Nthakeng Pheello Selinyane
SOME remarks by the former Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander, military ruler and later beleaguered leader of the Basotho National Party (BNP) Major-General Justin Metsing Lekhanya on the promised security reforms (“’Dialogue should precede security reforms”’, Lesotho Times 27 July 2017) sound suspiciously dangerous even if apparently innocent.
They, therefore, beg some form of interrogation and rebuttal. He properly proposes that security reforms must be preceded by an all-stakeholder national dialogue. Yet he places undue emphasis on the importance of including the security forces, positing that they have the needed experience of being in government; and complaining “they are forced to remain silent even when they foresee problems”. This proposition is handicapped at three levels. First, a rogue army staging a coup or even a “revolutionary, patriotic” army staging a revolution might not pretend to put forward its experiment at national administration as a template for democratic governance – no army is meant for that or inducted in that, hence every military regime uses pliant professors and other intelligentsia to rule on behalf of “the people” in a republic and on behalf of “the king” in a monarchy, as happened here.
Second, security reforms are a conjuncture where the community decides patterns of subordination and control of its forces, and accounting for the spinoffs or fallout therefrom, i.e consequences of its choices – not where the forces negotiate the tailoring of the field with the community and its elected (political and civil society) representatives.
Third, though that isn’t its space at all, the LDF doesn’t have any recent history of being forced to remain silent even where it foresaw problems. On the contrary, it spent the years 1994 – 1998 chasing the ruling Congress politicians including killing the deputy prime minister while being apparently shielded by the state. From between 2007 and 2016, it was chasing the All Basotho Convention (ABC) in opposition and in government alike, including forcing its leader, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his police and army chiefs into exile in the August 29, 2014 coup attempt, and ultimately killing Lt-Gen. Maaparankoe Mahao whom the LDF Congress handlers/ clients equated with the ABC for their project. Its repeatedly self-promoting, criminally multiply-named commanders told the Phumaphi Commission in 2015 that they had since arrogated to themselves the responsibility to determine the legitimacy of the prime minister and government, and times to obey or defy him.
The major-general claims that the security forces are constrained to accept the current changes of command, and the envisaged reforms programme, because they are formally employed and budgeted for by the incumbent civilian authority. This is an unfortunate and mercenary posture, if true, and tragic to issue from the throat of one of such status. In any case, the 2012/15 government was still paying them, and so was the 2015/17 one, yet they stood up to their civilian overlords in both cases. The forces should follow the coattails of the civilian authority because they think and accept it as their professional call of duty, their oath of life and death, to do so. How you arrive at that is a different question, but the clever answers of the LDF commanders at the Phumaphi Commission show that they are quite capable of internalising the same; after all that has been their lifelong training in a number of developed jurisdictions.
I wish to further challenge the major-general’s three-pronged claim that (i) politicians crave security forces’ absolute support and don’t care much for voters’ support; (ii) this renders it self-contradictory and near impossible to depoliticise the forces whose members have become card-carrying party members; and (iii) until the new inclusive electoral model was adopted, a loser of national elections could just go to the barracks and pick up arms to retain power. Wrong: (a) this naughtily promotes military self-deception, whereas all parties formally subscribe to electivity as the basis for managing national affairs – and this includes the Congress that incites the forces’ insubordination when in opposition, and prosecutes terror when in power; (b) while we have no studies of party affiliation of the forces save to know the political, even anti-government, rumblings of commanders at military parades dictating voting patterns and hatred for other commanders; there is actually nothing wrong with such identities being known as long as the forces relate to the rulers only as instruments of the state and nothing else – in the US, for example, the army traditionally votes Republican Party but has always remained professional; (c) nowhere in the world does a “loser” politician enjoy a thoroughfare to breach national armoury; and in the 1998-2002 transition it wasn’t true for “any loser” politician (even if you take it figuratively), but it took a coincidence of a particular complexion of political opinion with a chosen incline as well as material and strategic interests of the top command. It was a tango of a politician and a soldier.
The answer to why the major-general conveniently shaves the army (command) off this tango, and makes it remain a solo act of a “loser” politician, is found in his explanation of army violence on society as simple boyish skirmishes gone wrong, and his prescription that security reforms simply require that civilians change their contemptuous attitude to the army as their protector and defender. For an elderly statesman, we cannot be stronger than say he isn’t being truthful. The 2007 Military Intelligence head and 2012 LDF commander Lt.-Gen. Tlali Kamoli confessed in my July 2007 interview that his then on-going kidnap-and-torture expedition targeted the ABC. My various other published interviews revealing intricate details of politically-inspired LDF violence on citizenry of various identities remain unchallenged. Reform calls were triggered not by tavern-brawl clashes of army and civilian teenagers; but by a fomenting of an abortive coup, ultimate felling of a government and murder of an ostracised former commander – all proudly sourced by the army from a Facebook page of an explicitly seditious publisher who was housing the main opposition overtly inciting insubordination of the army. Major-General Lekhanya dismissed as silly and unnecessary Lt-Gen. Mahao’s murder and the pretexts thereof. The tragedy and surrounding circumstances cannot go unmentioned in assessing security reforms’ prospects.
Even outside these eminently political escapades, the national chief prosecutor found cause to charge (to no avail) elements of the army criminally for such incidents as the cold-blooded killing of those Mafeteng boys; and obstruction-of-justice compacts of conspiracy of silence were notoriously rammed down throats of poor bereft families like that of Lisebo Tang. After May 2015, all reported and publicly witnessed cases were routinely brushed aside and rubbished by the Public Affairs Office of the LDF and the LCD and LPC spokespersons almost stepping into army shoes. Ultimately, the army embedded itself in the police, kidnaping and torturing opposition activists while the police “public relations” desk justified the crimes.
We must stress that prosecuting justice in these cases isn’t in itself a reform; just as removing the rotten police apex, reversing malicious dismissals and promotions, and instantly solving the criminal disappearance of Police Constable Mokalekale Khetheng isn’t reform. It is simply indicative of the political will and boldness of the civilian authority to subject the forces to its dictates as the first move towards prosecution of such reforms. That is why it is dangerous of Major-General Lekhanya to even faintly suggest that security reforms must be negotiated with the forces, although I welcome their “voices” the same way I wouldn’t go about curriculum reform without involving students. Yes, many observers, activists and other role players await with bated breath a visitation of justice on the army excesses, which many view as a shot in the dark, a testing of uncharted waters, indeed a Rubicon moment stubbornly waiting to test the collective resolve and unity of purpose of the four ruling parties.
The deputy prime minister was forced by public outcry to change from calling for a “general amnesty” covering the Phumaphi Commission-named soldiers and their maliciously detained and self-exiled victims, to saying they should instead all be put on trial. This was all thanks to the Commission inexplicably recommending “amnesty” for the victim men it cleared, apparently to placate the authorities who explicitly supported the suspects. Major-General Lekhanya has on radio advised Prime Minister Thabane to avoid “hitting the beehive with a fist” in going about reforms – like Lt.-Gen. Kamoli ominously warning Thabane, in a 2012 pass-out ceremony speech, that the army was a bee that could sting if mishandled. In a media briefing to announce the founding of the coalition government, that he wasn’t interested in abolishing the army, the prime minister also joked that disbanding men under arms would be risking death – a line which had been harped on by the DC and LPC spokesmen in parliament and private radio over the preceding week. The top-heavy, fugitive sections of the LDF command will be looking to build on these utterances as a construct of their platform in negotiating their fate going into the reform process.
A popular, forward-looking multiparty government should dispense with criminality in the forces without elevating it to a price for purchase of the reforms. To walk into that space, the LDF’s decorated criminal corps needs a political voice to carry its cause in cabinet as in the 2012 coalition, or the government to vacate its space as in the 2015 coalition – and both governments were felled by the same two-facedness.
Mr Selinyane’s views are his own and do not reflect the views of the Lesotho Times.