A picture taken in 2014 in Maseru shows the car of Lieutenant general Maaparankoe Mahao, damaged during an attempt of assassination. Picture: Mujahid Safodien

Maseru -

Lesotho’s suspended army chief, General Maaparankoe Mahao, was gunned down on Thursday afternoon by a gang of men, one reportedly dressed in army uniform as he drove from his farm in Mokema to the capital in Maseru.

A professional soldier who stopped an imminent mutiny before the latest coup that toppled Prime Minister Tom Thabane last August, Mahao was always seen as too close to Thabane.

But since the short-lived coup, that has seen Thabane sneak in and out of Lesotho into hiding in South Africa, Mahao has never rested easy.

Thabane and his All Basotho Convention (ABC) lost his seat to a coalition led by Pakalitha Mosisili, leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LC), who makes a second return to government.

His troubles started last year when Thabane appointed him commander of the army, after dismissing the incumbent Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli.

In the unease that followed after the brief coup, SADC envoy and South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa recommended that both Mahao and Kamoli, together with police chief Khothatso Tsooana, temporarily leave the country to smooth the path towards the elections, which finally took place in February.

Their warring had been an impediment to finding a lasting solution to the ongoing impasse in the country.

Mahao was dispatched to South Sudan while both Kamoli and Tsooana went to Algeria.

But according to former Wits University academic Professor Nqosa Mahao, brother of the slain former army chief, Kamoli “mysteriously stayed in South Africa”.

He spent a lot of his time in Lesotho, says Professor Mahao, much against the advice of the mediator, Ramaphosa.

At the time of the shooting, Brigadier-General Mahao was with his nephew, the professor’s son known as Mahao Mahao.

“The young man was very close to his uncle,” says Professor Mahao, “and he had asked to go along because he wanted to see his grandmother in our village.”

According to the nephew, when they returned from the village, and were about 6km from Maseru, three vehicles suddenly appeared behind them “out of nowhere”.

“At the ridge, where there’s a recent quarry, the cars boxed in my brother’s vehicle from all sides and one of the men jumped into the back of his car,” says Professor Mahao.

After a flurry of shots, one of which narrowly missed the young Mahao, his uncle was dragged out of his car “through the tarmac”.

He is not sure if his uncle was still alive at that point.

Professor Mahao said two of the cars with “six or seven guys inside left with my brother, while five others remained behind with the two young men”.

One of the men was on the phone and casually smoking his cigarette when the boys were ordered to pour some soil over the blood stains.

“After about 40 minutes the boys were allowed to go. This was clearly so their accomplices could enjoy free passage to wherever they were taking my brother,” says the distraught Professor Mahao.

He is not sure if they took him to the army barracks in Makoanyane, “where there’s also a hospital” or to their torture camp in Sekibing, about 60km outside Maseru.

The incident took place between 3pm and 4pm, says Professor Mahao, who was away in Ladybrand at the time his son tried to reach him. “But the police told us at 9pm that my brother was dead.”

He says the police have always lied about his brother: “They always said they were looking for him, as if he was in hiding.

“He never was. Every morning he left his farm at our village and drove to Maseru.”

While General Mahao was brave to confront his enemies, the erstwhile Premier Thabane scooted - for the second time now.

He’s still in hiding in South Africa, claiming he fears for his life.

Mosisili is adamant he’s not aware of any threats made on Thabane’s life. Among the highly public attempts was the bomb that exploded at the home of his girlfriend.

It was premature to make funeral arrangements, added Professor Mahao, as the police were reluctant to release the body to the family.

Sunday Independent