Progress and challenges
AS expected, the newly-formed government of Lesotho faces a phenomenal task to unscramble a deliberate plan by former premier Pakalitha Mosisili to figuratively rule from the grave. As indicated in an earlier article, central to the scheme was to ensure that the government would be bogged down for up to a year trying to understand what has been done and how to undo it.
Though some thought that Dr Mosisili’s plan was just about his relatives and close allies, it was clear to me that those were transparent decoys. The real focus of the plan was to undermine the rule of law and to ensure that those who committed crimes would continue to control the levers of power and like in 2014 attempt to destabilise the government.
This gigantic plan to deceive everybody seems to have failed. The speed and focus with which the government has begun to dismantle the militia must have taken the conspirators by surprise. The government seems to have decided to break the back of the snake before going to smash its head. The militia which had been formed had three main components. The police was its fulcrum as I will show below; the National Security Service was its eyes; and the army was the executioner. In a situation where the fulcrum and eyes have been chopped, there is little that the remaining part of the militia can do. This is more so when the militia is aware that it is now under observation internally by the other security services and externally by the neighbours. It is a situation where the militia can only resort to assassinations but cannot stage a coup.
In order to understand the enormity of the task at hand in dismantling this militia, it is important to outline what was the nature of their operation as individual units and also how the militia effectively had become a state within a state. The point to emphasise is that Dr Mosisili was only a symbolic head of the militia. The effective head was Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli even after he had ostensibly left the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) command.
Dr Mosisili and his allies only provided the political cover particularly in the international community where he ultimately retreated to the worn out argument of the sovereign right of states in their internal affairs. This is an argument which he suddenly ditched after losing elections, when he started calling on the Sothern African Development Community (SADC) to institute a forensic audit of elections in a supposedly sovereign state!
Scope and modus operandi of the militia
As already indicated above, the militia operated as a unit even though specific tasks were largely handled in the different sections. The main operational areas seem to have been the police which had been dismantled as a police service. This is why the initial focus of the government seems to have been placed there. In the scale of things, police are the chief crime busters and if they become part of the criminal syndicate, it would be impossible to bring about accountability and the rule of law. Let us, through three main examples, show why the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) was no longer fit for purpose. I exclude the rampant crimes of all nature which were not dealt with since the police had been turned into a militia serving the interests of those who manipulated the service. The key issues which will show the crisis of policing in Lesotho since 2015 are as follows:
In August 2014, an attempted coup was staged by the LDF. And in the process, Sub-Inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko, a member of LMPS was brutally murdered at Police Headquarters. Those who staged the attempted coup and those who killed Sub-Inspector Ramahloko are known. Investigations on all the above were stopped after the 2015 elections. Making matters worse, the nephew of Sub-Inspector Ramahloko was dismissed from the police for asking about the state of the investigations of the murder of his uncle.
In January 2015, bodyguards of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane were ambushed and injured by members of the LDF close to the Royal Palace. A security guard, Qobete, in a nearby premises was shot and killed. The soldiers who ambushed those guards are known but no investigations have been undertaken by the police since then.
In June 2015, former LDF commander, Lt-General Maaparankoe Mahao, was waylaid and killed by publicly self-confessed members of the LDF. No investigations were undertaken by the police. In evidence before the Phumaphi Commission, the LMPS was characterised by evasiveness as shown by one Motlatsi Mapola who then was promoted twice within 15 months for attempting to deflect criticism of the police by arguing that there is evidence of civilians who cooperated with the so-called mutiny suspects.
The militia extended its control to the National Security Service (NSS) by seconding one Colonel Tumo Lekhooa substantively with Military Intelligence, and more importantly one of the suspects in at least three of the crimes listed in the Phumaphi Commission Report, as director-general. His control of the civilian intelligence agency ensured that the military was in complete control of the intelligence operations in Lesotho. It meant that there could not be any oversight over the military. It also meant that all the intelligence, past and present was now available for planning by those who ran the militia. It is now known that the most sensitive of the intelligence gathering systems were decoded and handed over to those whose mission was not security of the state, but spying on state institutions in order to commit crimes.
Finally we have to review the role of the militia in the army. The army had, like the police, been totally dismantled and served the interests of those who were focused on committing crimes. The whole Command has been largely responsible for transforming the army into a militia which has been involved in cases of high treason, murder and torture. The most prominent members of this gang have been handsomely rewarded with promotions and some by foreign postings. Indeed those like Sechele who was arrogantly trying to intimidate the Phumaphi Commission has been one of those who have been promoted twice in 15 months. He is now a Brigadier, whose only operation he has been in is one on the outskirts of Mokema in June 2015.
This was the unit which was the puppet master with the police and the NSS as useful idiots. But the militia’s head could not be effective without the use of those other institutions. Killing off the militia’s oxygen was thus probably the best strategy rather than going for the kill in what is going to be a complicated operation. The issue therefore is to assess the stage of the process of dismantling of the militia.
Cutting off the branches
Strategically, it is clear that the new government was well briefed and took actions early enough against the militia which is still in shock and knowing that it cannot operate the way it used to in the past. First, the militia is for the first time headless at both the political level and within the military. With both the Mosisili/Metsing axis gone and also with Kamoli out of direct command, the militia is stranded. Moreover, the firm direct and indirect communication by SADC to the new Commander of LDF, that there would be consequences if anybody tried to stage a coup sank. In the words of the South African foreign minister, “ …it’s not a threat, it’s just the way it is…” coups by the militia can’t be tolerated. How then has the government undertaken the task?
First, Dr Thabane held face-to-face meetings with LDF commander, Lieutenant-General Khoantle, before and after his inauguration. It is clear that the meetings were about making the commander know that the insubordination of the past would not be tolerated. Dr Thabane seems to have tamed the beast. Since then the LDF has now not openly challenged the government like it used to do. Two important developments have since taken place.
Col Lekhooa’s secondment to the NSS from LDF has been terminated. This was the first significant action which indicated that the new government is intent on initially clipping the wings of the militia before going for the jugular. Removing Col Lekhooa from NSS is probably the most important action which will ensure that the oversized military role in all aspects of Lesotho’s body politic is reduced. From a security management approach, this is as the doctor prescribed. Intelligence is the foundation of governance. This is only the beginning.
Third, the government decisively stopped the court martial against the so-called mutiny suspects who have since 2015 been tortured and incarcerated at the Maseru Maximum Security Prison. This was the centrepiece of bargaining by the old regime against its opponents. The plan was that, those detainees would be used to bargain the amnesty of the criminal suspects in all the cases referred to above. The release of the detainees would be contingent on the criminal suspects being provided indemnity. Like kidnappers, the demand was to compare perpetrators with victims. There could not be any equivalence. The next stage is to ponder whether the court martial should be dissolved or not.
The fourth significant action in dismantling the militia has been to initially send on leave Police Commissioner Molahlehi Letsoepa, while investigations about his role in undermining his oath of office to maintain a professional police service were being undertaken. The appointment of an acting police commissioner was an important first step. Commissioner Letsoepa, above all members of the militia, undermined police solidarity in protecting known killers of a fellow policeman; recruiting police on the basis of political leanings; promoting suspects in crimes like the disappearance of Constable Khetheng. But to make matters worse, Commissioner Letsoepa, a day after elections and on a Sunday, promoted over 20 cronies into senior positions irregularly and without a budget.
In all my days as a political observer in Lesotho, I have not seen such a brazen attempt to undermine a police institution. I have also never seen government circulars issued a day after elections and on a Sunday. Only the militia could have thought of things like that. That he has now been written to by the acting Government Secretary Emmanuel Lesoma to “show cause” why he should not be removed as police commissioner is not a surprise!
The attempts so far have been well-thought out and will be the basis for action in the next few weeks when additional measures will be taken to move from the branches to the stem. In his Speech from the Throne a week ago, King Letsie III indicated that SADC decisions arising from the Phumaphi Commission will be implemented in full and swiftly in order to bring about stability. This is where the key challenges lie. One of the key recommendations which the commission made was that all those in the LDF suspected of committing crimes should be suspended while investigations are continued. In the meantime, almost all those who were listed in the report have now been promoted twice with most skipping the ranks. Most of the suspects have moved from junior officers to being part of the command. While it is possible to try to suspend them, it is not clear whether they will not attempt to resist. It is therefore prudent to move cautiously and solicit SADC support to implement this part of the recommendations.
Second, we have those detainees who are now under open arrest. Their court martial case is still intact. Most of those have been severely tortured and may need medical and psychological counselling. It’s not enough to stop the court martial case to go on. Indeed, the best case scenario is to dissolve the court martial. Dr Thabane has the power under the law to do so. But the question which has to be considered is their re-integration into the force where they were tortured by their juniors who now suddenly have become senior to some of them. How safe are they before the suspects are suspended? This has to be thought very carefully.
Thirdly, we still have to consider the exiled soldiers whose salaries and other benefits were stopped in 2015. Like their colleagues who were at Maximum Security, they have suffered a lot. They also cannot just walk in into the barracks after these developments. Their security must be paramount in any decision taken before the suspects are removed. What the government should be able to do is to ensure that their livelihoods are improved before they come home in safety. This is reportedly what the Communications Minister Joang Molapo is reported to have said to the local media. I totally agree with that approach. There is to need to ensure that they return in safety rather than to hand them over to the remnants of the militia who would be desperate by now and could harm them.
The militia is now being dismantled. We, however, need to be aware that in desperation it could hit anywhere like an unguided missile. There is no need for premature celebration. The road ahead is still tough but most of it should be over before the end of August 2017.