When you think of African countries associated with a ‘coup’ then you might not mention Lesotho in the same sentence as Egypt or Libya. And what complicates the following ‘coup story’ is that Lesotho’s prime minister, Tom Thabane, alleged a coup had been launched in his country, but senior members of the armed forces denied it.
Lesotho is a small, land-locked and mountainous country and rarely features in global news stories. However, in late August it was reported that the prime minister had fled to neighbouring South Africa. Members of Lesotho’s army surrounded the official residence and occupied the police HQ in the capital, Maseru. Subsequently, the police chief was also forced to leave for South Africa.
Once in South Africa, Prime Minister Thabane’s appeal for a South African or regional-led military intervention in order to restore the political status quo was not accepted. Instead an offer was made to send in an observer team after emergency talks were held with the South African prime minister, Jacob Zuma.
Since June 2012, Thabane has been prime minister of a coalition government. It’s not been a simple power sharing agreement and there is ongoing tension between the prime minister and his deputy, Mothetjoa Metsing, himself facing an investigation into allegations of corruption. In June 2014, Thabane suspended the Lesotho Parliament in the face of a likely collapse of his government, reminding those interested in the country that coups and political upheavals have been regular features of its recent history.
The latest alleged coup, reported in August, was actually sparked by a decision to replace the chief of the country’s army. Complicating an already fraught situation, it appears that the army was more sympathetic to the deputy prime minister, while the police were more supportive of the prime minister. A new head of the army was appointed after the former head was accused of masterminding the attempted coup. The new head survived an assassination attempt by elements in the army (he subsequently fled the country), but the former head of the Lesotho Defence Force shows no sign of going quietly.
The involvement of South Africa is not unprecedented. When South African troops entered Lesotho in 1998 to restore political stability following riots after electoral polling, more than 50 civilians and eight South African soldiers died in the violence. Rather than support military intervention this time, the South African authorities instead offered to protect the prime minister and facilitated his return to Lesotho. South African police protection has been officially described as ‘transitional’ and President Zuma has urged both political leaders to negotiate and end to the parliamentary suspension.
It is worth bearing in mind that Lesotho is also an important source of water for the larger country. South Africa invested hugely in a dam project (the Lesotho Highlands Water Project), which provides essential water supplies to Johannesburg and the administrative capital Pretoria.
While South Africa’s water security might in part depend upon a stable Lesotho, the latter’s own economic situation is not rosy. It is a country ranked low on the UN human development index and well over half of the population lives below the poverty line. It has a high prevalence rate when it comes to HIV and AIDS and life expectancy is just below 50. While literacy rates are improving and progress has been recorded in terms of gender equality, unemployment is high and the country stands in stark contrast to the regionally dominant economy of South Africa.
Interestingly, the coup (or not-coup depending on whom you believe) is mostly a squabble amongst the country’s military and political elites. While there is much to complain about regarding poverty and corruption, there have not been widespread protests on the streets.
The long-term prospects for the country are uncertain and no one would be surprised by further upheaval. The members of the coalition government are being urged to talk and compromise, but regional observers warn that Lesotho’s political history does not offer much hope. South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are supposed to act as brokers, but there are challenges including ascertaining the role and purpose of a mediation team from SADC in the short term, securing agreement from all parties for such mediation, securing the support of Lesotho’s police and military for compromise, and securing a shift in the political culture so that the result of elections is respected by all stakeholders.
This story was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine