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Here we have Roger Southall's authoritative account of the "hamhanded" (his word) nature of South African intervention in Lesotho. Controversially, Southall does give the Lesotho elections themselves a qualified passing grade on the "free and fair" index, despite the more sceptical opinion on this issue of many Lesothans themselves. But of South Africa's own blundering arrogance he has no doubt. Read him and weep.

vol 14 no 1

Democracy at gunpoint? South Africa intervenes
Roger Southall

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 1, December 1998
Page 12



Roger Southall is a Professor of Political Science at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

South Africa's recent armed incursion into Lesotho has provoked a massive controversy. Formally conducted on behalf of the South African Development Community (SADC) to pre-empt a military coup, it is widely blamed for precipitating an orgy of looting, arson and violence which left the main street of Maseru, the capital, a burnt out shell. It has also raised questions concerning the necessity for intervention, the international legality of such actions, the credibility and consistency of South Africa's foreign policy, the effectiveness of South Africa's armed forces, and the appropriate role for SADC.

Election woes

It was far from evident when voters went to the polls that Lesotho's May 23, 1998 general election would trigger such turmoil. Its roots, nonetheless, lie in Lesotho's ongoing political crises.

Back in 1993, the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP) won an overwhelming victory in an election brought about by pressures upon the then military government to withdraw to the barracks. Under the first-past-the-post electoral system, the BCP won 75% of the popular vote and 65 seats, while the Basotho National Party (BNP), which had ruled the country from independence until its displacement by the military in 1986, made a showing of only 20% and won no seats. But internal divisions split the BCP in 1997 when the aged and ailing Mokhehle, the founder and leader of the party, lost control as potential successors wrestled for power. In response, Mokhehle formed a new party - the Lesotho Congress of Democrats (LCD) - and took with him a majority of the country's elected Members of Parliament. The key question for the 1998 election, then revolved around whether or not Mokhehle would be able to carry the popular vote.

Some 150 international and 400 Basotho electoral monitors declared the subsequent elections more or less free and fair. This was striking because the LCD was reported to have won 60% of the popular vote and 78 out of the 79 single-member seats contested on election day. As in 1993, the mechanics of the electoral system had worked in Lesotho to deliver one party a virtually clean sweep.

Even if the electoral process had been fair, the result still left 40% of the voters who had voted for the opposition unrepresented in the Lower House of Parliament. The opposition cried foul, with the BNP and BCP, hitherto sworn enemies, forging an alliance of convenience in protest. The insignificant but vocally noisy Royalist Marematlou Freedom party joined in. Together, they proclaimed that the election had been rigged and that the government was therefore illegitimate. Supporters were mobilized to demonstrate in Maseru, and the opposition alliance openly called for King Letsie to exercise powers he does not legally possess to dismiss the government.

Mokhehle who had led the LCD party in the election was immediately succeeded as party leader and Premier by Paseka Mosisili, who proved woefully indecisive, failing dismally to make a vocal response to the opposition allegations. Underlying his uncertainty was his realization that his government, due to its history with the BCP, was wholly unable to rely upon the support of the security forces.

Indeed, during the years of its rule, the BNP had stuffed the military with its supporters. Thus, when the BCP assumed office in 1993, it faced a largely hostile army. This hostility was confirmed when the military backed a brief dismissal of the BCP government by King Letsie in August 1994. This episode had only ended when, acting on behalf of SADC, the newly elected, post-apartheid, ANC-led government in South Africa acted in concert with Botswana and Zimbabwe to insist that democracy be restored, resulting in the return of the BCP government to office in mid-September 1994.

This previous involvement by SADC now paved the way for further engagement. There was growing regional and South African concern at rising tensions in the kingdom. From August 11, hundreds of opposition supporters began to congregate at the gates of the King's palace in Maseru to protest against the alleged rigging of the election. Meanwhile tensions were increasing within the military. These culminated in the arrest of army chief General Mosakheng and other senior officers by junior officers on September 11 - less because they were loyal to the government than because they were deemed too hesitant to ignore the opposition's urgings to overthrow the government.

Given the mounting crisis, the LCD government proved to be in no position to gainsay SADC's proposals, driven by South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, that the best way to resolve matters was via the appointment of a commission to examine the conduct of the election and to adjudicate upon the result. The resultant SADC Commission began work in the second week of August and was headed by Judge Pius Langa of South Africa.

The Commission appears to have conducted its work efficiently, yet the announcements of its findings were delayed by what was referred to as the need to report to SADC leaders. Its report, dated September 9, was not made public until September 17th. Such a delay allowed accusations to fly about its allegedly "explosive" findings being doctored in favour of the LCD. Consequently, while the final report did find clear evidence of administrative deficiencies, the committee's judgment that there was insufficient evidence to indicate that the election result was invalid was regarded as profoundly unsatisfactory by the opposition alliance. Demands for fresh elections and the formation of a government of national unity began to swell.

Meanwhile, the internal dynamics of the situation had been transformed by the army revolt. Rumours of a coup were rebutted by government assertions that it was still in office. Yet it was steadily losing any last remaining grip on power, as the BNP, BCP, the soldiery and the police were working together to paralyze the functioning of the government. Road blocks prevented civil servants going to work, soldiers provided small arms to undisciplined youths, and BNP supporters secured the closure of the University and other public structures.

SADC diplomatic efforts continued under the leadership of South African Safety and Security Minister Sydney Mufumadi, but on September 20 the LCD refused to attend all-party talks called to resolve the crisis, citing a lack of security for its delegates. This forced the Minister to meet the LCD and opposition alliance separately. While the opposition alliance continued to call for a government of national unity to prepare for new elections, the LCD demanded that the opposition accept defeat. On September 21, Deputy Prime Minister Kelebone Maope issued a statement that the LCD was still in power, and that it had appealed to SADC for assistance. Whether this would extend to military action he could or would not say.

At around 4 am on Tuesday September 22nd, a voice on Radio Lesotho declared that the King must dissolve the government and proclaim a government of national unity. Basotho soldiers later captured by the SANDF are said to have subsequently confirmed that a coup was in the making, in spite of strong counter warnings issued by SADC. This precipitated the South Africa/SADC military intervention - an action purportedly taken to preserve democracy.

SADC's South African-led intervention

Not long after the announcement on Radio Lesotho, some 600 troops of the 43rd Mechanised Brigade of the SANDF crossed into Lesotho via the Maseru Bridge border post. The objectives were to create a safe environment to enable the Lesotho police to restore order by security Royal Lesotho Defence Force (RLDF) installations, Radio Lesotho, the Royal palace, the airport and other important infrastructure. Policing was to be reinforced by a policing component of the inter-state defence and security committee of SADC. They were to be followed by a further 200 troops from the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), which was going to be responsible for guarding Maseru. The apparent supposition was that the intervention force would meet limited resistance from opposition forces and the 2000-strong RLDF. Events proved this expectation dismally wrong.

When the troops arrived at the Royal Palace through the front gate, the armed opposition simply exited through the rear and proceeded to the town centre, targeting anything that was vaguely associated with South Africa. Within hours there was total mayhem. By the next morning, practically every commercial building along the capital's main street had gone up in smoke.

Reports indicate that the SANDF met heavy resistance at both Makoanyane and Rajamotse barracks. At the Makoanyane base, as at the palace, the majority of those opposing the SANDF escaped by the rear, so that only 149 prisoners had been taken. Those who escaped were armed. Colonel Robbie Hartslief, officer commanding the SADC force, reported that the whereabouts of the vast majority of RLDF rebels was unknown. It was only after the second evening (the 23rd) after the intervention, as snipers continued to take pot-shots at the SADC troops, that the latter were ordered to adopt a more active stance towards the looters. A dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed upon the capital only took effect by the third night.

By the 23rd, Mangosutho Buthelezi (who was acting as South African President in the absence from the country of both President Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki), declared that the situation in Lesotho had been stabilized. But newspaper reports suggested that this had been at the cost of some 58 RLDF and 8 SANDF soldiers killed in this hostilities. By the first weekend after the intervention, a further 1000 RLDF soldiers had surrendered to the SANDF. But BNP leader Sekhonyana raised the prospect that the rebels still at large might stage hit-and-run missions against LCD refugees who had streamed across the South African border. SADC subsequently sought to contain any such threats by deploying further troops, who presently number around 3500.

The political aftermath

The intervention drew vigorous criticism from many quarters in South Africa, and not only from the opposition parties. Various human rights NGOs, such as the Black Sash, and church organisations have argued that South Africa had failed to explore all avenues for a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Press comment was overwhelmingly negative.

South Africa/SADC moved to deflect criticism by calling upon the main political actors in Lesotho to resume the process of political negotiations.

The first initiative was President Mandela's invitation to King Letsie to meet him in Cape Town. Apparently, he was warned to stay out of political involvement, and urged to play a reconciliatory role. Mandela also stated that South Africa and SADC would accept no responsibility for the damage to Lesotho's economy, although they would listen sympathetically to any formal requests to help rebuild. After all, he argued, it had been Basotho themselves who were responsible for the destruction of buildings and property.

The opposition reiterated its demand that the government resign, to be replaced by a government of national unity for a year or so until new elections could be held. The governing LCD was equally uncompromising. It would not consider holding new elections, nor resign in favour of a government of national unity - these were its preconditions to enter the talks.

These stark attitudes found little favour with South Africa. The South African government also brushed off all suggestions that its controversial role had rendered it unsuitable to chair negotiations. Behind the scenes, both sides were pressured to meet together with the SADC mediating team (drawn from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe) on October 2. Thabo Mbeki's scheduled public address on the Lesotho crisis the night of the meeting added further pressure.

Mbeki announced in his address that a solution to the crisis had been found. The main points were that the LCD would stay in power, but new elections - supervised by a reconstituted Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) - would be held within 15 to 18 months. A "security presence" would remain in Lesotho until the country's own security forces "were able effectively to discharge their legal and constitutional roles." Reports suggested that South Africa had pressured the LCD to concede early elections under a reformed electoral system that would allow increased representation for losing parties.

The opposition, however, declared that Mbeki had lied and that there had only been "tentative agreement" on some issues. Everything awaited agreement about the administrative machinery necessary to ensure that elections could take place.

At an October 6 meeting, the SADC team put forward a compromise that would provide for (i) the LCD to remain in government but (ii) for a multi-party committee to oversee all activities relating to the election, including the appointment of a new IEC.

This eventually provided the basis for an agreement, reached over the course of the next ten days. But the subsequent arrest by the government of 30 soldiers alleged to have been involved in the arrest of Mosakheng is said (at the time of writing) to be putting the peace agreement in peril.

Was the election rigged?

The Langa Commission uncovered many administrative flaws and irregularities in the electoral process. It was unable to account for the unusual distribution of birthdates revealed by an independent audit of the voters' register, and reported that its attempts to make judgment on the allegations had been rendered almost impossible because the electoral records supplied by the IEC were in a chaotic state.

Nonetheless, the Langa Commission countered many of the allegations made by the opposition. The IEC was the first ever appointed in Lesotho, and it had been given very short notice to prepare for the election, which involved drawing up a new registration list, delimiting new constituencies, and so on. Overall, therefore, it concluded that although it was unable to state that the invalidity of the elections has been conclusively established ... [it could not] postulate that the result does not reflect the will of the Lesotho electorate.

This conclusion was unnecessarily limp, as I have argued elsewhere [Mail & Guardian, 2-9.10.98]. The election outcome was valid. It was almost certainly a fair reflection of the electorate's opinion on the day of the election.

The BNP has a history of refusing to accept election loss (1970 and 1993). The protests against the results of this election need to be seen in that light.

Even if the IEC was biased in favour of the LCD, and even if there were some efforts by persons unknown to massage the electoral register, the overall impact upon the outcome would be uncertain. There is no significant evidence of systematic voting by "ghost voters" in favour of the LCD. There is no evidence that the traditional methods used by ruling parties to rig first-past-the-post elections by delimiting constituency boundaries to the disadvantage of the opposition, excluding opposition supporters from the voters' register, refusing to register opposition candidates, fraudulent vote counting and ballot box stuffing, or statistically manipulating the results apply to Lesotho's 1998 election.

Given that the 1993 election demonstrated that the distribution of party support broke down in favour of the BCP fairly evenly across the country, the result of the election - 79 seats for the LCD on the basis of a 60% popular majority - is entirely credible. But it is thoroughly unfair that the 40% of the population that voted for the opposition is almost wholly unrepresented in Parliament. As in 1993, what was wrong with the election was not the result, but the electoral system. What is badly needed, therefore, is a move towards proportional representation.

Did the intervention achieve its purpose?

The intervention was launched at the explicit request of a legitimate government to pre-empt a military coup designed to overthrow a democracy, SADC claims. Furthermore, the military operation was conducted in a humane manner with minimum loss of life.

The strength of SADC's position is that orderly government had broken down and a government which had recently won a sweeping victory at the polls was being challenged by an opposition alliance whose leading element, the BNP, had dubious democratic credentials. It would appear that while the opposition alliance was talking negotiations with the LCD via the SADC mediators, the BNP was also organizing a "virtual coup" by mobilizing its youth militia to paralyze the activities of government by intimidating opponents, recklessly urging the RLDF to intervene, backing the dismissal of senior officers of the army, and urging the King to take unconstitutional action. From this perspective the SADC intervention succeeded in preventing a coup against democracy, even if there are some legitimate questions about the electoral process itself. Post-hoc analysis suggests that given the urban environment, the number of opponents and the geographical spread of the objectives, the military force performed its limited task rather well.

History may judge that the SADC intervention marked a turning point in Lesotho's political history. If the outcome of the present imbroglio does take the army out of politics, and produce more representative political arrangements, then all may not have been in vain. Nonetheless, South Africa and SADC can scarcely escape blame for the ham-handed way in which they conducted the operation.

The burnt out shell of Maseru's main street says it all. It would have been one thing if the SADC force had neutralized the opposition and the army with sufficient troops and hardware. An efficient operation could have provided the framework for a long term solution to Lesotho's perpetual political crises. While there would have been numerous objections concerning the international legality of such an intervention, its evident military success would have muted criticism. Perhaps, SADC would have even earned plaudits for defending democracy.

Instead, South Africa/SADC is now having to count the cost of an operation gone badly awry. Critics have noted that a force of 600 SANDF troops was inadequate to confront the 2000-strong RLDF. The units were not the most suitable, simultaneous entry was not coordinated with the BDF (responsible for securing Maseru), and intelligence was poor. Those who approved the military logistics certainly provided their critics with enough ammunition to question their competence.

Apartheid South Africa precipitated the 1986 coup by imposing a virtual blockade. Democratic South Africa cajoled a reversal of the "King's coup" in 1994 with a mixture of arm-twisting and negotiation. Had all such avenues been adequately explored this time around? It will now remain a moot point. To be sure, the opposition in Lesotho may have been inflexible, deceitful, and thoroughly prepared to act unconstitutionally. But even if the army had staged a coup, how long would such a government have lasted?

Was the intervention legal?

The intervention does not seem to have been founded on sound international legal ground. South Africa/SADC cannot be faulted for helping a legitimate government, recently elected, which requested assistance. This does not appear to have been sufficient grounds to validate a military intervention, however.

SADC's argument that the intervention was legitimate is based on (i) the South Africa-Botswana-Zimbabwe guarantee of Lesotho's stability forged in 1994; and (ii) SADC's own inter-state security arrangements, particularly Article 5 of the protocol on politics, defense and security. This protocol permits intervention where there is large scale violence between sections of the population, or between armed or paramilitary forces and sections of the population; if there is a threat to the legitimate authority of the government; or if any crisis could threaten the peace and security of other member states. Neither of these instruments has yet been formally ratified, however.

A cleanly conducted, successful operation might have avoided objections on international legal grounds. But the operation was a mess, and now, governments in the region must deal with the consequences.

And South Africa's foreign policy?

The intervention was handled in a way that made post-apartheid South Africa appear little better than its apartheid predecessor. South Africa's perceived new economic hegemony has already incited a growing resentment throughout the region. Now there is a danger that South Africa will be seen to be throwing its military weight around.

The intervention also shows an inconsistency in South Africa's post-apartheid Africa policy. It was promoted as a program based on principle rather than pragmatism, with human rights and peace-making at the front of its agenda. When Pretoria protested the extension of military support by other SADC countries to the dubiously-democratic regime of Kabila in the DR Congo, it earned praise on moral and logical grounds. In contrast, the armed intervention to impose a political solution in Lesotho has rightly aroused concern.

That the intervention was bungled has led to the question of who is actually in charge of South Africa's foreign policy. Numerous critics have pointed out that neither Mandela nor Mbeki were in the country at the time. The role, if any, played by the Department of Foreign Affairs remains unclear, beyond post-hoc justification by Deputy Minister Aziz Pahad.

Finally, much attention has been paid to stresses emerging within SADC. These are often attributed to growing rivalry between Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the organization's failure to develop adequate decision-making structures. Developing such structures will be difficult, but the crisis in Lesotho has pointed to the dangers of continuing an ad hoc approach.

Lesotho must now live with the consequences of the failure of its political institutions and of South Africa/SADC's bungled intervention. The best that can be hoped is that a negotiated solution will preclude the need for SADC's involvement in Lesotho's domestic affairs after what will be a bitterly contested election in eighteen months or so.

If that outcome is achieved, Maseru might not have been burnt down in vain.




BCP - Basotholand Congress Party. Won an overwhelming majority in the 1993 elections, the party split in 1997, and some members formed the LCD.

BDF - Botswana Defence Force.

BNP - Basotho National Party. Ruled Lesotho from independence until the 1986 military coup.

IEC - Independent Electoral Commission. In charge of organizing and conducting elections in Lesotho.

LCD - Lesotho Congress of Democrats. Formed in 1997 after a split in the BCP, they won the 1998 elections.

RLDF - Royal Lesotho Defence Force.

SANDF - South Africa National Defence Force.


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