Lesotho’s Tom Thabane clings to power against the odds

By suspending the political process again, Thabane is once more raising the chances of security force intervention.

If the rolling political turmoil of the past six years has taught the Basotho people nothing else, it must surely be the meaning of the ungainly word ‘prorogue’. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘1. tr. discontinue the meetings of (a parliament etc.) without dissolving it.’

In the United Kingdom, for instance, from which Lesotho derives its parliamentary traditions, Parliament is generally only prorogued when it breaks between sessions, say for holidays, after which the same Members of Parliament (MPs) return. Meanwhile, though, all parliamentary business is suspended. Throughout British history monarchs and prime ministers have often prorogued Parliament for nefarious purposes – mainly to avoid judicial scrutiny of their actions.

That last happened in August 2019 when current British Prime Minister Boris Johnson controversially persuaded Queen Elizabeth to prorogue Parliament in an apparent attempt to avoid scrutiny of his rather vague Brexit plans. A month later, the Supreme Court overturned his prorogation but by then it was arguably too late.

Prorogation will surely always be associated in the political annals of Lesotho with the name of Tom Thabane, current and former prime minister. It was his proroguing of Parliament in June 2014 – to avoid his erstwhile political allies switching sides, ganging up on him with the opposition and voting him out of office – that helped precipitate the coup attempt against him on 30 August of that year. In the aftermath, he fled to South Africa for his life.

Prorogation will always be associated in the political annals of Lesotho with the name of Tom Thabane

In the ensuing roller-coast ride, Thabane was brought back into office under regional armed protection, jettisoned again after he lost an early election in 2015 and then propelled back into power after he won the next in 2017. Six years after his first act of prorogation, Parliament once more finds itself ‘prorogued’ by Thabane as he struggles to avoid being ousted.

Thabane, now 80, once considered, like another very old leader, ‘a man more sinned against than sinning,’ has latterly done his best to tip the balance the other way. His second wife Maesaiah Thabane bears much responsibility for that. He has indulged her behaving like a second Grace Mugabe by meddling in politics and government. This roiled the All Basotho Convention (ABC) and provoked rebellion and efforts to oust Thabane last year.

But the final straw was when Maesaiah was charged in February this year with the 2017 murder of Thabane’s estranged first wife Lipolelo Thabane. Thabane himself has also been charged, though the Constitutional Court is deciding if he should enjoy immunity from prosecution because of his office.

By then the embarrassed ABC had had enough. It compelled Thabane to step down, though he insisted he would only do so in July. His political opponents wanted to see the back of him sooner and growing numbers in his ABC began defecting to the opposition.

A large and growing faction in the ruling party has signed a coalition deal with the opposition

And so to avoid what looked like an inevitable vote of no confidence in him, on 19 March Thabane again prorogued Parliament for three months. His opponents have challenged this in court, which is expected to rule on the constitutionality of his prorogation maybe as soon as this week.

Meanwhile a large and growing faction in the ABC has signed a coalition deal with the opposition Democratic Congress (DC). It claims to already have enough MPs to form a new government, with a new leader and therefore prime minister. But it can only do that if Parliament is ‘un-prorogued’.

Dissident ABC MP Sam Rapapa is one of those who believes that only prorogation can save Thabane’s skin, and even then at latest only until 19 June when the prorogation is meant to end – if the court doesn’t end it sooner. He says Thabane’s efforts to form his own new coalition are futile as his supporters in Parliament are dwindling daily.

What does this now apparently chronic and increasingly bizarre political turmoil mean for the country? For starters what does it mean for the national dialogue and reform process being supervised by the Southern African Development Community (SADC)?

SADC intervened after the August 2014 coup attempt and then the assassination by soldiers of ex-army chief Maaparankoe Mahao – who was loyal to Thabane – in June 2015, after long-time prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili returned to power.

As always in Lesotho, the danger remains that the army or police could intervene

The national dialogue then launched to gather the Basotho people’s opinions about how to stabilise the country is now complete. Rapapa, one of the dialogue chairs, noted that the National Reforms Authority with 60 members drawn from all 35 political parties and stakeholders including the media, had already begun translating the population’s views into bills to present to Parliament.

And when Parliament resumed, that process would continue – otherwise unaffected by the turmoil in politics and Parliament, insisted Rapapa. (Who incidentally said he’d be seeking the ABC/DC coalition leadership once Parliament was again functioning.)

He also seemed unfazed by the recent spat between Thabane and South Africa’s ex-deputy judge president Dikgang Moseneke, who is overseeing the national dialogue and reform process. Moseneke wrote to Thabane last week taking issue with his pursuit of high treason charges against Lesotho Congress for Democracy leader Mothetjoa Metsing and Movement for Economical Change leader Selibe Mochoboroane for their alleged complicity in the August 2014 attempted coup against Thabane.

Moseneke reminded Thabane that the political agreement signed by the government and opposition on 16 October last year explicitly stated that no criminal proceedings should be launched against Metsing and others like him during the dialogue and reform process. Moseneke said any action that contravened that agreement ‘will not be welcomed’ by SADC – although the Constitutional Court has already ruled that the 16 October agreement is unconstitutional. 

Ironically though, Metsing and Mochoboroane are the two old foes with whom Thabane is now turning to form a new coalition to help him cling to power after the defection of the bulk of the ABC.

Can the dialogue and reform process survive this political turbulence? It’s important that it does. The process aims to resolve the deep-seated constitutional, political and security sector problems that have enabled the chronic instability manifesting itself again.

And even if the dialogue and reform process isn’t too severely damaged, the non-stop political soap opera must surely be distracting the government from the business of governing, including mounting a decisive pre-emptive response to the coronavirus crisis – which officially hasn’t reached the mountain kingdom – not to mention fighting poverty.

And, as always in Lesotho, the danger remains that the army or police could intervene. Thabane has, recklessly, called on them to protect him against his political opponents. Or, if Thabane does find more ruses to cling to power by frustrating the legitimate political process, someone else may drag the security forces into the political arena to resolve the issue by force. ‘The situation is extremely dangerous,’ as one seasoned commentator says.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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