Understanding political instability in Lesotho:



Professor Mafa Sejanamane

Can this circle be broken?

Professor Mafa M. Sejanamane

ADDRESSING questions of political instability in Lesotho has been one of my main pre-occupations in the past two years or so. This has been so after a recognition that Lesotho is by all indicators regressing as a result of never ending instability, while the rest of the Southern African region is moving on. In one of the recent posts in lesothoanalysis, I began with the following:

“Recent Lesotho political history has been littered with instability, coup d’état and several other unconstitutional changes of government. For those outside Lesotho, the question has always been why so much happens in this small impoverished country unlike in the rest of the Southern African region? ….At the heart of the problems in Lesotho have always been governments which are not focused on answering the needs of the people, but answer to the needs of a small clique of politicians allied or subservient to the military. It has been a case where politicians plot, murder and steal public resources without fear of consequences as a result of their alliance with some elements of the military.”

Unfortunately the situation has not changed. On the contrary, the country continues to bleed while politicians turn their attention to ways of maintaining or gaining office, not power, as I have begun to realise. The problem is that some don’t even know the difference between being in office and being in power. For some, as long as they have armed men around them and they get paid, they believe they are in power. The reality for some time now is that all power rests with the militia which surrounds them. Indeed, as long as the diversionary issue about holding elections, rather than focusing on fundamental reforms in both the public sector and the security sector are not implemented, Lesotho will continue to waste resources holding election after election with no results.

Also problematic in the Lesotho context are the existing institutions and how they function. Despite the existence of some governance institutions which are supposed to guide processes, the continued weakening of these institutions, through political mechanisms and the predatory nature of our elites, stability will continue to elude us.  Both parliament and the judiciary have now been so emasculated that they are now secondary institutions answerable for all intents and purposes to the executive. We seem to be moving fast in autopilot into the precipice since we have not yet learned that power has to be dispersed and diluted in order to ensure that it does not crush the citizenry. The Kenyans saw through that after their post-election catastrophe of 2007 and have come up with a constitution which has so many checks and balances that it would be difficult for any one person or institution to impose itself on others.

It is under these circumstances that Lesotho is holding its third general election in less than five years. Part of the problem is that for some, elections give them hope that they could stay or gain office; while for others; elections are just a game meant to spite others. The possibility that one can win in such elections, is tempting rather than to hand over power to rivals. This is what I have come to call the “I can’t hand over power to that one” syndrome.  It is not about the country, but antipathy to certain groups or certain individuals. It’s clear to all that elections in themselves, don’t and cannot provide the solution to the current challenges. It is for the above that we have to explore the key challenges which bring about instability and also to look into the triggers of instability. At the same time, we have to attempt to chart a future for Lesotho which was spelled out so clearly in our much neglected Vision 2020. Let us remind each other what the vision visualised Lesotho would look like in 2020. The vision statement read:

“By the year 2020, Lesotho shall be a stable democracy, a united and prosperous nation at peace with itself and its neighbours. It shall have a healthy and well-developed human resource base. Its economy will be strong, its environment well managed and its technology well established.”

Lesotho is not even close to achieving this vision. It is a quasi-democracy dominated by varying types of militias. It is divided, poor and tearing itself from within; and more importantly it is an isolated country with neighbours looking at it scornfully since it is unable or unwilling to learn from its mistakes. The country is also dragging its feet when being guided to peace and stability. What are the key challenges facing Lesotho as it edges closer to the June 2017 elections?

Recent sources and triggers of instability

Post-colonial Lesotho politics has always been turbulent with periods of high to moderate instability. The post-2002 election periods up to 2006 can be regarded as the most peaceful and stable in independent Lesotho. For purposes of this article, however, I will focus on the period after the 2012 elections. The period is important for three reasons.

Firstly, it is the time when the full implications of the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) representation method came to the fore. This is the time when no political party managed to rule on its own, but had to seek coalition partners in order to form a government. For some, this was a troubling period since they had always operated from a single dominant party mode. Sharing power was in itself traumatising.

In Africa, the Lesotho coalition arrangement was the first to be entered into as a result of elections rather than cases in South Africa in 1994 which was a constitutional requirement; or Zimbabwe after its violent elections where the loser, Robert Mugabe, was made president by a SADC compromise in order to spare the Zimbabwean people from more violence. The election outcome of the MMP representation model as adopted in its adulterated form in Lesotho disperses power with all significant voices being heard. This model has its origins in Germany where it has two important elements. First it has an overhang and a threshold. The overhang allows a few seats above what would be regarded as the total number of seats in a country to accommodate left-over seats when the allocations are made. That means there are not fixed number of seats. The Lesotho system has no overhang just like in New Zealand where we took it from.

The second element which is important is the introduction of a threshold. A threshold refers to the minimum level of support a party needs to gain representation. The purpose and rationale of a threshold is to provide for effective government without placing major hurdles in the way of emerging new political forces. A threshold therefore gives smaller parties a reasonable chance of gaining seats in Parliament but limits the election of extremist groups and very small parties. In a place where the threshold exists, the electoral body disregards the votes of any party that fails to reach a stated percentage of party vote threshold. In New Zealand and Germany, the threshold is five percent, while in Turkey it is an unjust 10 percent. When this occurs, the party becomes eligible for a proportional share of the seats in Parliament based on its shares of the party votes. This is however waived if a party wins one constituency seat in New Zealand. In Germany on the other hand, a party which fails to reach the three percent threshold can only be eligible to participate in the seat sharing process if it has won three constituency seats.

Through the use of this threshold, new and small political parties are encouraged to participate in elections but must show that they represent a significant portion of the populace. Alternatively, they have to combine with others to contest elections. In this way, the possibility of spoilers is minimised. It also encourages individuals to compromise within their parties rather than walk away and form parties which at times can be regarded as the “husband and wife” political parties.  This is particularly so in Lesotho where forming a political party only requires one to have 500 followers. In the 2015 elections, we had a situation where seven political parties joined in a coalition. At least three of those did not qualify to have a seat in Parliament, but were compensated with the leftover seats. One of those did not even have 2 000 votes in the election while the quota was 4 600. The leader of that party ended up as a minister!

Removing this loophole would suddenly remove political parties which do not represent a sizeable opinion while ensuring that those who are representative are able to garner sufficient support to allow for a stable government.

Secondly, this is the period when the army rebellion brewed and culminated in an attempted coup in August 2014 leading to the flight of then premier Thomas Thabane, several ministers; and other key security personnel to South Africa. The return of Dr Thabane from a brief refuge in South Africa did not lead to the quelling of the rebellion, but led to a prolonged parallel rule, whereby those allied to the military operated outside the legal framework. Dr Thabane virtually had no control over the security environment. On the contrary, the rebellious group of the military were on the loose leading to ambushes and killings of people without fear of any consequences.

The rebellion within the military, as I have shown in several of my publications, may have been hatched a long time ago, but it crystallised and became public from the time, one Tefo Hashatsi who was then a very junior officer in the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), publicly told those under him early 2014 that the then commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli could not be removed from his command. He vowed that could only happen over his dead body. This he later repeated to the Phumaphi Commission, which had been established by SADC as a result of the killing of the former LDF commander, Lt-Gen Maaparankoe Mahao and other convulsions in Lesotho’s political scene.

This continued with the bombings of several residences; the attempted coup of 2014; the ambush of some of the former prime minister’s bodyguards injuring several of them and other activities. The SADC decision through the Maseru Security Accord sought to remove three heads of security services from the country for the duration of the election period. This however did not help since it managed only to remove the Lt-Gen Kamoli who resisted to be removed from office but left his entire command intact which was in rebellion.

The consequences could have been foreseen. The government had been paralysed from January 2014 to the 2015 elections. Two parallel structures of rule had emerged. Structures which were under Dr Thabane; and those which were guided by his deputy, Mothetjoa Metsing; in collaboration with the then former premier Pakalitha Mosisili. The latter was to publicly thank the military for helping him to power. In a pass out parade of the recruits into LDF shortly after taking over as prime minister, he declared that he would not have been in office were it not for the help of the military (“Hoja e ne e se ka lona, nka be ke se mona”).

Thirdly, the return to office of Dr Mosisili as prime minister and the reinstatement of Lt-Gen Kamoli as commander of the LDF led to more convulsion in both the military and the political scene where several soldiers were detained, tortured, and some exiled.  The shooting dead of Lt-Gen Mahao is one example. But more importantly, this led to the appointment of an international commission of inquiry which laid bare the lawlessness in Lesotho by the government and its agents. It recommended that suspects be suspended while their cases were being investigated and also that constitutional, public sector and security sector reforms be undertaken.

After the adoption of the Phumaphi Report’s recommendations, and the parliamentary vote of no confidence on the government in March 2017, Lesotho is now edging closer to the elections in the first week of June this year. The central issue in explaining instability in Lesotho can be said to be lack of adequate institutions and where they exist, their weakness. The existing institutions have been so vulnerable that they can be manipulated by whoever is in power. The other challenge has been the destructive role of the military. We need not go any further than refer to the Phumaphi report to appreciate that. In his evidence to the Commission, one Bulane Sechele, who was a junior officer at LDF but has since been promoted two times in 15 months, told the Commission how they laughed off the Government Gazette removing Lt-Gen Kamoli as commander of LDF and the appointing of Lt-Gen Mahao as his successor. He also testified that they did not regard Prime Minister Thabane as legitimate; and finally, testified that the police have not and cannot be allowed to interrogate or arrest soldiers.

This tells you that unless the decisions by SADC for those like Sechele who have been identified as suspects in several crimes are suspended while their cases are investigated and brought to the courts, there can never be stability in Lesotho. Stability cannot be attained as long as impunity by the state and its agents is allowed to continue.


Stabilising Lesotho is a matter which SADC has been seized with for a long time now. The effectiveness or otherwise of its intervention is a matter of debate. But the frustrations of the regional partners and others seem to be at the level where Botswana’s President Ian Khama has even threatened to pull out of this never-ending attempts to help Lesotho, while Swazi King Mswati III has in a letter recently emphasised that the Lesotho government should be steadfast in implementing decisions of SADC. He specifically points out that SADC’s effort are meant to bring Lesotho to “. . . sustainable political stability, peace and security.”

This means that the need to implement the reforms spelt out by the SADC Mission in Lesotho, the recommendations by Commonwealth Expert Adviser to Lesotho Dr Rajen Prasad on the New Zealand trip by senior government officials ahead of the 2015 elections; and cleansing the military of the suspects of crimes like high treason, murder and other serious crimes is a top priority for Lesotho to be a normal democracy. As part of those reforms, there is a need to ensure that a threshold is introduced so that the proliferation of insignificant political parties stops and government can be sustained over a reasonable period.


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