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Mount Qiloane, symbol of the Basotho. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – The passport is stamped U.S., but I’m unabashedly a citizen of the world, with a toehold on four continents: from New York to Hong Kong, Prague to Lesotho.

As a foreign correspondent, journalism educator, communications consultant, and father of three, I’m based in Lesotho, high in the mountains of southern Africa. As the lone Western correspondent here, I’m covering the tiny Mountain Kingdom‘s unique political crisis for Agence France-Presse, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, and others.

Meanwhile, I’m also teaching Health Journalism in one of the world’s sickliest societies. And from next-door South Africa, I’m co-producing a documentary film – The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story – which explores racial healing and equal opportunity in The Rainbow Nation, twenty years later.

At the same time, in Hong Kong, I’m a five-time Visiting Scholar teaching International Journalism, mostly to bright, young mainland Chinese; and in Prague, I’m Senior Trainer of a biannual course in story-telling from around the world. In fact, post-Communist Central Europe flows through my veins; that’s where I launched my own foreign-correspondent career two decades ago.

Thank you for visiting my website – and for reading! … Michael

(The following Dispatch was published Feb. 27 on ForeignPolicy.com. For more of my reportage on other root-causes of Lesotho’s crisis: high-level corruption, ongoing political violence, the untamed military.)

As southern Africa’s democratic success story Lesotho goes to the polls, the prime minister’s anti-corruption crackdown has brought a bitter power struggle into the streets.

By Michael J. Jordan

Party loyalists in Lesotho. (Photo: AFP)

Party loyalists in Lesotho. (Photo: AFP)

MASERU, Lesotho — On Feb. 1, just outside the gates of the Royal Palace in this tiny African kingdom, shots rang out, shattering the Sunday afternoon quiet.

Two bodyguards of Prime Minister Tom Thabane exchanged a hail of gunfire with soldiers from Lesotho’s defense force. When the shootout was over, both bodyguards and at least one soldier had been wounded. A bystander, reportedly hit by 23 bullets, was killed. It’s still unclear who fired first. The incident — sudden and bloody on the streets of the capital, Maseru — thrust a bitter power struggle between the ruling coalition government and its adversaries back into daylight.

It was only two years ago that Lesotho, a mountainous enclave of not quite 2 million people, fully encircled geographically by South Africa, appeared to be a new democratic success story in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite having a past marred throughout its half-century of independence by military coups and post-election violence, the constitutional monarchy pulled off a stunning political achievement: Lesotho’s 2012 parliamentary elections produced a peaceful handover of power from longtime Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to the feisty opposition (which had been persecuted after splitting from the ruling party in 2006). And the new leadership went on to create one of the continent’s rare coalition governments.

But now, only days away from the country’s critical parliamentary elections set for Feb. 28 — which are being overseen by a regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), that has refused to publicly acknowledge the high-level corruption and political violence at the root of the unrest — that shootout may have been a harbinger of worse things to come.

With shared roots in the country’s first post-independence party, the factions are distinguished more by personality than politics, with little difference between their ideologies. But as one civil servant who requested anonymity said, “Whichever side doesn’t get to be a part of the next government, I’m afraid they will cause some troubles — I think they’ll fight.”

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ClubhouseLogoJPEGMay2014Dear friends and supporters! My partner Danny and I are thrilled to unveil our new promo for our documentary film on racial healing in ‪‎The New South Africa‬, twenty years later – The Clubhouse: A Post-Apartheid Story.

Click here to view it. The top-notch cinematography is drawn from our last production trip to Ventersdorp, which many of you helped fund. We would’ve gotten this trailer out sooner, but Lesotho‬ erupted in crisis. And, well … duty called!

That said, we’d never forsake this film. Step by step, we’ll get there. Do let us know what you think of the promo.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to read my six-part travelogue on the making of this film, please click here. Thank you!

(The following piece appeared Feb. 19 in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. For more on another root-cause of Lesotho’s crisis – political violence – please click here. For more background on Lesotho’s security accord, click here.)

M&GlogoThe nerves of the coup-prone mountain kingdom are frayed as a SADC-monitored poll nears to return it to political stability.

Michael J. Jordan

Lesotho's "renegade" Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, smiling after signing the Oct. 23 peace deal. (Photo: mjj)

Lesotho’s “renegade” commander, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – In the first few months after Lesotho’s crisis erupted in August, much of the blame was pinned on the aggression of the country’s military commander, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli. But now, just days before the kingdom’s Feb. 28 election aimed at resolving the impasse, there are indications that Prime Minister Tom Thabane may have an entire rogue military on his hands.

The Aug. 30 coup attempt saw Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldiers chase Thabane from his official residence across the South African border. Simultaneously, troops attacked three police stations, killing one officer and injuring nine others.

For South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the lead mediator in the crisis for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a crowning achievement came in November when he exiled Kamoli from Lesotho. Cut off the snake’s head, went the rationale, and then nurture unity between the army and police, and between the army and a democratically elected civilian command.

Yet today, ahead of the poll SADC moved forward by two years, the LDF has made a move that shows just how big the problem is. On February 13, the military issued a one-page declaration stating that, “in its quest to fulfil its mandated duties to protect the Basotho nation”, it would immediately begin “patrols and vehicle checkpoints” in “various places” nationwide.

Ramaphosa scrambled to nip this exercise in the bud, producing an agreement in which the government, the LDF, the police and Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) agreed that the army will “remain in barracks” and “only assist” if the IEC requests it. Nevertheless, this manoeuvring by the LDF has sparked fears that voters may be intimidated or that violence may break out.

“The saddest part is that the prime minister, as commander-in-chief, is helpless to do anything about the LDF,” said a Basotho businesswoman, who insisted on anonymity. “SADC and Ramaphosa must be very clear: if they’re truly for a lasting peace in Lesotho, they must bring the LDF to order and depoliticise them.”

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(The following piece appeared Feb. 13 in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. For more on another root-cause of Lesotho’s crisis – corruption – please click here.)

M&GlogoAfter a deadly shooting earlier this month, the SADC is being criticised for ignoring the cause of Lesotho’s crisis: political violence.

By Michael J Jordan

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – It’s a season of denials in Lesotho. On Sunday, Feb. 1, the afternoon calm in the capital Maseru was shattered by the crackle of gunfire in the street just outside the gate of King Letsie III’s royal palace.

Two of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s bodyguards, travelling alone, were shot and wounded. At least one Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldier was also shot and wounded. A private security guard, drawn by the din, was killed in the crossfire.

The government says troops fired first. The LDF deny this, saying Thabane’s men (soldiers themselves) fired first – at a checkpoint the LDF set up to protect the Maseru headquarters of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), here to “restore peace and security” after last August’s coup attempt in which soldiers raided Thabane’s official residence and the national police headquarters, killing one police officer and injuring nine.

But SADC says it did not invite LDF protection that day. Days later, Lesotho’s government says four LDF soldiers were arrested in South Africa on their way to “finish the job” – of killing Thabane’s two bodyguards as they recovered in a Bloemfontein hospital.

The South African Police Service denies this: “No one has been arrested.”

What no one denies, though, is that in a country plagued by a long history of political violence, especially around elections, the Feb. 1 shoot-out was yet another act of political violence. Coming just weeks before the critical February 28 elections – which SADC moved up two years earlier to restore “normalcy” to the mountain kingdom – it is causing concern.

“When we hear about soldiers shooting at each other, people dying, conflicting statements about why exactly soldiers were there, it causes confusion and fear for ordinary Basotho,” says Sofonea Shale, co-ordinator of Development for Peace Education, a leading voice of civil society.  “When a security guard is caught in the crossfire, don’t think violence is too far from you. Tomorrow, that could be you.”

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(The following commentary was published Feb. 13 by South Africa’s Daily Maverick. It was also published a day earlier on The Mantle in New York.)

It’s not all doom and gloom in tiny Lesotho – although between the healthcare crisis, the spiralling unemployment and the dangerously messy political situation there is enough of that to go around too. MICHAEL J. JORDAN profiles the youth-driven peace concert that demands a brighter future.

By Michael J. Jordan

MASERU – In a sea of unrelenting bad news around the world, we in the media should sometimes look harder for good news. Especially for me today, an outsider up to my ears in a tiny African kingdom I’ve grown to care about deeply.

With Lesotho and its mind-boggling range of health, development and democratization challenges – and now mounting fear of imminent election-related violence – it’s simply too easy to write about the negatives.

That’s why I’m stunned to have stumbled across a genuinely positive story: a new Basotho-youth organization unveiled its plan to host a huge pro-peace concert, Stand United Music Festival -this Saturday, Feb. 14, two weeks before the vote.

At first I dismissed the concert as a cute idea, but not necessarily news-worthy. Now I see a greater symbolism, which even inspires me to write about it.

Let me explain. Though, first a disclaimer: I’m not writing this piece because my documentary-film partner is a co-organizer, or that my wife works for one of the sponsoring agencies. (Let them do their own damn PR! Or, check their poster.)

No, I write for two reasons. We journalists have an obligation to seek out “good news,” as well. Sure, bad news, especially scandalous stories, help “sell papers.” But we have a duty to our audience to be as fair and accurate as possible. Disproportionate focus on the negative – the low-hanging fruit – may present a distorted image of a society. Particularly, when reporting from faraway lands.

For example, I now live next door to South Africa, and all I hear about it is crime, corruption, cronyism and incompetence. Surely there are some positive trends to report about “The Rainbow Nation,” two decades after Apartheid?

Now the second reason: the media must also recognize the vital role we play in shaping and influencing a national psyche.

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By Michael J. Jordan

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

The Basotho bystander shot dead in the Feb. 1 political violence. (Photo: mjj)

MASERU, Lesotho – A top Lesotho official has distanced his government from a Minister’s assertion last week that four Lesotho soldiers were arrested in neighboring South Africa, while on their way to “finish off” two of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s bodyguards – as they lay recovering from a recent shootout.

“At my disposal, I don’t have any concrete information to confirm or not to confirm these arrests,” Government Secretary Moahloli Mphaka said Wednesday.

Lesotho is two-plus weeks from Feb. 28 elections intended to restore peace and security, after a coup attempt convulsed the tiny African kingdom last August.

The Feb. 1 shootout in broad daylight between Lesotho soldiers and Thabane’s two bodyguards sparked fears in a country plagued by bouts of election-related violence during its half-century of independence. It also spurred greater criticism of mediation efforts by the regional peace-and-security bloc, the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo then ratcheted tensions on Feb. 5, when he announced that four heavily armed Lesotho Defence Force soldiers were arrested on their way to the provincial South African hospital where the two bodyguards – soldiers themselves, who had reportedly tipped off Thabane about the Aug. 30 putsch and helped him escape into South Africa – lay wounded.

“We believe the four arrested intended to finish off the soldiers who they didn’t kill” earlier, Molapo told AFP. Molapo, though, declined to provide their names or location, for the claim to be verified. An LDF spokesman denied the arrests, saying all soldiers were accounted for in Lesotho.

Two days later, South African Police Service National Spokesman Solomon Makgale told AFP: “The SAPS has not arrested Lesotho soldiers.”

From the Lesotho government, this was the latest sensational claim of security threats, without providing evidence – in a political atmosphere filled with unsubstantiated accusations between the government and its opponents.

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