News Analysis: Amid Lesotho’s political crisis, no easy solutions
By Michael J. Jordan
MASERU, Lesotho Sept. 12 (Xinhua) — Two weeks into a political crisis in Lesotho that threatens to erupt in civil strife between party supporters, observers agree that any resolution would have repercussions for this tiny African nation.
South African President Jacob Zuma, whose country fully encircles Lesotho, had visited the mountain enclave Tuesday, to mediate among political leaders and resolve what has become a parliamentary and military standoff.
On Friday, Zuma, representing both South Africa, the regional power, and the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), for whom this is another test in conflict resolution – was expecting Lesotho’s tripartite coalition government to remove a key stumbling-block to peace: a concrete date to re-open Parliament, which Prime Minister Thomas Thabane suspended in June.
SADC leaders will meet Monday in Pretoria to discuss the Lesotho crisis.
For Thabane, though, re-opening Parliament may be political suicide. As he did in June, Thabane would likely face an immediate vote of no-confidence, and loss of his premiership. Or, he could call for new elections for the 1.8 million Basotho.
Meanwhile, a second issue, which rattles regional security, also remains unresolved: what to do about the “renegade” military commander, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli. He is reportedly heavily armed, protected by loyalists, and refuses to accept his Aug. 29 firing by Thabane.
The country is at a historical turn which just two years ago was a beacon of democratic progress in southern Africa.
The Basotho carried out violence-free elections, then a peaceful handover of power. They went on to form one of Africa’s rare coalition governments.
This was a boost to national pride, in a society otherwise consumed by severe health and development challenges.
Nestled high in the mountains of Southern Africa, the Basotho suffer the world’s second-highest rate of HIV – 23 percent – with most children classified as “HIV orphans,” having lost one or both parents. Malnutrition-related stunting has struck 40 percent of toddlers, as drought drives the World Food Program to provide two daily meals to nearly every schoolchild. Overall, Lesotho is ranked 158th out of 187 countries, according to the UN’s Human Development Report.
While ordinary Basotho are saddled with these daily issues, observers chastise political elites for a perceived preoccupation with jockeying for power – or covering up alleged corruption. This contributes to the current crisis, says Dimpho Motsamai, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
“Lesotho has an all-or-nothing political culture, where politics is an avenue to have a livelihood,” says Motsamai. “But what happens there is somewhat directly tied to the diplomacy and political action of the regional power, South Africa.”
After the 2012 elections, though, the coalition was shaky from the start: politics is more personality- than policy-driven, and each of the three major parties in Parliament, including the leading opposition party, are offshoots of the old Basutoland Congress Party, says John Aerni-Flessner, a Lesotho specialist and assistant professor of African History at Michigan State University.
“The coalition partners were in broad ideological agreement, but leaders of the parties all wanted to be Prime Minister,” says Aerni-Flessner. “This has led to much political maneuvering, and even spilled over into the upper echelons of the security forces. The concerns of the average Basotho do not seem to be utmost in the minds of the politicians as they wrangle and maneuver.”
History looms large between Lesotho and SADC. In 1998, in the wake of post-election accusations of fraud, and subsequent looting, South African troops, with approval from SADC, marched into Maseru.
That inflamed tensions, and within days, an estimated 58 Basotho were killed, along with eight SADC troops. Much of Maseru’ s downtown was burned down – and has traumatized Basotho to this day.
Zuma instead urged Thabane to seek diplomatic resolution, though provided him and other leaders with South Africa police protection, which continues even today.
Though police were off the streets last week, and nights marked by insecurity and anxiety, Maseru saw none of the looting or mischief many feared.
During his closed-door talks this week to Maseru, Zuma reportedly prodded Lesotho’s leadership to continue along a peaceful path and re-open Parliament.
Still, there’s the question of what to do about Kamoli – and if it will trigger violence. Meanwhile, both the streets and the Basotho remain calm.
“We may have our own weaknesses, but in spite of it, when it comes to our behavior, we’ve done very well – so far, so good,” says one Basotho businessman who owns a clothing store. “That really encourages me.”
Editor: Mu Xuequan