Assassinations, intrigue and instability plague Lesotho, as the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) prepares to intervene yet again.
Just the Basics
Politically motivated assassinations and a restive military have rocked Lesotho in recent years
Such is the unrest in the country that an intervention force has been sent to help maintain order in the country
This is not the first time Lesotho’s neighbours have had to intervene, even the Mandela government was forced to send South African troops in the late 1990s
The discovery of a 200 million year old mega-dinosaur has put tiny Lesotho in the news. This new find is not the only monster from Lesotho’s past to reappear, as the country faces yet another wave of instability and violence due to military infighting. The security situation has deteriorated to such as degree that an international military intervention has been launched to help stabilize the country. Hundreds of troops from Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) members are arriving in the tiny mountain kingdom in an effort to prevent rule of law from collapsing.
The trigger for this latest wave of instability was the killing of Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander Lt. Gen. Khoantle Motsomotso in early September. Having refused to protect two recently fired officers from prosecution of previous crimes, Motsomotso was gunned down by the two officers in question. This event in turn came only a week after deputy prime minister Mothetjoa Metsing fled to South Africa, citing a plot to arrest him. The All Basotho Convention (ABC) government in turn claims that he is a fugitive from justice and fled due to a corruption investigation.
2017: Lesotho’s annus horribilis
Rivals prior to, and during the, 2017 election campaign, Metsing and Prime Minister Thabane have not seen eye to eye for some time. Metsing’s role as deputy prime minister came about as part of coalition agreements following the election results in June. The 2017 election marked the return of Thabane to power after the failed 2014 coup which forced him to flee to South Africa. Thabane maintains that the military tried to kill him back in 2014, and has refused as military escort since once again becoming prime minister. His ongoing rivalry with Metsing adds another dimension to his aversion towards military protection, as soldiers assigned to protect him were rumoured to have previously worked for Metsing.
The trigger for the 2014 coup was the firing of LDF commander Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, who in turn went on to play a significant role in the aforementioned coup attempt. Kamoli’s successor, Maaparankoe Mahao was eventually forced to flee the country with other Thabane regime officials. With the return of Phakalitha Mosisili (whom Thabane had defeated in 2012) to power following the snap election in February 2015, Mahao’s promotion was revoked, and he was subsequently assassinated in June 2015. The same year also saw the targeted killing of Thabane’s friend and ABC founder Thabiso Tsosane.
Consequently, the assassination of Motsomotso has seen Lesotho cycle through three heads of the armed forces in as many years. This state of affairs has all but eroded domestic and international confidence in the LDF. Moreover, the killing of Thabane’s ex-wife two days before his inauguration in June 2017 only further highlighted the fact that instability still reigned in Lesotho despite international assistance and Thabane's return.
Unsurprisingly, Thabane has been a vocal supporter of reforming the military, taking inspiration from countries such as Costa Rica which do not maintain a traditional army. Thabane’s reform efforts include prosecuting LDF members guilty of past crimes, corruption and factionalism. It is these efforts that in turn spurned the officers responsible for killing Motsomotso in September.
Whereas the SADC originally agreed to send a 1,200 strong force to Lesotho, yet funding shortfalls and logistical issues led to a drastically reduced force of 258. Originally due to arrive in Lesotho on November 1st, the intervention force has been delayed at least three times for various reasons, including a lack of available lodgings. With this greatly reduced force only just now arriving in Lesotho, international efforts to stabilize the country are already off to a bad start.
Going forward, this smaller contingent faces potential reprisal attacks from groups of rogue soldiers targeted by the government’s crackdown. This scenario is increasingly plausible given the recent disappearances of weapons and other resources from military armouries in Lesotho. The inability of the LDF to keep track of its own weapons only further undermines domestic trust in the institution, and warns of the rise of armed splinter groups within the armed forces. If things get out of hand, such a small SADC force will be hard pressed to maintain order in a country of some two million.
Nelson Mandela orders military intervention
It is important to note that this is not the first time that the SADC has intervened in Lesotho. Following elections in 1998, the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy won 79 of 80 seats. This result quickly led to accusations of vote-rigging and a lawsuit from the opposition. After said lawsuit was defeated, rioting and violence soon broke out across the country. The SADC rushed 1,820 South African and Batswana troops into Lesotho in order to bring the situation under control. Since Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa, any instability in Lesotho effectively becomes a source of domestic instability for Pretoria, as any spillover will spread into South Africa.
Consequently, President Nelson Mandela authorized a military intervention (in conjunction with the SADC) in Lesotho. SADC forces battled pro-opposition splinter groups in the LDF from September 1998 to May 1999, with the capital Maseru being heavily damaged, necessitating years of repairs. Overall close to 150 people were killed, including eleven South African soldiers, 84 LDF members and some 50 civilians.
“We won’t kill you,” promises army
Whether Lesotho will descend into widespread violence this time remains to be seen, but as the SADC force continues to be delayed, the LDF remains top of mind, with fresh scandals aplenty. As if the whole Motsomotso affair was not bad enough, the LDF has also been accused of plotting the assassination of prominent civil society figures. Specifically, Tsikoane Peshoane, director of the Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), claims that he was tipped off by an LDF officer on November 17th about alleged talks on how to “manage” him and his organization. The TRC is playing a prominent role in advising the government’s efforts to reform the military, efforts which some senior officers view as a threat to their influence in politics.
The LDF has since sought to quell any rumours, and took out a notice in the Sunday Express. “We wish to inform the readership of [the] Sunday Express,” the notice reads, “[...] that the LDF Command has not, and will never, ever conspire to assassinate Mr. Peshoane or any other person in his organization.” The irony of not simply stating that the military would not assassinate any Mosotho citizen was apparently lost on the LDF. Moreover, the absurdity of such as statement highlights just how precarious the state of affairs in Lesotho has become.
If your military has to take out notices in national newspapers promising not to kill anyone, you have a serious problem.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.