Following the election on June 3 of Tom Thabane as prime minister, we were all waiting to see what the army would do. It seemed highly probable that it would take steps to destabilise the country, arrest the prime minister on some kind of spurious charges – or do away with him altogether – in order to scupper his inauguration (which took place on Friday).
However the story unfolded, it was always going to be dramatic. Last weekend the First Lady survived an attack on her home, which led to the unexpected statement from our Minister of International Relations last Sunday that South Africa would not tolerate a coup in our backyard. Three days after her warning to Lesotho’s military, the First Lady was shot and killed on Wednesday night.
Well-placed supporters of Thabane have alleged that the military’s plan was to kill the First Lady, Dipolelo (who was in a bitter divorce from Thabane), and then arrest Thabane himself, accusing him of her murder. That way they could get him behind bars without it being called a coup.
In the recent past there have been numerous murders of Thabane’s supporters, allegedly carried out by the military, and Thabane himself has survived numerous assassination attempts by the military – first as prime minister and then as leader of the opposition. If that was the plan, it didn’t quite work out.
The highly politicised military, which supported the previous prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, who lost a no-confidence motion in parliament and then the snap election on June 3, will probably continue their efforts to destabilise the kingdom, with its population of two million. They had, after all, orchestrated the August 2014 coup which brought Mosisili to power.
SADC had attempted to deal with the situation by establishing a commission of inquiry, which strongly recommended security sector reforms meant to depoliticise the state security sector, but none of those recommendations was implemented.
The result has been a predatory 1000-strong military which has violated human rights in the kingdom with virtual impunity. Even during the recent polls, the army was deployed at voting stations to intimidate voters.
Virtually since independence from Britain in 1966, Lesotho’s military has largely had a destabilising effect on the country’s democracy. The contemporary period has been the worst, with destabilisation leading to three elections in the past five years.
Even if Thabane jacks up his security with loyal protectors, it wouldn’t take much to rock the political boat, as Thabane’s party won a razor-thin majority, and if the military acted to get rid of three members of parliament, the government would collapse and another snap election would have to be called.
The stakes are high in terms of the contestation for political power in Lesotho, as it is the most obvious avenue to financial security, given the limited economy which primarily produces textiles and pumps water to South Africa.
As a result, a total of 30 political parties contested the June 3 elections.
South Africa is well-placed to impact positively on the current situation, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as the SADC mandated facilitator in Lesotho, tasked with ensuring that the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry start to be implemented.
It will now be in Thabane’s interest to ensure the reform of the security sector is fast-tracked in order to prevent further politically inspired assassinations.
Some analysts have even argued that Lesotho should consider whether it even needs an army at all, and whether it would be worth adopting the Mauritius model. Mauritius does not have a standing army, but all military, police and security functions are carried out by the police, who are responsible for domestic law enforcement.
If Thabane shows a real willingness to implement SADC’s proposed reforms, which would be perceived as threatening to the current power of the security sector, his life and that of his inner circle will certainly be at risk.
It is here that South Africa could also play a useful role by temporarily sending in a protection force, as we did to ensure the protection of Burundian politicians following the Arusha Peace Accords in that country.
Given the dangerous security situation in Lesotho currently, SADC may want to consider mandating South Africa to send in a similar protection support detachment to guard the physical security of the democratically elected leadership while the security sector reforms are being implemented.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor