The mountain in our midst is rumbling again

Lesotho may fairly be regarded as an unstable state held together by its unique geography as the only nation on Earth completely surrounded by one other state; in this case, of course, South Africa.

If geography is destiny, the destiny of that unique geography has been to make Lesotho extremely subject to Pretoria’s whims and dictates. But South Africa has also served as a container to prevent the little mountain kingdom from flying apart.

The old apartheid government forced the country to stop harbouring the African National Congress in the 1980s by blockading Lesotho under former prime minister Leabua Jonathan, and eventually supporting the coup by General Justin Lekhanya, replacing Jonathan on 15 January 1986. In September 1998, South African and Batswana troops entered Lesotho under the Southern African Development Community (SADC) flag in the so-called Operation Boleas. This was to prevent widespread opposition rioting against alleged rigging in the May elections from descending into a mutiny and a military coup.

That tragic but perhaps necessary history would have immediately sprung to the minds of Lesotho’s generals – in particular military chief, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli – when they read the following statement issued by the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation on 19 June this year.

Pretoria, it seems, chose to fire a warning shot in the form of that statement

‘The South African Government has further noted with grave concern the unusual movements of the Lesotho Defence Force Units in the capital, Maseru,’ the statement read. ‘The South African Government wishes to reaffirm and reiterate the African Union’s position on the unconstitutional change of governments on the continent and in this regard the South African Government and SADC will not tolerate any unconstitutional change of government in the region and Continent.’

As South African officials acknowledge, that statement was a shot across the bows of anyone in the Lesotho military who might have been contemplating a military coup. ‘We believe that message was received,’ one official added, laconically.

Behind the scenes of this public warning, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane had evidently called on South Africa for military support against a coup. Pretoria, it seems, chose instead to fire a warning shot in the form of that statement. But, as the intervention of 1998 demonstrated, even if it was rather botched in the execution, Lesotho’s only neighbour is unlikely to stand idly by while turbulence engulfs a vital part of its water supply.

The ‘unusual movements of the Lesotho Defence Force units’ that sparked fears of an imminent coup last month had apparently been triggered by a stand-off between the army and the police. In January bombs had been detonated near the homes of Thabane and the police commissioner. A police inquiry fingered eight military officers and warrants were issued for their arrest. But Kamoli, the Lesotho Defence Force chief, refused to hand them over.

The suspension of Parliament has also, in effect, suspended the democratic process

Kamoli had been appointed by the previous prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, shortly before he was voted out of office by Thabane in 2012 – and quite clearly remains loyal to his former boss, not his present one. He has even gone so far as to announce publicly that he will not salute Thabane: a treasonous statement, by any measure. Yet Thabane evidently fears him too much to fire or punish him.

The broader context of this stand-off between the police and the army is the chronic and vicious squabbling among the politicians. This is fragmenting the coalition that governs the country, comprising Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC), the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and the Basotho National Party (BNP).

Apparently angered by Thabane’s imperial style, the LCD led by Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing has threatened to walk out of the coalition and form a new one with Pakalitha’s Democratic Congress (DC), which would muster enough votes to form a new government.

Thabane’s response was to ‘prorogue’ – suspend – Parliament for nine months, as he is constitutionally entitled to do. He is thereby dodging any vote of no-confidence that might be held to oust him.

Negotiations, mediated by local civil society and SADC, continue among the three parties of the governing coalition to try to hold it together until elections in 2017.

As Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba made clear after visiting Lesotho recently, SADC would like the coalition to survive in the first place because it wants Thabane to lift the suspension of Parliament, as this suspension has also in effect suspended the democratic process in Lesotho. Pohamba, as current chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security, had been instructed by the SADC secretariat to intervene in the crisis.

But if the political crisis is being addressed by outside mediators, the security crisis – the stand-off between the army and the police – is not being tackled by them, at least not directly. The eight army officers, against whom arrest warrants have been issued, remain at large. ‘We’ll leave that up to them to decide,’ says a South African official.

Whether that approach is just copping out; or relying too much on that veiled warning of military intervention to stifle any military misbehaviour; or derives from genuine respect for Lesotho’s sovereignty; or is perhaps just a gamble on the resolution of the political crisis also resolving the security crisis, remains to be seen.

Dimpho Motsamai of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) believes that the South African government was justified in issuing the warning as a measure of preventative diplomacy.

But she does not believe a coup was, or is imminent. According to her, Kamoli is playing politics given the fragility of the ABC-led coalition and the likely pact between the DC and the LCD in forming a new coalition. She says Kamoli is strategic enough to want to avoid a repeat of the 1998 southern African military intervention, and also believes that he can achieve his aims just biding his time.

‘Why would you want to launch a coup when you can just let the governing coalition collapse by itself?’ she asks. That would get rid of Kamoli’s nemesis, Thabane, and probably replace him with his allies Mosisili and Metsing in an LDC/DC-led government.

It is true that even the South African government’s analysis was that a coup was probably not imminent, but that the military was just trying to intimidate Thabane’s government. It apparently issued that warning just in case, as Motsamai suggests. Yet others are not so sure there is no threat of a coup. If Thabane continues to undermine the democratic process by keeping Parliament on ice to avoid being ousted by a vote of no-confidence, they fear the pressure will build up to remove him by other means.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa