'A fractious lot': Anatomy of (another) coup in Lesotho

After nearly a half a century of independence, the military is now at the centre of politics, being used by (and increasingly using) politicians as an instrument.

28 February 2017 ·   10 min read

'A fractious lot': Anatomy of (another) coup in Lesotho

Photo: A multiple exposure photograph shows lightning striking above Maseru, capital of Lesotho, 27 September 2011. EPA/ALESSANDRO DELLA BELLA

I wrote my Master’s dissertation in 1986 on Lesotho. Despite having suffered its first military coup earlier that year, the mountain kingdom remained reasonably prosperous, helped by a paradox of anti-Apartheid aid and remittances from its miners in South Africa. And there was the promise of income from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, supplying ‘white gold’ to the thirsty South African reef. The overdue signature of this scheme was one stated reason for the coup that saw Major General Justin Metsing Lekhanya evict Chief Leabua Jonathan who had ruled with steadily increasing authoritarianism since independence in October 1966. GREG MILLS describes the impact of decades of coups and unrest in South Africa’s fractious neighbour.

Fast forward three decades and the country’s problems, like its population, only seem to have got bigger. The military are now serial political offenders. The latest change of government this February has its origins in a failed coup in August 2014. But there have been a routine of attempted coups and assassinations. Lekhanya was himself removed in May 1991 in a coup staged by Colonel Elias Ramaema. Democracy followed in 1993, but in September 1998, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) lost 11 members during Operation Boleas, an attempt at quelling a mutiny in Maseru.

Now, this June, the former Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) Commander Maarparankoe Mahao was shot and killed at his farm by members of his own force, and the Police Commissioner Khothatso Tšooana fled the country, sparking further violence and posing the question, ‘what next’?

The answer is not reassuring, not least because South African mediation has so far served to consolidate the position of the insurrectionists.

Lesotho was supposed to hold a general election only in 2017. After the collapse of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Tom Thabane and the August putsch that saw him temporarily flee the country. South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa brokered the Maseru Facilitation Declaration – a roadmap for early polls. This also resulted in the Maseru Security Accord two months later, its aim to defuse tensions between the LDF and the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS).

Under the terms of this accord, Tšooana, Mahao (appointed by Thabane as the new LDF commander, but barred from assuming the post) and the man he was supposed to replace, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, were required to go on special leave outside Lesotho to cool things down. Tšooana and Mahao were temporarily dispatched to Algeria and Sudan respectively, while Kamoli moved to South Africa. They returned to Lesotho following the elections on 28 February 2015 that saw former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s Democratic Congress (DC) form a coalition government with Mothetjoa Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) received the second-largest number of seats (46) behind the DC (47). Metsing’s LCD got just 12 seats of the 120 available, losing 14 compared to the 2012 result.

No party achieved an outright majority.

Underlying the political musical chairs and the muscle flexing of the military in politics, is the extent of corruption and rent-seeking. As the former minister of development and planning (as well as Lesotho’s delegate to the IMF), Moeketsi Majoro, publicly commented, “While the legacy of incomplete political reform is the accelerant in this present conflict, corruption and crime are the root causes. During the life of the previous government, instances of public funds being laundered through tenders for both party and personal gain have been investigated and are a matter of public record”.

The trajectory towards increasing corruption has been there since Jonathan’s time. It has accelerated since the disintegration of the Basotho Congress Party in 1997 into the LCD, and the further 2011 splintering of the LCD into the DC and ABC. It has become a closed system of elite ‘zero-summism’, says a former official, where power is the aim, gluttony the reward. What has changed, according to one au fait with government finances, is the extent of the cash being thrown around by the political players. “Previously finances came from skimming on contracts, such as printing, or over-invoicing. But now there seems to be another, new aspect, perhaps money laundering.”

Lesotho’s politicians have long careers, their fortunes part of a tireless game of musical chairs, past misdeeds always seemingly forgiven. Jonathan exiled King Mosheshoe II to the Netherlands for a few months in 1970, and again by Lekhanya to the United Kingdom in 1990, returning in 1992 and being reinstated to the monarchy three years later.

Ntsu Mokhehle, the leader of the Basotho Congress Party, went into exile in the 1970s after the abrogation of the 1970 election which his party won. Despite the BCP’s Pan-Africanist leanings, BCP cadres formed the Lesotho Liberation Army with Pretoria’s support as part of its policy of regional destabilisation in the 1980s, essentially aimed at rocking Maseru’s boat, given its succour of the South African liberation movements. In the course of my travels in 2009 in Kosovo I met by chance with the former SADF Special Forces’ officer who had ‘run’ the LLA. “I used to send them off on a Friday,” he said, “and on the Monday I would trawl the police stations of the Free State picking them up and bailing them out. Instead of heading over the mountains, they would head straight for the local bar and get into fights.” Yet Mokhehle not only returned to Lesotho, but also became prime minister with the restoration of democracy in 1993, when one of his close advisers was Tom Thabane.

Politics, it seems, offers one of the few decent jobs in town. Little wonder the economy is stuttering.

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International assistance and interest has dried up. There are just five full-time, resident foreign diplomatic missions (China, EU, Libya, US and South Africa) resident in the kingdom. Even the United Kingdom, the once colonial master, has closed shop, today being represented by an Honorary Consul. It’s a far cry from the anti-Apartheid heyday, when “every European country, among others”, reflects one minister, “had an embassy here”.

The country still receives $300 million annually in aid, over 11% of gross national income. But all aid seems to have managed over time is to make Lesotho less poor and less desperate rather than more prosperous and more stable, though gauging from the tempo of violence, even that minimalist strategy too seems flawed.

Despite the decrease in the number of migrant mineworkers from a peak of over 125,000, or more than half of all foreign born labour on the mines, in the mid-1970s to just 43,000 today, Lesotho is no less dependent on South Africa. The stock of Basotho migrants in South Africa was, according to World Bank estimates, 427,500 in 2010, with remittances totaling 29% of the country's GDP, the second-highest proportion for any country worldwide.

Maseru’s share of the South Africa-administered Southern African Customs Union revenue pool amounts to not less than 44% of Lesotho’s government income.

It’s poor. Nearly half the country’s two million people – 25% more than in 1985 – live in poverty, where HIV prevalence is 23%, the second highest in the world.

Unemployment is similarly endemic, officially a shade under one-third, and much higher among the youth. Though three-quarters of the population live in the rural areas, Lesotho produces less than 20% of its food needs, the result of massive soil degradation and outdated farming techniques.

These circumstances lend themselves to desperate, silver bullet solutions. Basotho openly covet bits taken from them during wars with embryonic South Africa “from the diamond fields to Port St John”, says one. During the Apartheid era, talks were supposedly held to hand over the ‘self-governing territory’ of Qwa Qwa to Maseru, an unsubtle strategy by Pretoria to dangle territory for ‘good’ behaviour as Jonathan offered sanctuary to the liberation movements.

Today Qwa Qwa’s Phuthaditjhaba is a sorry collection of RDP-type housing and three run-down industrial zones set up under the incentive-driven ‘separate development’ policy in the 1980s. Where factories once manufactured for export are depots trading imported goods, the network of roads with potholes in places capable of swallowing a minibus or two. Just down from the shiny new Mosque and Propagation Centre on Phuthaditjhaba’s main drag was a sign for the Flyway Penal Beating firm, apparently hitting the town’s problems on the head. The tiny roadside spaza shops were daubed with ‘No Credit’. They should know.

Somehow in all of this the Lesotho government has squandered even its biggest recent opportunity. The largest private employer is the textile and garment industry, with some 40,000 workers, mainly women, producing garments for export to South Africa and, under the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the US. But this number has fallen from over 50,000, a result of the volatile Rand (to which the local Loti is pegged), high costs of inputs notably electricity, transport costs and challenges, and changes in the global regulatory regime.

The termination of the global Multifibre Agreement in 2005 favoured those with “cost efficiencies, essentially Asia over Africa”, says one Chinese producer. “Asian salary costs,” he notes, “are lower, and their governments offer greater incentives, including tax free imports and local sales.”

The minimum wage in Lesotho is $100, or R1,260 including benefits and overtime. Bangladesh’s is less than a half of this figure ($43) and Vietnam’s ($52), India ($49) and Cambodia’s ($50) little more. This is exacerbated by payment on a ‘piece-by-piece’ basis in Asia, not permitted in Lesotho, and the latter’s high absenteeism of 8-10 percent.

Local shipping times are longer and costs higher than Asia – $4,620 in 2011 for example for the export sea-freight of a 40” container from Lesotho compared to those of the competitors: $2,600 for Vietnam, $2,800 in Cambodia and $3,100 for Bangladesh. The long immigration and customs queues at the Maseru crossing point (and the solitary open South African counter for immigration) add costs and illustrate the extent, too, of the hassle.

These are challenges Lesotho should not be facing. Asian countries have got out of textiles and apparel as their living standards and worker expectations have risen. But despite its textile boom, Lesotho has failed to improve its competitiveness and ascend the industrialisation ladder into higher-value added goods. Its attempts to do so and efforts to create Basotho (rather than Chinese) industrialists have had poor results.

The minister of small business, Thabiso Lits’iba, a former university professor, says that this dearth of progress is down to the relative absence of competent people among the 44,000 civil servants, and also “because of a lack of leadership in establishing a clear strategic direction and goals”. In other words, partly this malaise is down to government not listening, and part of it due to its unwillingness to take tough decisions.

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Or as former official put it, “Instead of looking at the long-term benefits of the textile agreement, we look to see who has benefitted in the short-term.” Rather than thinking generationally, politicians are too busy, as per Majoro’s argument, fighting over the scraps.

In 2008 at the invitation of His Majesty King Letsie, we brought together a group of experts from high-growth economies in Singapore, Costa Rica, Colombia, El Salvador, Chile, and Vietnam, to share lessons and identify a high-growth path for the kingdom. This was coupled with work commissioned specifically on the business climate in Lesotho, and of the tourism sector. Noting Lesotho’s success in manufacturing by taking best advantage of AGOA’s opportunities, and its exemplary record in carrying out complex, large infrastructure schemes, notably the Highlands Water Project, the final report focused its recommendations on job creation and export-led growth as the only route to a more prosperous future for the Kingdom.

Yet none of the reforms suggested – from removing highlighted constraints to developing a domestic growth forum to forge consensus – were implemented, despite the full attention of government at our meetings, and nodding agreement to our recommendations.

Thabane was our principal government interlocutor. Before taking up his job as minister of finance, he had served with distinction as deputy governor in the SA Reserve Bank.

He reflects now that our initiative died, as did the subsequent World Bank growth project, due to what he describes as “the short-termism of government”, the leadership being unwilling to expend political will to make it happen. Or as another senior Basotho participant put it, “It was a great initiative. It was ahead of its time. We were doing the same work five years later. But you,” he smiled, “left with it.”

Apartheid South Africa created the conditions for removing Chief Jonathan by stopping the flow of goods at the border during Christmas 1985, starving the military into action. I once challenged Pik Botha about this relationship at a long dinner party in the late-1990s. “Every now and again we had to throw a bucket of water over them to cool things down,” drawled the veteran foreign minister, Paul Revere in hand, tapping it on the lid of a box of 30s. (As his then personal assistant Vic Zazeraj recalls, “Those boxes of 30s were perfect for writing notes or poems on the back. While waiting around airport lounges, or bored by hostile speeches in the UN Security Council, he would write a poem and hand the box to me until he needed another smoke”.) The first time a blockade was used by Pretoria was in 1983; the second resulted in the Lekhanya coup. “A fractious lot,” growled Pik, “always niggling and fighting with each other.”

The niggling has got considerably worse. The political environment is fractured, and there seems to be little interest or ability by leadership, inside or without, to achieve consensus. Quite the opposite. Through his appointments in the LDF, for example, Prime Minister Thabane made numerous new enemies. This was not too clever. In a weak political system like Lesotho’s, the army tends to be relatively influential and powerful. Following the suspension of the National Assembly amid the attempt to change the head of the LDF from Kamoli to Mahao, the army provided a violent push to remove Thabane.

After nearly a half a century of independence, the military is now at the centre of politics, being used by (and increasingly using) politicians as an instrument. The military’s game plan seems to be for the deputy prime minister, Metsing, a former South African mineworker who has the backing of Kamoli, to step up to become prime minister. But LCD leadership would likely lead to breakdown of the coalition and a hopelessly minority government. There is nowadays a further danger, that the military marionette is fast becoming the puppet master. With the assassination of Mahao, a bridge has been crossed by the LDF. No politician is now safe.

The expanding role of the Lesotho military in politics serves to further entangle South Africa in local affairs. Pretoria has massive influence and a virtual monopoly on intervention given the geography. Or as one local observer put it, “Fixing the current situation will require exactly the sort of imperialist intervention we hate so much.” But so far Pretoria seems not to have a plan to bring the LDF under control and rebuild the local polity through democratic means, around, as more than one observer has said, “justice, values and peace”. And that is exactly what is required to stabilise the kingdom and to take the now palpable fear out of politics.

Other than South Africa, only the US has the influence to keep Lesotho’s politicians on the straight and narrow. But turning AGOA access off or reducing the funding available to Maseru under the $360 million Millennium Challenge Account would be immensely damaging both to Lesotho’s economy and in fuelling the sort of imperialism bogey that African politicians love to trot out.

Basotho hate the notion of being South Africa’s ‘tenth province’. On the cusp of its 50th independence anniversary, in economic terms it is all but that in name. And from Botha to Ramaphosa, Maseru’s behaviour suggests that politics, too, is increasingly beyond its own control, handing authority to an all-enveloping neighbour, one that might not always, at best, fully understand local political idiosyncrasies. DM

Dr Mills, who heads the Brenthurst Foundation, has recently visited Lesotho. His latest book (with Jeffrey Herbst) ‘How South Africa Works – and must work better’ (Pan Macmillan) appears this month.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick.