Lesotho: Africa still more coup-prone than other continents

Many countries have embraced Western-style democracy but coups and attempted coups still happen.

A soldier stands near weapons seized from police and displayed at a barracks in the capital Maseru [AFP]

With two key positions under his belt, Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, who is also the defence minister, seems like a powerful man. But that has done little to help him exert full control over the tiny southern African kingdom surrounded by South Africa.

On August 30, Thabane fled his country in panic as the army seized police headquarters, jammed radio stations and surrounded his official residence. The developments bore the hallmarks of a coup in the making in a country that is no stranger to violent and unconstitutional change of government.

Luckily for the people of Lesotho, a constitutional monarchy with a king whose powers are largely ceremonial, the coup has not materialised. And, crucially, there has not been violence of the kind we have witnessed in South Sudan, where a failed coup attempt last December triggered a devastating civil war.

Lesotho’s political leaders have tried but failed to conceal the fact that the army had attempted to seize power. There has since been obfuscation and – some would even say – barefaced lies by politicians who seem to be embarrassed that a country with a semblance of democracy seems to be heading back to the 1980s, when coups on the African continent vastly outnumbered elections.

Conflicting claims

Thabane fled to South Africa largely because a coup was in the making, but he insisted he did not run away. “I haven’t run away. I haven’t asked for refugee status … The idea that I have run away is not true. I have run away before [but] this time, no,” he told Al Jazeera from South Africa.

But in an interview with the BBC, Thabane did change his narrative, saying his life was in danger.

“I came into South Africa this morning [August 30], and I will return as soon as my life is not in danger. I will not go back to Lesotho to get killed,” he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, who enjoys the backing of the army and is said to be at loggerheads with Thabane, also dismissed reports of an attempted coup. He said he would not still be deputy if the army had taken over.

I will not go back to Lesotho to get killed.

by - Lesotho's Prime Minister Thomas Thabane

It has since emerged that Thabane’s government had decided not to renew the contract of army commander Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli, but it is not clear whether this is what prompted the army’s move.

South Africa, the most powerful and influential country in the 15-nation Southern Africa Development Community, a regional bloc to which Lesotho belongs, is trying to resolve the crisis, as it has done before. It has invited Metsing to join Thabane in South Africa for talks intended to find a negotiated settlement.

That seems the only sensible way forward. Seizing power by men in uniform is increasingly becoming backward and unfashionable, although it still happens (albeit infrequently) even on other continents.

Many African countries continue to embrace Western-style democracy and only change governments through elections, although sometimes these elections are nothing more than a charade, with those in power resorting to despicable means to prevent the opposition from winning.

But coups have not stopped happening in Africa. And everywhere they have been staged or where there have been attempts, little or nothing has changed for the better. Those who seize power become less and less accountable to the people they claim to lead. Ordinary people continue to wallow in poverty, bereft of any hope of ever getting social services that governments, which are accountable to people, usually provide. Worse, coups or attempted coups often lead to an intractable cycle of violence.

Cycle of violence

Mauritania and Niger, which experienced coups in 2008 and 2010, respectively, may be relatively peaceful, but in places such as the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Mali, there has been unspeakable violence.

Mali, which returned to democratic rule after elections last year, is still grappling with insurgency in the north. Foreign troops from former colonial power France – which intervened to prevent armed groups allied with al-Qaeda from seizing large swathes of territory – are still on its soil, as are UN troops.

Army Captain Amadou Sanogo’s seizure of power only helped create chaos in the West African country that armed groups capitalised on to expand their control and influence.

In the Central African Republic, Michel Djotodia – the country’s first Muslim leader who seized power in March 2013 and forced President Francois Bozize to flee – plunged the country into a wave of violence. The turmoil in CAR has since sucked in troops from the UN, the Africa Union and France, the former colonial power.  

Hundreds of thousands of Central Africans are now refugees in neighbouring Cameroon, having fled fighting between Christian and Muslim militias. Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza, who took over in January after Djotodia realised he could not run the country and quit, has done little to restore order.

South Sudan, the world’s newest nation which seceded from Sudan only in 2011, is falling apart. President Salvar Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, whom he accused of trying to stage a coup last December, have made little progress in resolving the issues that have brought them to war and wrecked any chance of dealing with their country’s most urgent problems.

The hope for those countries where coups are still happening is that they will one day become functioning democracies, and that their armies will learn to respect and owe allegiance to civilian governments. It took West African nations such as Ghana and Nigeria a fair bit of time to achieve this, but it eventually happened.

Water week 

From Lesotho, we have turned our attention to Ethiopia’s water problems as part of our World Water Week coverage. Ethiopian leaders have been hailed for turning around the country – building infrastructure and keeping the economy vibrant – but the government has not made good progress on social-service delivery as our piece makes clear. People still drink contaminated water.

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