Tom Thabane. Picture: Getty Images/AFP/Gulshan Khan
Tom Thabane. Picture: Getty Images/AFP/Gulshan Khan

The kingdom of Lesotho could be facing its fourth general election in just a decade, with a new crisis in the troubled country forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Tom Thabane.

Thabane’s recent problems started earlier this month, when he tried to sack police chief Holomo Molibeli in an apparent attempt to scuttle investigations into the 2017 murder of his estranged wife, Lipolelo.

Thabane’s current wife, Maesaiah, whom he married two months after Lipolelo’s death, went on the run soon after; a warrant of arrest was issued after she failed to show up to answer questions about her alleged involvement in the murder.

When Thabane, 80, announced his resignation last week, he cited old age as a reason. But analysts say he would never have taken this step if his wife — said to have regularly meddled in state affairs — had not fled.

"The prime minister even from the beginning of last year wanted to step down," says Seabata Motsamai, executive director of the Lesotho Council of NGOs, but it was Maesaiah who stood in the way. "He was like a small boy there [in the marriage]."

Thabane cited a year-long feud in the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) as another reason for his resignation. Lesotho is governed by a fragile coalition of four parties, led by Thabane’s ABC. But factionalism within the party is such that he already faced a no-confidence motion in parliament last year.

So while the coalition government has spent the past two weeks trying to decide on the most stable exit plan for Thabane, infighting could scupper efforts to elect a new prime minister. In that event, King Letsie III will be forced to call a general election.

In the face of current troubles, Motsamai says civil society remains confident that reforms to stabilise the country will go ahead, regardless of who is in power. This will fall largely to the National Reforms Authority, set to be inaugurated next month, following a process led by Southern African Development Community facilitators under President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Motsamai says civil society actors have managed to "insulate the reforms from the politics", but notes that it’s important to have a government stable enough to pass reformed legislation.

Politicians have few other options in life to make a living and make cash, so getting to the top of the pile is important
Roger Southall

Efforts to depoliticise Lesotho’s security establishment also appear to be paying off.

In previous years, Lesotho’s security forces were divided along political lines. Thabane had the support of the police, while the army backed his political opponents — former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili and former deputy Mothetjoa Metsing.

Motsamai says Thabane’s illegal efforts to unilaterally fire Molibeli, when this should be the preserve of the police minister, were resisted by the police, suggesting that training to make them "more loyal to legal instruments" has shown dividends.

Soldiers, too, have thus far stayed out of the squabble — though Thabane did try to order the army to remove the police chief.

It’s important for stability: since Lesotho’s independence in 1966, the military has been "the most influential political actor, often acting similarly to a political party", according to a 2019 report by the Institute for Peace & Security Studies at Addis Ababa University.

The country has experienced two military coups (1986 and 1991) and two attempted coups (1998 and 2014). Two army chiefs of staff and several senior police officers were murdered in 2015 and 2017, and there have been numerous clashes between elements in the army and the police.

In September 2017, Amnesty International took Thabane to task, just 100 days into his new term, for not living up to his promise "to create a more stable and lawful country".

Much has changed since. Aside from the progress in Lipolelo’s murder investigation, suspects in the June 2015 murder of army commander Lt Gen Maaparankoe Mahao were formally charged two weeks ago.

Roger Southall, emeritus professor in sociology at Wits University, says the lack of job opportunities outside politics is to blame for much of the political instability in Lesotho. "Politicians have few other options in life to make a living and make cash, so getting to the top of the pile is important."

Southall says SA has an interest in intervening in Lesotho because of the negative effects instability could bring.

To that end, Ramaphosa’s special foreign envoy Jeff Radebe and deputy state security minister Zizi Kodwa visited Maseru last week, amid rumours that Maesaiah might be hiding out in SA. Radebe told TimesLive that he is optimistic about developments.

But how Lesotho proceeds with the murder cases of Lipolelo and Mahao could test whether the tiny mountain kingdom is indeed on the road to normalcy at last.