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The Aftermath of Military Intervention in Lesotho

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Political crisis struck Lesotho again on August 30, 2014 when Prime Minister Thomas Thabane fled the country with reports of gunfire between the military and the police force in Maseru, the capital. With Thabane, military spokesmen, and opposition leaders all giving different accounts of the incident it can be hard to determine what actually happened. This article should help examine two of the most likely scenarios and provide details to determine which is the truth when more information comes out.

Before the current crisis Mr. Thabane was the head of a shaky three-way coalition between the All Lesotho Conference (ABC), his party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and the Basotho National Party (BNP). The BNP is a minority stakeholder in the government, while the LCD and ABC have roughly equal numbers in support of the coalition. Recently Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, the head of the LCD, has complained that Thabane has been monopolizing cabinet positions and power in the coalition. Mr. Metsing’s claims that the ABC has taking more than its share of cabinet positions is unfounded, as the seats have been distributed evenly with a lackluster Ministry of Gender, Youth, Sports, and Recreation going to the BNP and the other ministry roughly halved between the LCD and ABC. Lesotho still suffers from weak separation of powers, however, and the ABC — and by extension Thabane — still controls the powerful Ministries of Defense, Police, Law, Mining, Trade and Industry, and Agriculture. Thabane himself directly controls the Ministry of Defense, Police and Security, and the potential for abuse of power in such a situation is immense. In light of the lack of democratic institutions in Lesotho and the ABC’s domination of key ministries, Mr. Metsing’s claims of abusive or corrupt coalition politics are likely well-founded.

As Mr. Thabane had apparently refused to rein in his party’s power, Mr. Metsing announced last June that the LCD would be pulling out of the coalition, forcing a no-confidence vote to remove Mr. Thabane from power. The new coalition would likely have been between the ABC and the Democratic Congress (DC), the main opposition party. Before the vote could be taken, however, Mr. Thabane received royal permission to dissolve Parliament with promises to reopen by August 14. The Parliament did not, however, open in August and remained guarded by a police barricade. Angry about the retraction of democratic institutions, or at least the removal of democracy by their political rival, Mr. Metsing and the DC demanded that Parliament be reopened. When their political means were ignored the LCD and DC announced that they would be holding a massive protest outside of the Parliament on September 1 demanding a return to parliamentary rule by force if necessary.

Rumors began circulating at this time that the ABC aligned youth movement, the Under the Tree Army (UTTA), was planning to attack the protests and massacre the opposition. We cannot be sure if this tragedy would have occurred as on August 30, a day before the schedule protests, the army seized control of several police stations throughout the kingdom, jammed all cell phone and radio communications, and surrounded the royal residence. Mr. Thabane fled to South Africa as he received reports of army vehicles approaching his residence, claiming that the army was seizing power in a coup. The army, however, fervently denies these charges, insisting that they were intervening to prevent a massacre of the opposition. An army spokesman asserts that the police were arming the UTTA, in effect creating a paramilitary group loyal to the ABC, and that the army only intervened to prevent an arms transfer and the impending massacre. There are also many reasons, however, to suspect that this was a failed coup, as the army is closely associated with Mr. Metsing and both the military and the LCD had much to gain from removing Mr. Thabane from power.

In its role as regional powerhouse and arbiter, South Africa quickly condemned the mobilization and demanded the Mr. Thabane returned to power where he might reopen the Parliament. In his brief few days as acting Prime Minister, Mr. Metsing agreed with the South African plan and ordered all military units to return to base. The vast majority of units obeyed, remaining peaceful as Mr. Thabane was escorted into the country by South African soldiers, but the former head of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli has burrowed himself into a government building with the 40-strong Basotho special forces and a large amount of weapons seized from the police. Kamoli was fired by Mr. Thabane only a week before the military intervention, and is accused of being one of the primary advocates for the mobilization.

While the smoke clears there are two main theories that emerge about the intentions behind the most recent Basotho political crisis. The most likely scenario was that the army actually did mobilize in order to prevent a massacre. The military reported finding large stockpiles of military-grade weapons in police stations they seized, bolstering the theory that the ABC was using its control of the police force to turn the UTTA into a paramilitary group. This theory would also explain why the military jammed communications and seized police stations, but — according to Mr. Metsing — did not interfere with Parliament or demand control over other government institutions. If believed, the military seized police stations to prevent an arms transfer and jammed communications to inhibit long-range communication between police, the UTTA, and other ABC allies. As no group is uniform, we can assume that different elements in the military had different reasons for intervention, such as Lt. Gen. Kamoli. Kamoli and the special forces units are actors whose actions should not be confused with those of the military as a whole. Lt. Gen. Kamoli is likely to be acting out of resentment for being canned last week and his military standoff does not indicate that the intent for a coup was widespread in the armed forces. In this scenario the ABC’s actions betray the continuing instability of Lesotho, but indicate that forces both within Lesotho and in the surrounding region are dedicated to maintaining democratic civilian rule.

The second likely scenario portrays a bleaker future for democracy in Lesotho, where Basotho institutions are still not strong enough to resist the cronyism of a deeply personalistic political system. This situation still accounts for the fact that the ABC may have very well been arming the UTTA, but this was not the true motivation behind military intervention. The motivations of the military more likely stem from traditional tense relations with Mr. Thabane and the recent removal of Lt. Gen. Kamoli. The military seized police stations to both prevent weapon transfers, as much for the protection of protestors as their protection from a paramilitary force, and neutralize the a weaponized branch of government loyal to Mr. Thabane. In this situation, Mr. Metsing may have been involved in planning the intervention as a way for him to forcible oust Mr. Thabane from office. Lesotho does not have a long history of democratic transfers of power, indicating that Mr. Metsing may not have been above using his allies in the armed forces to seize power — potentially giving himself more dictatorial powers if the coup was successful. Kamoli’s actions indicate that the army was not united about the goals of their intervention, meaning that if the intervention had been a successful coup, elements of the armed forces may have not been satisfied with LCD rule, raising the possibility of a military junta. Regardless of a hypothetical aftermath, the military obviously decided that they could not stand up to South African power and the majority of units demobilized when the threat of South African intervention was raised. The implications of this situation are harrowing, as it shows that multiple key actors in Basotho politics are corrupt and dictatorial. This would show that deeply personal politics still preside in Lesotho, leaving little room for meritocracy or the division of powers. This would also show that the military is loyal to individuals rather than the state, making the future security situation unstable.

The easiest way to determine between the scenarios is to hear if any evidence surfaces that the LCD was implicated in the mobilization, if so then the second situation is more probably, if not then the first is almost certainly true. Also pay attention to any army spokesmen speaking about Lt. Gen. Kamoli, as how closely his goals are supported by the army will indicate how prominent the idea of a coup was among the armed forces. Until such information is released, I would suggest acting as if the first scenario occurred, keeping the second in mind as an option


I also scoured the interweb looking for the political associates of each of the members of the Basotho cabinet.

Author: Sam

I study international relations and public policy at the University of Edinburgh. My research is focused on political systems and economic development in Post-Soviet states.

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