Analysis: Did Lesotho’s army attempt a coup?

Having fled to South Africa, Prime Minister Tom Thabane has accused the military of planning to overthrow him.

Months of political wrangling preceded what some are calling an attempted coup d'etat on Saturday [Reuters]

Cape Town, South Africa – In June, Lesotho’s deputy prime minister and leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) Mothetjoa Metsing announced he would be removing his party from a three-way political coalition that had brought Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to power two-years earlier.

“We have decided that we can no longer endure the humiliation that the Honourable Dr Thabane is inflicting upon the LCD by his unilateral and undemocratic conduct,” Metsing told reporters at a press conference.

Just a day earlier, Thabane himself announced a nine-month suspension of parliament, effectively escaping a no-confidence vote that would have seen him ousted.

But it marked the start of a political crisis that in the early hours of Saturday culminated in military action in the capital city of Maseru, when soldiers surrounded police headquarters and the premier’s residence – shutting down radio stations for hours, in what Thabane is calling a coup d’etat.

The prime minister has now fled to neighbouring South Africa, and his deputy Metsing has taken the reigns of the mountain kingdom.

Differrent position

Two-years ago, Thabane was in a very different position. Then, during the 2012 general elections, Thabane’s All Basotho Congress (ABC) didn’t pull in the most seats.

That honour belonged to Pakalitha Mosisili, who had for 14 years governed as prime minister and leader of the same LCD that Metsing now heads.

Months before the election, however – amid criticism that he had been clinging to power – Mosisili broke away to form a new party: the Democratic Congress (DC).

Despite its youth and whatever criticism Mosisili may have previously faced, the DC made an impressive showing at the elections, winning 48 out of a possible 120 seats – more than any other party, but not enough for an outright win.

 Lesotho PM Thabane accuses army of an attempted coup

And it was this gap the opposition took advantage of. Mosisili’s old party, the LCD, teamed up with Thabane’s ABC and the Basotho National Party (BNP). With the ABC as the strongest party in the three-way alliance, it was Thabane’s ticket to the prime minister’s seat.

But the relationship frayed over time, with the principal point of contention that Thabane wasn’t consulting with his coalition partners.

In March, MPs proposed a motion of no-confidence in Thabane, calling for Mosisili to return in his place. But Thabane cut it off and in June he received permission from the country’s monarch, King Letsie III, to suspend parliament.

Since then, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which consists of the 15 countries making up the regional bloc, sent envoys in the form of Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba and South African President Jacob Zuma to facilitate dialogue between the quarreling coalition partners.

And it seemed a path had been negotiated out of the confusion: at talks in Namibia at the end of July, Metsing agreed that the LCD would abandon its short-lived affair with Mosisili’s Democratic Congress, and in return Thabane made a “solemn commitment” to reconvene parliament by August 14, according to reports by the Lesotho Times.

That date came and went, however, yet parliament remained resolutely shut. When member states convened in Victoria Falls for the annual SADC Summit two-weeks ago, it was noted the region as a whole remained “generally peaceful” – but Lesotho’s politicians were gently reminded to “refrain from any action that may undermine peace and security”.

The position as chair of SADC’s troika of security, politics and defence – a portfolio that Lesotho was scheduled to take over – was instead passed on to South Africa by unanimous vote. Lesotho, it was decided, was not in a position to provide regional leadership on issues such as security or politics.

Call to protest

Metsing, having abandoned his new alliance without receiving the promised sweetener, called for a protest march on September 1 to put pressure on Thabane. Either he open the doors to parliament or demonstrations would be carried out until he steps down, reported Lesotho newspaper the Sunday Express.

I urge all Basotho who are staunch supporters of democracy, to stand up and protect their rights.

by - Mothetjoa Metsing, deputy prime minister

“If you join us and support this march in your numbers, I’m sure when the prime minister sees that many Basotho are against the prorogation [suspension], it will become relatively easy for him to lift it,” Metsing was quoted as saying last week by the Lesotho Times.

“I urge all Basotho who are staunch supporters of democracy to stand up and protect their rights.”

But permission for the protest was not forthcoming. The police force, loyal to the prime minister, claimed the “peaceful march” would turn violent and create chaos. The LCD, meanwhile, said a government-aligned youth movement, Under The Tree Army (UTTA), was planning to violently derail the demonstration. All allegations were denied.

Which brought us to Saturday – and what may, or may not, have been a coup. One policeman was killed, two were wounded, and a soldier was also hurt during skirmishes. 

“The commander said he was looking for me, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister to take us to the king,” sports minister and coalition member party BNP leader Thesele Maseribane told the AFP news agency, adding troops had surrounded the State House. “In our country that means a coup.”

Both he and Thabane fled in the early hours of Saturday, with Thabane giving a number of interviews to the international media throughout the day, saying he had been “removed from control by the armed forces”.

Anti-terrorism operation

Not so, said the military. It claimed the police were planning on arming UTTA – the government-aligned youth movement accused of planning to disrupt Monday’s march. It was not so much a coup as a preventative anti-terrorism operation, it said.

The South African government appears to agree with Thabane’s evaluation, saying at press conference in Pretoria on Saturday the actions of the Lesotho Defence Force “thus far bear the hallmarks of a coup d’etat”.

“In this regard, the South African government, consistent with the African Union’s position on the unconstitutional change of government, wishes to reaffirm the AU position and warn that such unconstitutional change of government shall not be tolerated,” said South Africa’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela.

“The South African government further calls on the commander of the Lesotho Defence Force to order the army to return to their barracks and allow the democratically elected government of the kingdom to carry on with its business.”

But political analyst with the Institute for Security Studies Dimpho Motsamai disagreed.

“Can one call it a coup when the military haven’t declared they’ve taken over government?” she asked. “You have to consider the reasons for the military upscaling their end-game.”

Motsamai said the army chief Tlali Kamoli held allegiance to Musisili’s opposition – the former prime minister appointed him to the role just before he was ousted in the 2012 elections, though he was reportedly removed from this position as Saturday’s events unfolded.

But with the military already aligned with the opposition’s goals to have parliament reopened, “you don’t need a coup to oust this government”, said Motsamai.

“You just need to reopen parliament. Once it opens, the normal constitutional procedures can be followed to change the government.”