebe to Lesotho to try to defuse the threatening crisis. 

After meeting Thabane, the opposition, the king and civil society leaders Radebe announced that all had agreed that Thabane should be allowed a “dignified, graceful and secure” retirement. 

But Thabane told local media almost immediately after Radebe’s departure that he would not allow external forces to dictate terms and that he would leave at a time of his own choosing. 

Radebe returned to Lesotho on Friday 1 May to meet Thabane to seek clarity about his intentions. Local sources said Thabane had promised Radebe that he would publicly announce his departure date the next day, but he never did.

Radebe did not respond to a WhatsApp message or a phone call from Daily Maverick requesting confirmation of this account. 

Lesotho has been wracked by successive political and military crises since 2014 when Thabane was forced to flee to South Africa after an attempted military coup. After being restored to office under the protection of mainly South African troops, he lost snap elections brokered by Ramaphosa in 2015. But he returned to power after winning the next elections in 2017.

What may well now prove to be his final fall from grace began with his affair with Maesaiah, almost 40 years his junior, and now his second wife. On the eve of Thabane’s second inauguration in June 2017 his estranged first wife Lipolelo – who was then embroiled in a messy divorce dispute with him and with Maesaiah about who should be the official First Lady – was gunned down by assassins in Maseru. 

Thabane married Maesaiah soon after taking office again. She began meddling aggressively in government affairs and infuriating government ministers and officials, thus acquiring the sobriquet of “Lesotho’s Grace Mugabe”.  

In January this year police formally charged Maesaiah with hiring the assassins who killed Lipolelo. This was the final straw for the ABC, which then urged Thabane to step down. He publicly announced then that he would retire at the end of July or sooner if the conditions had been met for him to leave. 

Thabane himself was later due to be charged in Lipolelo’s murder also, although the status of those charges is unclear as the matter was referred to the Constitutional Court to decide if he should enjoy immunity from prosecution, as prime minister.

His own vacillations about his departure date have raised suspicions that he really intends to cling to power as long as he can – perhaps to try to avoid prosecution. Which is why his enemies are ready to vote for his immediate departure on Monday. DM

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