Will the Lesotho army accept a Thabane victory?

The country goes to the polls on Saturday with many fundamental causes of instability unresolved.

What will it take to cure the chronic instability of Lesotho’s politics? This perennial question looms large once again as the tiny mountain kingdom entirely surrounded by South Africa goes to the polls for general legislative elections on Saturday.

Despite almost three years of intense regional intervention aimed at restoring stability, the country remains gripped by fears that the election could spark a military coup.

The Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), which has been meddling in Lesotho’s politics for decades, is showing signs of wanting to deny former prime minister Tom Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) victory.

Though many parties are in the field, the election seems to be essentially a two-horse race between the ABC and the bloc comprising Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s Democratic Congress (DC) and Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). Thabane’s ABC seems to have the edge, after the major splits in the DC and LCD which enabled him to win a vote of no confidence against Mosisili’s government in March.

Instead of transferring power to a Thabane-led coalition after losing the no-confidence vote, as he could and probably should have, Mosisili instead called Saturday’s elections in a last-ditch effort to cling to power.

Could Saturday’s election spark a military coup in Lesotho?

There aren’t any voter surveys in Lesotho but by the rather crude measure of attendance at rallies, the ABC seems to be slightly ahead – though the headstrong Thabane may have made a fatal error in going it alone and not forming an election bloc with allied smaller parties. The prospect of a Thabane victory is extremely worrying to partisan pro-Mosisili army officers who have several skeletons in the cupboard which could come clattering out.

Under its previous commander Tlali Kamoli, the army attempted a coup in August 2014, forcing Thabane and his allies to flee to South Africa. 

After protracted intervention under the banner of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) represented by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the next elections, scheduled for this year, were brought forward to February 2015 to try to stabilise the politics.

The LCD defected from Thabane’s coalition and Mosisili’s coalition won, but the instability continued. In June that year soldiers allegedly sent by Kamoli shot dead his successor as defence force chief, Maaparankoe Mahao, and jailed and tortured many other soldiers, all supposedly plotting a coup. Thabane and other opposition leaders fled Lesotho again. 

SADC leaders appointed the Phumaphi Commission to probe Mahao’s killing and deeper causes of the country’s chronic instability. In 2015 it recommended the firing of Kamoli, and political, constitutional and security sector reforms to address chronic instability.

It took until December last year for Mosisili to get rid of Kamoli and even this, reportedly, was only after threats from the United States to expel Lesotho from the trade benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) if he didn’t.

Many political opponents and observers suspect Kamoli is still pulling the strings in the army.

SADC has made it clear that it won’t tolerate any theft of Lesotho’s election

Thabane and other opposition party leaders returned gingerly from their long exile in South Africa after Kamoli was fired, only to prepare for the crucial no-confidence vote that toppled Mosisili.

But Mosisili has ignored other critical recommendations by the commission. Soldiers who committed torture and other crimes in the witch-hunt for those behind what the Phumaphi Commission concluded was a fantasy coup have still not been prosecuted. 

And political, constitutional and security sector reforms, including critical ones designed to prevent the army from playing any political role in the future, have not been implemented.

Mosisili vehemently rebuffed a mandate from the 18 March Swaziland SADC summit to call a multi-stakeholder national conference before Saturday’s elections, to find ways of implementing these outstanding SADC decisions in order to ensure a smooth, peaceful election and aftermath. And he only grudgingly signed a general pledge, initiated by the churches, and signed by all others parties, to accept the result of the elections.

Meanwhile the LDF is looking restless, fearing that if Thabane wins he will carry out his threats to prosecute those soldiers singled out by the Phumaphi Commission.

About three weeks ago officers pitched up at the offices of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and demanded 3 000 unmarked ballots, according to local sources. The army said they were for soldiers who would be on duty on election day to be able to cast prior ballots. The IEC refused, saying only it could supervise voting.

And then more recently, a bizarre LDF letter to the government surfaced, requesting permission for the army to secure 22 hills and plateaus around the country – which it called ‘Ground of Tactical Importance’ – to ‘be used for foreseeable security threat and security purposes’. 

This is widely viewed as either intimidation of voters ahead of the elections or even preparation for dealing with popular resistance if Mosisili loses and yet refuses to concede power, as his attitude and actions suggest he might.

Many suspect that the fired Tlali Kamoli is still pulling the strings in the army

Diplomats and other observers, though, believe that SADC is flexing its muscles behind the scenes and has made it clear to Mosisili that enough is enough and it will not tolerate any theft of the election.

But whether Mosisili or Thabane wins – and Mosisili goes quietly – there are still concerns that the underlying causes of instability will remain unaddressed.

The SADC summit in March also decided to convene another summit soon after the new Lesotho government is formed after Saturday’s elections to address these causes. This summit would ‘engage the new government of Lesotho on the need to implement the SADC decisions and the recommendations of the SADC Commission of Inquiry through a road map with clear timelines’, SADC leaders said then.

But Mosisili seems likely once again to show SADC the middle finger if he wins this weekend. And if he loses and concedes, some suspect he will nonetheless continue to frustrate SADC’s proposed reforms from behind the scenes and through his influence in the military.

One close observer of Lesotho’s politics believes that whether the ABC or the DC/LCD bloc wins, the two groupings should form the grand coalition he feels is necessary to get buy-in to implement SADC’s recommendations and deep reforms. But given the bad blood between Thabane and Mosisili, he thinks they will be incapable of such magnanimity in the wider interests of the country.

This all suggests that Ramaphosa and SADC should right now be preparing to flex those muscles even larger from next week.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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