SADC shouldn’t scrap Lesotho from its agenda just yet

After investing so much in the country, can the regional body end its mediation while political infighting continues?

Time is running out for Lesotho to put a new plan on the table that will prevent it from sliding back to political instability and violence. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has set 19 May as the deadline for constitutional and security sector reforms, to be thrashed out by a national dialogue forum. Yet progress is slow and the political class that has dragged the country down for several years is as divided as ever.

The infighting in the All Basotho Convention (ABC) of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane has reached boiling point with opposing factions turning to the courts to settle their differences. High Court deliberations over the validity of the February ABC party elections started on 23 March. Thabane and his supporters in the party are disputing the election of a new national executive committee.

Talks between the different factions, ordered by the court, have been unsuccessful. The independence of the judiciary is one of the key discussion points in the current dialogue process, after Thabane suspended chief justice Nthomeng Majara in September last year.

SADC insists on the May deadline for constitutional reforms in order to wrap up its presence in Lesotho

Another obstacle to Lesotho’s stability is the continued politicisation of the army and police. The current crisis, which prompted the SADC intervention, has its roots in an attempted military coup in 2014 and the assassination of former army general Maaparankoe Mahao the year after. Another high-profile assassination followed – of defence force chief Khoantle Motsomotso – in September 2017.

SADC sent an intervention force to help stabilise the situation and ensure the return of political exiles, but the 270-member SADC Preventive Mission in the Kingdom of Lesotho was withdrawn at the end of last year. This was despite calls by Thabane for the troops to stay.

SADC has been unusually firm in its handling of the Lesotho situation. Those involved in the process say the withdrawal of the SADC force was partly due to a lack of resources and capacity, but also to prevent the mission from dragging on indefinitely. Setting a deadline for withdrawal and then sticking to it was seen as a message to Lesotho that the regional body wouldn’t tolerate more delays in ending the crisis.

SADC has much experience in this regard, having intervened in Lesotho several times before. It first intervened militarily in 1998 and many times since, mostly politically. Between 2007 and 2009, former Botswana president Quett Masire was sent by SADC to solve the electoral impasse between the main political parties. He had little success, apart from suggesting a raft of electoral reforms.

The current mediation effort has been going on since September 2014. SADC continues to insist on the May deadline for constitutional reforms in order to wrap up its presence in the country.

Talks between factions of Lesotho’s ruling party, ordered by the court, have been unsuccessful

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa remains the SADC facilitator for Lesotho. He delegated the task of leading the dialogue to former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke. After successfully gathering all the actors for a first round of talks last year, Moseneke again visited Lesotho last month. His mandate is set to expire on 19 May.

The National Dialogue Planning Committee, comprising a broad spectrum of stakeholders, is tasked with conducting district level consultations and giving feedback on the way forward. When this process is completed, Moseneke is expected to meet with the national leaders’ forum, comprising all the main political parties, before convening the second stakeholder dialogue. This group, which met for the first time last November, includes civil society, churches and local non-governmental organisations.

According to SADC’s roadmap for Lesotho, the mediation would then end and the oversight committee should be able to withdraw. Yet those close to the process say the real work will only begin after these meetings have been held.

Drawing up a new constitution and reforming the security sector is a major undertaking. South Africa and influential figures like Moseneke have vast experience in this regard, and could provide lessons on the independence of the judiciary, army and police from political interference. These have been some of the pillars of South Africa’s democracy.

By sticking to its deadlines, SADC is saying it won’t tolerate more delays in ending Lesotho’s crisis

Lesotho’s electoral system, a mix between a direct and a proportional approach, has been debated extensively since it was first implemented in 2002. Of the 120 seats in the National Assembly, 80 are elected in constituencies and 40 through a proportional system.

Some believe this guarantees a greater measure of democracy and ensures the presence of smaller parties in parliament. Others say the system should be reformed because of the fractious nature of the political elite, who often prefer to create their own political parties rather than unite behind a consensus candidate. Floor-crossing has been common, which creates confusion and undermines the credibility of politicians in the eyes of voters.

The judicial system is also a mix between traditional and Roman Dutch law, with a constitutional monarch who has previously played a conciliatory role when fragile party coalitions in government fall apart. Thabane’s ABC is in power thanks to a coalition with three smaller parties. If the current impasse in his party leads to a successful vote of no confidence, King Letsie III may need to step in again. In that case, SADC might have to stay on, whether it likes it or not.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Research Consultant, ISS

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