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The Mountain Kingdom, on the Brink

As southern Africa's democratic success story Lesotho goes to the polls, the prime minister's anti-corruption crackdown has brought a bitter power struggle into the streets.


MASERU, Lesotho — On Feb. 1, just outside the gates of the Royal Palace in this tiny African kingdom, shots rang out, shattering the Sunday afternoon quiet. Two bodyguards of Prime Minister Tom Thabane exchanged a hail of gunfire with soldiers from Lesotho’s defense force. When the shootout was over, both bodyguards and at least one soldier had been wounded. A bystander, reportedly hit by 23 bullets, was killed. It’s still unclear who fired first. The incident — sudden and bloody on the streets of the capital, Maseru — thrust a bitter power struggle between the ruling coalition government and its adversaries back into daylight.

It was only two years ago that Lesotho, a mountainous enclave of not quite 2 million people, fully encircled geographically by South Africa, appeared to be a new democratic success story in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite having a past marred throughout its half-century of independence by military coups and post-election violence, the constitutional monarchy pulled off a stunning political achievement: Lesotho’s 2012 parliamentary elections produced a peaceful handover of power from longtime Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to the feisty opposition (which had been persecuted after splitting from the ruling party in 2006). And the new leadership went on to create one of the continent’s rare coalition governments.

But now, only days away from the country’s critical parliamentary elections set for Feb. 28 — which are being overseen by a regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), that has refused to publicly acknowledge the high-level corruption and political violence at the root of the unrest — that shootout may have been a harbinger of worse things to come. With shared roots in the country’s first post-independence party, the factions are distinguished more by personality than politics, with little difference between their ideologies. But as one civil servant who requested anonymity said, “Whichever side doesn’t get to be a part of the next government, I’m afraid they will cause some troubles — I think they’ll fight.”

* * *

Since its 1966 independence from Britain, Lesotho has been plagued by factionalism, one-party rule, military coups, shifting alliances, and assassinations that have claimed the lives of opposition leaders and a former deputy prime minister. (Thabane himself survived an assassination attempt in 2007, as did Mosisili in 2009.)

There’s also a history of post-election violence, most notoriously in 1998, when contested poll results led to rioting in Maseru. Mosisili, who had served as minister defense before coming to power, invited in South Africa troops to quell the unrest — under the umbrella of the SADC — but they only inflamed the situation. More than 50 Basotho and eight South African soldiers were reportedly killed, and much of Maseru burned to the ground — traumatizing the Basotho to this day.

This is what made the 2012 elections so newsworthy.

“The orderly transition to a new party’s leadership marks an historic step for Lesotho and for democracy in Africa,” effused a press release from the U.S. Embassy. But the reality was shakier than the glowing post-election reports initially suggested. “Lesotho is in some ways a victim of its narrative — as the ‘first coalition government in southern Africa’ — because it was a very fragile, shaky edifice, driven by personal splits within the parties,” says John Aerni-Flessner, a Lesotho specialist and professor of African history at Michigan State University. “It was never based on ideological unity, but on politics as convenience. To see it disintegrate isn’t as surprising for Lesotho-watchers as it is for those who bought into the narrative.”

Ironically, the seeds of unrest were planted by the success of the 2012 elections. The upending of the old power structure created an opportunity for the new government to pursue corruption cases against members of the ancien régime, who for years had acted with impunity, accused of fixing contracts and taking kickbacks for everything from agriculture and infrastructure tenders to diamond and water projects. Soon after taking office, Thabane (himself a survivor of 50 years in southern Africa’s rough-and-tumble politics), launched his crusade, digging into the purported crimes of his political rivals. While Thabane’s critics accused him of conducting a vengeful witch hunt — and others accused him of hypocrisy for his own checkered record — his campaign opened the door for the small handful of local anti-corruption lawyers contracted by the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions, to take on a handful of top officials who had abused their power during the 14-year rule of former Prime Minister Mosisili.

By late 2013, prominent business, political, and security elites named in these investigations soon found they were being made targets. As more were forced to hire lawyers to avoid prosecution, the political fight boiled into violence, culminating on Aug. 30 with an attempted coup. Government officials assert that the two Thabane bodyguards wounded on Feb. 1 were targeted because they themselves are soldiers who had caught wind of the Aug. 30 plot, then warned the premier, giving him time to escape.

“They may make for strange bedfellows,” Godfrey Siphosihle Mdhluli, one of the anti-corruption lawyers, said of the web of co-conspirators. “But one thing they have in common is a desire to prevent the law from running its course.”

Yet no one in Lesotho has clean hands, says one esteemed local leader, who is mediating among the feuding factions. “We don’t have any angels among our leadership,” says the elder, who insisted on anonymity. “Nobody can claim innocence here, as we’ve all contributed to destabilizing our democracy in one way or another. Though, some have certainly contributed more than others.”

The 2015 elections, however, will reveal how the Basotho feel about the corruption campaign — and if they want it to continue. If Thabane wins and forms a new coalition, this apparent mandate would likely reinvigorate his prosecution of rivals — regardless of his motivations — and send a message throughout society that bolsters the rule of law and accountable governance. No past or present minister has yet been prosecuted for graft, let alone served jail-time.

If Mosisili and the former ruling elites win, however, many assume they would come to office bent on sweeping the corruption cases — and Aug. 30 coup attempt — under the rug. “Now we have this fear,” says Khotso Nthontho, a Basotho anti-corruption lawyer working for the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions. “If they return to power, they’ll definitely try to cover up and interfere with prosecutions.” And if they do, little Lesotho may shine a light on the unsavory reality of how diplomacy and politics are done in southern Africa.

* * *

The current crisis first started to spiral into violence just over a year ago, as Thabane’s anti-corruption campaign heated up. One night in January 2014, with Thabane pushing hard for corruption prosecutions, a grenade was hurled at the home of his then-girlfriend, with a second thrown at the home of the national police chief, whose agency leads the investigations. The implied message: Back off. But Thabane didn’t. Instead, he and his allies pointed their finger at military complicity, suggesting some soldiers had been bribed.

Thabane demanded the military hand over eight suspects — seven men, one woman — some of them bodyguards of Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing. Metsing, leader of the second of the ruling coalition’s three parties, was by then also accused of corruption linked to road-construction tenders, after more than $5 million reportedly appeared in his bank accounts. Thabane pressed the LDF commander, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, to turn over the eight suspects. Kamoli stonewalled.

In June, Thabane’s rivals tried to topple him democratically, in Parliament, with a no-confidence vote — as Metsing crossed the aisle to join ex-Prime Minister Mosisili, from whom he’d split before the elections, who now leads the country’s single largest party. Thabane dodged that by suspending the legislature.

“He tries to sow confusion,” says Ralechate Mokose, secretary-general of Mosisili’s Democratic Congress, which leads the opposition. “That’s his game — and has always been his game.”

On Aug. 29, Thabane fired Kamoli for insubordination. Early the next morning, Kamoli allegedly launched his coup attempt. With state radio and TV shut off, LDF soldiers raided Thabane’s official residence and assaulted national police headquarters, reportedly hunting for files of the most sensitive corruption cases. They killed one cop and injured nine others. After seizing dozens of weapons, they departed. (The army and its defenders claim they acted to stop a police plot to arm pro-Thabane “youth fanatics.” Curiously, though, not a word has been uttered about the dubious group since.)

Tipped off before the raid, the 75-year-old Thabane scurried (in his pajamas, allegedly) into South Africa, just three minutes away. Pretoria said LDF actions “thus far bear the hallmarks of a coup d’état.” The U.S. Embassy in Maseru called on the LDF to “respect civilian authority.” Thabane returned four days later, guarded by South African police — who continue to protect him. In the wake of the putsch — the sixth in the country’s history, with four successful and two failed — Lesotho’s police began investigating a ring of alleged co-conspirators: Metsing, Kamoli, and others close to the former regime, for “high treason” and “murder.” While police investigators interviewed for this story said they expected to complete the case by December, it remains ongoing.

Enter, SADC. The Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation club responsible for the region’s peace and security, is entrusted to mediate a “lasting solution” to Lesotho’s crisis. SADC is a political organization that is loath to publically criticize a member’s internal affairs. While it has a “peace and security” mandate, military intervention remains a last resort.

Meanwhile, SADC leaders like South African President Jacob Zuma and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe are long accused of their own corruption and political violence, respectively. “They’ve had a very uncomfortable relationship with these issues in their own countries. What’s their incentive to address them abroad?” says Dimpho Motsamai, a Southern Africa analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

South Africa, the heavyweight of SADC and southern Africa itself, has a clear vested interest in the rugged mountain enclave it surrounds. Instability in Lesotho raises the specter of refugees; most major businesses here are South African-owned; and most important, Lesotho provides most of the water to the thirsty economic hub of Johannesburg. Indeed, the South Africans seem intent on not allowing anything to disrupt the flow of Lesotho’s water.

As a result, the SADC mandate for Lesotho is narrow and specific: return the country to “constitutional normality” and stabilize the security situation. The bloc moved quickly to try and defuse the Lesotho crisis politically, with South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa serving as facilitator. Ramaphosa, a key figure in negotiating South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy — but then assailed for his role in the 2012 “Marikana massacre” of black mineworkers — has succeeded in convincing Basotho leaders to re-open their Parliament, move up elections more than two years early, and even to exile Kamoli, the renegade military commander, from Lesotho on an indefinite “leave of absence.” (He remains nearby, though, in South Africa.)

“We’re doing everything in our power to help the people of Lesotho address their political and security challenges,” says Ramaphosa spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa. Absent from Ramaphosa’s accounting of the crisis, however, is any mention of corruption, political violence, and, most notably, the Aug. 30 coup attempt — which many observers here suspect may indicate sympathies for Mosisili’s side and restoring “quiet” to Lesotho. Even South African President Jacob Zuma recently appeared to whitewash the political violence, painting the Feb. 1 shootout involving Thabane’s body guards and resulted in the death of an innocent bystander as “some little shootings here and there.”

* * *

“All major conflicts start small and before you know, everything is out of control,” says a senior Thabane adviser, who requested anonymity. “Lesotho may be a tiny, insignificant country, but if unattended, these unfolding events have the potential of exploding into a major conflict that could have otherwise been avoided.”

In the buildup to the elections, the anxiety that followed the would-be coup has mounted, heightened by several public shootouts between soldiers and police, and the government’s own unsubstantiated claims that foreign mercenaries had entered the country to assassinate Thabane; snipers had been arrested at a Thabane campaign stop; two SADC commanders had leaked Thabane’s security details to his rivals; and earlier this month, that a hit-squad of four LDF soldiers were arrested on their way to “finish off” Thabane’s two bodyguards who are presently recovering in a provincial South African hospital. South African police denied any such arrests.

The opposition has scoffed at these claims, dismissing them as fear mongering. “These are stories being cooked up, so they can claim there is no security and derail the elections,” says Tlohang Sekhamane, a former top official under Mosisili and now a high-ranking member of his Democratic Congress executive committee. “It’s been part of their systematic effort to avoid any genuine democratic processes — and prolong their stay in power.”

This illuminates a serious issue in Lesotho today: no one knows what’s truly going on — except, perhaps, for the plotters and perpetrators. The country has become highly polarized, with dueling narratives of what one side is doing to the other, yet no neutral arbiter to determine the facts. Much of the media pumps out propaganda and incitement, experiences censorship or self-censorship, or feels intimidation or fear. Politicians compound the problem by never producing a shred of evidence to support either accusations or counter-accusations. The lack of reliable polling has meant sound forecasts of the election results are all but non-existent.

Meanwhile, many observers expect the defeated parties to contest the rushed elections, citing several potential grievances: the country lacks of clean, updated voter-rolls; some 32 “Mobile Registration Units” are missing or vandalized; and only the LDF has helicopters to transport ballot-boxes to the many remote hamlets. Thabane’s wife was accused of buying votes with food, out of the prime minister’s office.

On Feb. 13, the LDF ratcheted fears when it announced, unilaterally — without endorsement from Thabane, its commander-in-chief — that it would initiate “patrols and checkpoints” to “safeguard the people, maintain peace and stability in the country.” Ramaphosa’s office quickly responded that it had convinced the LDF to “remain in barracks” and “assist” with elections “upon request.” Still, it was a stark reminder that democratically elected civilians lack control of their military.

Regardless of election result, one Basotho activist says he hopes prosecutions move forward, to strike a blow against impunity and send a more positive message to the nation — rather than one of justice denied. His people already suffer from the world’s second-highest rate of HIV infection — a staggering 23 percent — and are sliding down the U.N. Human Development Index. “It’s unhealthy for any society, as it entrenches the notion ‘might is right,’” says Tsoeu Petlane, director of the Transformation Resource Center, a leading voice of civil society. “For the younger generation of Basotho, they’ll learn violence pays — and politics is a way to get rich quick.”

As for Thabane, the old warrior sounds undeterred, ready to fight onward. “People who want to cling to power are those who know exactly what corruption they did while in government,” he said during one campaign stop. “I don’t mind if people kill me for telling the truth.”

Photo credit: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

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