By Michael J. Jordan
MASERU – Four weeks on, the crisis deepens. Day by day.
Political deadlock. A shootout between Lesotho police and military. Two Lesotho Times journalists arrested for “provoking the peace.” Threats of angry protest in the streets. And the “renegade” military commander still refuses to surrender.
Enter, the outsiders.
In the wake of South African President Jacob Zuma’s visit to Lesotho on Sept. 9, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa this week finished his second stint in shuttle-mediation between Pretoria and Maseru. He’s expected back soon for his third.
More dramatically, this week also saw the arrival of Namibian, Zimbabwean and other police officers from across the Southern African Development Community – to serve as “observers,” for at least three months.
For Basotho, the blow to national pride compounds the anxiety of insecurity. And after watching his people struggle to solve their own problems, one member of the Basotho royal family is now offering a solution: empower the King.
Remove the constitutional “straightjacket” that binds King Letsie III, says his younger brother, Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso.
“Where are we as a nation, that whenever we have a political fall-out, we always need foreign intervention,” Prince Seeiso said in an interview this week. “Let’s step back and ask: ‘Are there any internal mechanisms, or voices of reason, amongst us?’ Yes, there is someone among us who can step into that role to mediate: His Majesty.”
It’s a compelling notion in such a heavily politicized atmosphere. Factions all around seem to be hardening, not softening, their positions. Ordinary Basotho today are either impassioned party loyalists, or disappointed in all politicians.
So, to inject this idea of a more muscular constitutional Monarchy into this crisis – as opposed to the other kingdom in southern Africa, Swaziland, where King Mswati III rules as Africa’s last absolute monarch – would surely stir debate.
“The majority of Basotho see the Monarchy as a neutral force, looking out for the common good of the nation,” says John Aerni-Flessner, a Lesotho specialist and professor of African History at Michigan State University. “Political leaders, though, have always seen it as a stumbling block to their own consolidation of power.”
Indeed, history looms large.
The first Basotho King, Moshoeshoe I, united the historic clans and sub-clans scattered across the Maloti Mountains during the 19th century. He’d come to be regarded as the “first democrat” in southern Africa, for how he organized the pitso – an outdoor gathering of village chiefs and respected elders, to negotiate solutions.
Prince Seeiso says he draws inspiration from his ancestor’s example.
“Let’s look into our own past for how we solved our differences,” he says. “Our primary role as traditional leaders has been to keep the nation tranquil and at peace with itself. Where there are instances of breakdown, a chief is traditionally expected to come in and mediate. Find a solution that is lasting, not just a quick-fix.”
Yet the King’s role evolved, along with modern-day Lesotho.
Half a century ago, at the time of Lesotho’s 1966 independence, the King – then Letsie III’s father, Moshoeshoe II – wanted more than a ceremonial post: he also wanted control of the military. As post-colonial Africa, and Lesotho itself, would soon learn: control the army, control the country.
Since independence, Lesotho has been consumed by political bickering, military control, one-party rule, shifting alliances, and six coups – if one includes the Aug. 30 assault on Prime Minister Tom Thabane and three Maseru police stations.
Moshoeshoe II himself fled into exile in 1970 – and again in 1990.
An essential feature of this entire post-independence era was the “power-struggle” between political elites and the Monarchy, says Prof. Nqosa Mahao, a constitutional expert and professional of law at the National University of Lesotho.
“The 1993 constitution marked the defeat of the Monarchy,” says Mahao. “When they framed the ‘93 Constitution, they took on board that earlier experience and tightened it so that the King can only act on the advice of the Prime Minister – on anything. He does indeed operate in a straightjacket – a very iron straightjacket.”
The framers of the Constitution, though, put forth the argument as: the Prime Minister, and his government, represent the will of the voters, says Mahao.
Letsie’s father, Moeshoeshoe II was killed in a car crash in 1996.
Ever since, King Letsie, now 51, has been subject to a Constitution sprinkled with phrases requiring him to act “in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister” and to give “assent” to National Assembly policies.
In effect, a titular rubber-stamp.
Section 91 even enables the Prime Minister, if he sees the King not rubber-stamping a key decision, can ram it through himself: Any act so done by the Prime Minister shall be deemed to have been done by the King and to be his act.
“The PM will say it was done with the King’s blessing, anyway,” says Mahao.
Prince Seeiso – who along with Britain’s Prince Harry established a charity for HIV orphans here, Sentebale – agrees that the King has little room to maneuver.
“The architects of the constitution cut the clothe very slim, so that it doesn’t give much room for His Majesty to exert any real power,” says Seeiso, 48. “Can he even raise reasonable questions about a decision, without being seen as refusing?”
Nevertheless, various political factions over the years have curried favor with the King, says Mahao, hoping for the moral authority his backing would bring.
“Only when political elites are in the opposition, or in trouble, do they think that the King must have some more meaningful role,” says the constitutional expert. “All across the political spectrum, they have played that game.”
Despite his marginalization, many Basotho maintain deep respect, even reverence, for the King – especially as unifier of this mono-ethnic, mono-lingual nation. During the current crisis, though, the King’s silence hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“We ask ourselves, as a people, ‘Where is the King?’” says one Basotho waitress in Maseru. “He’s the only one who can put a stop to everything that’s happening now, I’m sure. Because he rules this country, right?”
Ordinary Basotho, she says, can only speculate.
“We’re wondering, is he scared of the situation? Or is he doing something about it that we don’t know about? I’m sure that he’s involved in every major decision, because they can’t make any without letting him know.”
Seeiso acknowledges that his brother faces a dilemma. Each faction would monitor his public word and deed, likely accusing him of bias for this side or that.
“Our silence in terms of our radio broadcast should not be construed as if we are unaware of disengaged,” says Seeiso. “What’s more important: to take a public platform and not have any impact, or quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, to encourage people to act in a more restrained manner? It’s a judgment we all have to make – then live with the consequences.”
Aerni-Flessner, the Lesotho specialist, agrees the King is squeezed.
“I’m sure he deeply cares and has been speaking throughout to the principle players and those representing them,” he says – including Zuma, during his visit.
If the King speaks, says Aerni-Flessner, he also gambles: What if he’s ignored?
“He’d run the risk of obsolescence,” says this historian.
At the moment, Ramaphosa, backed by the 15-member Southern African Development Community, is lobbying the various Lesotho factions to either re-open Parliament – suspended since June – or call for early elections. Some now are also calling for constitutional reforms to avoid such breakdowns in the future.
That creates an opportunity for the King to press for changes, as well.
“Allow His Majesty to slam on the brakes, when needed,” says Prince Seeiso. “To say ‘Guys, you’re overshooting your mark, you’re overzealous. Come to the table to see where the problem is, before it boils out of Parliament – and into the streets.’”
The Prince then draws an analogy.
“It’s like in the playground, when the children are playing with each other roughly,” he says. “Our nation has a father figure to restore order.”
The King, says his brother, could also appeal to the broader kinship that transcends today’s with-me-or-against-me partisanship.
“We are all born Basotho, we all die Basotho,” says Seeiso. “You may carry the flag for this party, or for that one. But at the end of the day, our nation should be able to prevail and reach some consensus about how to move forward peacefully.”
Michael J. Jordan is a foreign correspondent, journalism trainer and communications consultant who has lived in Lesotho for three years. Follow him on Twitter: @mjjordanink.