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

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    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
    20
    th 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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