Johannesburg, South Africa – The fragile coalition government in Lesotho, a tiny landlocked southern African state of two million people, has entered a precarious and volatile phase.
Following an alleged coup attempted on Saturday, confusion persists and fear pervades on the streets of Maseru, the capital.
At about 2am on Saturday, soldiers reportedly attacked several police stations in Maseru, and stormed Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s residence.
The army denied it was a coup attempt and said the move was part of an operation to disarm police who were preparing to provide weapons to political parties critical of Thabane’s rule.
The chaos and anarchy that some feared would erupt in the event the government was seized by force may have been averted, but the era of political uncertainty could just be beginning.
Normalcy appeared to have returned to the streets of Maseru with the city eerily quiet on Sunday and business as usual on Monday. But beneath the surface, concern was apparent among locals – many who were reluctant to speak about the alleged coup.
Climate of fear
In Ha Abia, a township to the south of Maseru where now-exiled Prime Minister Thabane hails from, residents told Al Jazeera by phone of a self-imposed curfew of 6am to 6pm following the alleged coup d’etat.
When the sun sets we rush into our homes because we don't want to be caught in the crossfire.
“It’s scary here,” said resident Sejamonna Molefe. “When the sun sets we rush into our homes because we don’t want to be caught in the crossfire.
“The situation for us still remains tense because we don’t know what will happen next.”
Mateboho Sekete said residents felt it’s better to stay indoors.
“Everyone fears the situation may seem normal but when people retreat at night, you never know what they are planning to do next,” she said.
Tumelo Mokomeng, a travel consultant in Maseru, said calm appeared to have returned to the streets of Maseru on Monday morning, despite initial fears that violence could erupt as result of a planned anti-government march.
“I have just arrived at work now,” he said. “Things are pretty normal except that there is still confusion as to who is in charge of security forces in the country at the moment. Police were disarmed and are roaming the streets bare hands, seemingly confused themselves.”
Trouble had long been brewing in Lesotho ever since the fractious political marriage of some parties after the 2012 general elections failed to produce an overall winner to form a government.
The All Basotho Convention (ABC) led Thabane, his deputy Mothetjoa Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), and Thesele Maseribane’s Basotho National Party (BNP) formed the coalition government.
Even though the Democratic Congress (DC) – a splinter party from LCD led by former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili – had won the most seats, 48 in the 120-member House, it failed to form a government.
This apparently was caused by bad blood between DC and the LCD, from which it had broken away before the elections.
ABC with its 30 seats then joined hands with the LCD’s 26 seats and the BNP, which managed only five, to form the rickety coalition. The ABC now has 28 seats in parliament after two of its MPS left – one for the opposition led by Mosisili and another to stand independently.
‘Marriage of convenience’
Although relations between coalition leaders publicly had remained business-like, their parties’ “marriage of convenience” had long been on shaky ground. This was only confirmed in June when Metsing told a local newspaper the coalition had been saddled with problems from the onset.
The LCD accused Thabane of excluding coalition partners from key decisions. Another thorny issue for Metsing was Thabane’s pursuit in investigating and prosecuting former LCD ministers for alleged corruption.
Metsing is also currently facing corruption allegations and under investigation by the anti-corruption unit.
In March, cracks in the coalition first began to show when news reports emerged of a plot to oust Thabane by some MPs with a possible no-confidence vote. Another important dimension was the emergence of the DC party’s courting of LCD for a possible new coalition government, and the replacement of the prime minister.
The developments meant the government had effectively been plunged into its worst political turmoil since 1998, when opposition parties refused to recognise the newly elected government citing election irregularities.
Back then, violence flared leading to Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) intervention. Following the turmoil, an interim political authority was formed to heal the rifts and pave the way for fresh elections, later won by Mosisili’s LCD.
At the heart of Saturday’s army operation in Maseru was the result of political fallout between two main coalition leaders – Thabane and Metsing.
Thabane’s suspension of parliament for nine months in June left the legislature effectively paralysed and plunged the country deeper into crisis.
|Lesotho PM accuses army of attempted coup|
Mediation by the Christian Council of Lesotho and SADC had yet to make a breakthrough in the impasse.
Meanwhile, some analysts suggest Metsing’s planned Monday march against the suspension of parliament by Thabane may have led to the alleged coup.
Lesotho’s police had refused to grant permission for the march through the capital – putting the department on a collision course with the army. The planned anti-government protest was cancelled following Saturday’s military operation.
The police are said to be loyal to Thabane, while the army commander Lt General Tlali Kamoli is apparently siding with Metsing.
Army versus police
A few months ago, Kamoli refused to hand over eight soldiers wanted for questioning as part of a police investigation into bombings of homes in Maseru in January. The attacked homes included that of Police Commissioner Khothatso Tsooana.
Since then the relationship between Thabane as commander-in-chief of the army and Kamoli broke down.
This is a battle for power by politicians. It has nothing to do with us or our interests, but we will suffer the most.
Kamoli was accused by one of Thabane’s ministers of providing protection to Metsing against his possible arrest on corruption allegations.
On Friday before the alleged coup took place, Thabane apparently attempted to fire Kamoli. The next day, Kamoli led the military to seize police headquarters. Some in Maseru say the move by the military was meant to “pave the way” for the Metsing-led protest march.
“Thabane wanted to open parliament in February next year and call fresh elections, but this is what LCD doesn’t want,” said a senior political analyst who asked not to be named.
“LCD wants parliament to be reopened now so they can form a government with DC without going to the elections. They are not certain of a victory in elections, so they don’t want to risk it now.”
A UN spokesman told Al Jazeera off the record that he felt Saturday’s military move was in fact a coup attempt.
“There is more to the story of what happened in Lesotho on Saturday. Definitely what happened had the hallmark of a coup d’etat,” he said. “The intention by the army was to paralyse the police before they took on the prime minister.”
According to the UN spokesman, police were still not on duty in Maseru on Monday, threatening law and order. “If there is a price to pay now, given the impasse, I think that price is going to be the elections,” he said.
A resident of Ha Mabote township, Lebona Tsoeu, said ultimately it is the ordinary people of Lesotho who will pay the highest price for the political jousting.
“This is a battle for power by politicians, it has nothing to do with us or our interests. But we will suffer the most,” said Tsoeu.