Lesotho, a tiny mountain kingdom encircled by South Africa, is one of the few countries in the world yet to confirm a case of the new coronavirus that in recent months has crashed economies, strained healthcare systems and unleashed the worst global crisis in decades.
Yet, it has not been turmoil-free.
For months now, the country of 2.2 million people has been gripped by an extraordinary political drama that has ensnared Prime Minister Thomas Thabane amid outstanding questions over the assassination of his previous wife.
On June 14, 2017, 58-year-old Lipolelo Thabane was shot dead at close range by unidentified attackers near her home.
Two days later, her then-estranged husband was sworn in as Lesotho’s prime minister. At the time of the murder, the couple was embroiled in a protracted divorce.
In August 2017, two months after the killing, Thabane married his third wife, Maesaiah Thabane.
Last February, Maesaiah was charged in connection with the killing and was released on bail. The 80-year-old prime minister himself faced allegations of acting in “common purpose” in the murder but has not been charged.
At a court appearance in February, Thabane‘s lawyers argued that his post grants him immunity from prosecution, and the case has since been referred to the High Court, which will be sitting as the Constitutional Court and is yet to hear the case.
Both Thabane and his wife have denied any involvement in Lipolelo’s murder.
The saga has plunged Lesotho into a deepening crisis.
Following intense criticism from within his own party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), the prime minister on February 20 announced that he would step down on July 31 if “all the requisite preparations for my retirement are completed”.
However, political opponents, including some members of the ABC, want him to leave now.
In a new twist, Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, woke up on Saturday to find soldiers patrolling the streets. Thabane said in a televised address the troops were sent out to “restore order” against unnamed “rogue national elements”. Police officials said the army was deployed to intimidate them.
The soldiers were withdrawn on Sunday, but tension and uncertainty remained in a country with a long history of coups and military involvement in its often fragile politics.
The deployment followed a ruling by the Constitutional Court on Friday against Thabane’s decision in March to suspend Parliament for three months over the coronavirus pandemic.
The court’s ruling clears the way for what looks like an inevitable vote of no-confidence against the prime minister.
“The vote of no confidence is hovering over his head and it involves a big portion of his party,” said Hoolo ‘Nyane, head of Public and Environmental Law Department at the University of Limpopo in South Africa.
Moletsane Monyake, a political scientist in Lesotho, called Thabane’s move to send the army to the streets “unfortunate”.
“It was a sign of a man who is clutching on straws, who is running out of options politically, and who is also desperate to hang onto power,” Monyake, a lecturer at the National University of Lesotho, told Al Jazeera.
Faced with the prospect of a no-confidence vote and with little space for political manoeuvring, Thabane’s “next option was therefore to try and intimidate his perceived political opponent”, said Monyake.
“And so he did that in order to basically tell whoever dared him that he now has the military and he can actually unleash havoc.”
In an effort to ease tensions, South Africa over the weekend dispatched an official delegation to Lesotho for high-level talks.
In a statement on Monday, mediators said they had agreed with the coalition government and other stakeholders to guarantee “a dignified, graceful and secure retirement” for Thabane.
No other details were released but Jeff Radebe, the special envoy leading the South African delegation, told journalists in Maseru “the timeline is immediate” for Thabane’s exit.
But the prime minister hit back. “People who I don’t report to (are) setting the time for my departure,” Lesotho Times quoted him as saying on Thursday.
“They have no right to do so.”
Thabane first served as prime minister between 2012 and February 2015 when a split within the coalition government led to an early general election.
The succeeding government, led by Pakalitha Mosisili of the Democratic Congress party, was also rocked by divisions.
Mosilili lost a vote of no-confidence and Thabane returned to power after a February 2017 election as the head of an ABC-led coalition which was endorsed by three smaller political parties.
Following the “dignified retirement” agreement, opponents say the embattled prime minister’s departure will end the political instability that has crippled Lesotho as it struggles with widespread poverty and unemployment.
Yet, Monyake cautioned “there are a lot of political as well as legal issues that should be thrashed out before the agreement can be implementable”.