Lesotho Defence Force troops patrol Maseru, April 18 2020. Picture: MOLISE MOLISE / AFP
Lesotho Defence Force troops patrol Maseru, April 18 2020. Picture: MOLISE MOLISE / AFP

Maseru — Lesotho troops deployed by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane amid a showdown with opponents demanding the octogenarian leader resign withdrew from the capital’s streets on Sunday.

Thabane faces mounting calls to step down from rivals within his ruling party and opposition groups over suspicions he had a hand in the murder of his estranged wife in 2017.

An AFP journalist in the capital Maseru reported that soldiers backed by armoured vehicles had returned to barracks by Sunday morning.

Thabane had deployed them the day before to “restore order” while accusing unnamed law enforcement agencies of undermining democracy. The army spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Diplomatic moves to calm the situation were meanwhile gathering pace. A South African envoy has arrived in Lesotho, Thabane’s senior private secretary Thabo Thakalekoala said on Sunday.

He did not elaborate but many in Maseru suspect President Cyril Ramaphosa dispatched the envoy to the tiny kingdom surrounded by SA in a bid to facilitate talks between Thabane and his opponents.

US, British and EU ambassadors and commissioners  called on Maseru to remember “the importance of maintaining stability and the rule of law”.

“We urge a united approach that prioritises the protection of citizens and the provision of essential services,” they said in a signed statement.

In power since 2017, Thabane, 80, deployed troops on Saturday, a day after the Constitutional Court overturned his decision to suspend parliament for three months.

The premier has been under immense pressure to step down after police investigations suggested his involvement in the murder of his wife, Lipolelo, three years ago.

In March, Thabane imposed a three-month suspension of parliament shortly after the national assembly passed a bill barring him from calling fresh elections if he loses a no-confidence vote hanging over his head.

He ordered the security forces and intelligence service to probe his ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) party rivals, whom he accused of plotting to topple his government.

Though no case of coronavirus has yet been reported in the mountain kingdom, citizens were last week placed under confinement until at least Tuesday to stem any spread of the disease.

Thabane’s order took it a step further, deploying the army against unnamed “rogue” national elements he said wanted to destabilise Lesotho.

Dropped by his own ABC party, Thabane has promised to retire by the end of July because of his age, but the ABC and the opposition demand his immediate departure.

ABC deputy leader Nqosa Mahao said the party was “seriously concerned” that the prime minister was determined to misuse security agencies to derail a multi-sector reform process inspired by the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).

In a joint statement with opposition groups including the Democratic Congress, Basotho National Party and Popular Front for Democracy, Mahao said: “The prime minister’s actions clearly point out that he is no longer fit to hold office.

“To protect his own integrity, we therefore advised the prime minister to reconsider and leave office ahead of the time that he had communicated to Basotho.”

Police commissioner Holomo Molibeli confirmed that he had been abruptly removed from office.

“I am aware that an instruction was given to the Lesotho Defence Force for me to be arrested ... that plan did not materialise,” he said.

Molibeli added that he had approached the courts to “protect” him.

Thabane’s re-election in 2017 had brought hopes of stability to landlocked Lesotho, which has a long history of turmoil. It has been more than a decade since a prime minister served out a full five-year term.