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Southern Africa Report Archive

Larry Swatuk's "tales of two kingdoms" (Lesotho and Swaziland) - where electoral proceedings have been more or less swallowed up in the negative fall-out from other political realities in these countries - make sobering reading. This article deals with Lesotho. (jbv)

vol 10 no 4

Troubled monarchy, troubled country: What future for Lesotho?
Larry Swatuk

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 4, May 1995
Page 10
"Southern Africa"



Larry Swatuk is with the Centre for International and Strategic Studies at York University in Toronto.

On-going and often violent struggles - for political and economic power, for democracy and social justice - reveal the highly troubled nature of Lesotho's political economy. In March 1993, Basotho went to the polls for the first time in 23 years to return their country to democratic civilian rule. Their patience and hope for political stability has not been rewarded, however.

Following the January 1994 outbreak of fighting between rival factions of the armed forces, Lesotho's democratic shine has quickly been tarnished with what Richard Weisfelder terms "residues of authoritarian rule". According to John Bardill,
This continuing violence represents a threat to both domestic and regional security, a fact which Southern African leaders were quick to recognise when they declared their intention to intervene militarily to restore order if the need arises.

Moreover, the country remains anchored to a legacy of underdevelopment and authoritarian rule. Lesotho's one hope at viability beyond mere de jure sovereign status is the revenue generated by the Highlands Water Project. But this project remains highly controversial and in no way begins to address more pressing problems: labour retrenchment from South African mines; rising unemployment at home; and pending threats of radical environmental change.

Lesotho's latest travails are not new. Indeed, in reporting on the mountain Kingdom's August 1994 "King's coup", the Star (Johannesburg, 25 August 1994) suggested:
Observing the latest political drama in Lesotho is a bit like watching the re-run of an old film. Many of the old actors strut across the screen in . . . a march of folly.

These "old actors" include, in the main, the military, the monarchy, the chiefs, and the older members of Lesotho's dominant parties, particularly the BNP and BCP whom Dick Weisfelder has labelled "an ossified gerontocracy". This is a depiction that, unfortunately, speaks volumes about the source and depth of political instability in Lesotho and state- makers'(in)abilities to overcome it.

The military

For over 20 years the military have been central actors in Basotho politics: in 1970 supporting Chief Leabua Jonathan's decision to suspend the constitution and abort elections clearly lost to Ntsu Mokhehle and the BCP; in 1986 overthrowing the government itself; in 1990 staging an intra- military putsch; in 1993 dictating many of the terms of democratic elections such that the RLDF and its Commander are now entrenched as part of the ruling executive; and since early 1994, meddling in politics to the extent that many of the soldiers supported the "King's coup" which overthrew the democratically elected government of Ntsu Mokhehle.

Throughout this period members of the armed forces have raised havoc among Lesotho's people, occasionally striking for higher pay (including a sensational 1984 bank robbery in Upper Thamae), and engaging in factional warfare, either within the military itself or in support of the BNP and/or the monarchy against other elements of Basotho politics.

The king and his court

Lurking in the background have been familiar faces: King Moshoeshoe II, who was, in January 1995, reinstated as Lesotho's monarch after having been exiled (yet again!) to Sweden in 1990; Hae Phoofolo, a member of the King's counsel, who most recently was de facto Prime Minister of the temporarily formed "provisional government" that displaced the BCP following the "King's coup"; Retelisitsoe Sekhonyana, a corrupt, career politician and political chameleon who survived Chief Jonathan's overthrow to emerge as the only hold-over politician in the then-newly formed Council of Ministers; and an increasingly inept - some would say "senile" - Ntsu Mokhehle, leader of the BCP and Lesotho's Prime Minister since April 1993, whose party has very inexpertly made the transition from guerrilla group to governing party and so exacerbated these problems.

During apartheid this instability was ignored by the international community, so long as Chief Jonathan continued to "bellow from the mountain-top". The country became a running joke to everyone on the outside; a sad and difficult state of affairs for all those forced to live within its juridical boundaries.

Since 1990, however, the world has become increasingly less understanding of Lesotho's political hijinx. With Mandela's release from prison in South Africa and that country's steady movement toward multi-party, non-racial democracy, there came a corresponding pressure upon Lesotho's military government to go back to barracks. Given Lesotho's absolute dependence upon migrant labour remittances from South Africa and foreign aid from international donors, these were forces not to be resisted; or, if resisted, only at very high cost.

Toward democratic elections

The transition to democracy was made possible by a combination of internal and external factors: intense domestic agitation and external, primarily donor-led, pressure for political and economic "liberalization," combined with factional fighting within the military to pave the way for democratic elections.

The 1993 elections were contested by 12 political parties and 7 independent candidates. According to Khabele Matlosa, "[w]hen the nomination courts were closed on January 28 1993 about 241 candidates (of which only 23 were women and 7 were independents) were nominated for the 65 constituencies . . . Of the total 736,930 voters who registered for the 1993 elections throughout the country, 532,678 cast their votes."

The Basutoland Congress Party, long headed by Ntsu Mokhehle, garnered 72% of the popular vote and all 65 constituency seats. The BNP, with approximately 22% of the popular vote failed to win a seat. Ironically, then, Lesotho's return to multi-party politics saw the emergence of a de facto one- party state. Retilisitsoe Sekhonyana, leader of the BNP, refused to accept the outcome, citing "irregularities" in voting procedures. Others argued for the scrapping of the first-past-the-post system, and for fresh elections based on proportional representation. To be sure, this situation marked recipe for disaster.

The emergence of Major General (formerly Colonel) Phisoana Ramaema as a champion of democracy was more circumstantial than deliberate. Ramaema emerged as head of the ruling Military Council following a putsch initiated by junior officers keen to replace Major General Metsing Lekhanya. Lekhanya himself was a reluctant leader. According to Weisfelder, "Worsening civil strife, a mutiny over pay and conditions of service in the paramilitary force, continued Lesotho Liberation Army incursion, South African commando raids on ANC installations in Maseru and a South African economic embargo precipitated Lekhanya's seizure of power in 1986."

To be sure, these were contributing factors to the coup. But Lekhanya's rise is better explained by two additional elements: First, Chief Jonathan's increasing willingness to use force in the face of domestic opposition combined with an on-going disdain for the monarchy served to endear him to no one, save those who profited from the status quo. Second, Lekhanya was the perfect front man for a military/monarchy alliance. A relative unknown, Lekhanya was pushed to the fore by two of Moshoeshoe II's cousins, the notorious Colonels Thaabe and Sekhobe Letsie.

Following Jonathan's ouster, the military gave executive powers to the King. The King was said to rule in concert with a six man military council. This council also operated through an 18 person council of ministers comprised of 15 politicians and 3 military officers. Sekhonyana, it should be noted, was the only Cabinet Minister to be retained from the previous regime.

With time, Lekhanya became increasingly autocratic, much to the chagrin of the King, the Council of Ministers, and members of the bureaucracy. Matters eventually came to a head when, in 1990, he exiled the King to Sweden. In November 1990 Moshoeshoe II was dethroned and replaced (under protest) by his son and heir, Letsie III, who was never crowned.

According to Weisfelder, "[w]ithin six months of ousting Moshoeshoe II, General Lekhanya was himself forced to resign at gunpoint by his fellow soldiers. Ironically the precipitating issues were not human rights, the struggle for democracy, or Lekhanya's failings, but unmet demands from the ranks for better pay."

In any event, Ramaema found himself an unlikely leader, and, under pressure from Basotho and the international community, he set the country on a path toward democratic elections.

From crisis to crisis

The transition to democracy seems to have created more problems than it has solved. Indeed, since April 1993 Lesotho has reeled from crisis to crisis, precipitated in the main by the overwhelming BCP victory. Clearly, Basotho viewed the 1993 elections as an opportunity to redress an historical injustice: Mokhehle, unjustly deprived of victory in 1970, would be returned to power in 1993. Yet, the BNP, smarting from an embarrassing defeat and now standing to be marginalised from the troughs, pork-barrels, and various other legal and illegal perquisites of power to which they had grown so accustomed, used the BCP victory as an opportunity to incite fear of autocracy among the general populace and of job insecurity among members of the military and police forces.

This situation set off yet another round of military meddling and mayhem in the public life of Lesotho. First, elements within the military became disgruntled at the BCP decision to raise governmental salaries. (Cabinet Ministers' pay was elevated from M3,000/month to M4,000/month; parliamentarians saw their salaries rise from M1,400/month to M4,000.) This policy was clearly out of line with the existing terms of agreement between the IMF and the Government of Lesotho. SAP conditionalities committed the Basotho government to, at minimum, limitations on and, at maximum, reductions to recurrent expenditures, including retrenchment of civil servants. SAP conditionalities had in the past been used as justification for denying the military's salary demands.

Mokhehle's promise to review all salaries fell on deaf ears, especially among more junior, highly-politicised members of the RLDF. Approximately 600 troops from this faction, housed at Makoeyane, some 8 kilometres from Maseru, took up arms and stationed themselves at the city's high point, the Lesotho Hilton. In response, 150 senior members of the RLDF (often described as the "professional" rather than "politicised" faction of the RLDF), based at Ha Ratjonose, on the outskirts of Maseru and within clear sight of the Lesotho Hilton, also took up arms. There ensued a running battle between the two factions.

While a 100% pay rise and a M20 patrol allowance were the central conditions for a return to barracks, there were other, more overtly political concerns which look to be less easily resolved. Among these were the Makoanyane faction's desire tosee the BNP installed in power; and worries of job security arising out of fears that the BCP intended to replace BNP-suporters in the RLDF with former members of the LLA. According to Pontso Sekatle, "Before the January mutiny Sekhonyana repeatedly warned soldiers that the government intended replacing them with the Lesotho Liberation Army". These questions about job security and force integration are sure to arise again.

Appeals from church leaders and members of Lesotho's NGO community were ignored. The uprising was only resolved with the intervention of the leaders of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and after 5 soldiers had been killed and 11 civilians wounded. This event was followed by a police strike and the kidnapping and murder by soldiers, in March 1994, of the Deputy Prime Minister. According to Pontso Sekatle, "The government took no action and no one has been brought to justice." In each case, the BCP has proved incapable of dealing with crisis.

The drama reached a high point in mid-August 1994. On 16 August, members of the BNP and MFP delivered a petition to King Letsie III requesting the dissolution of government and the restoration of his father, Moshoeshoe II, to the throne. The next day, Letsie issued a decree suspending certain provisions of the constitution, dissolved parliament and deposed Mokhehle's democratically elected government. When members of the BCP marched to the palace on 18 August to deliver a petition demanding restoration of the government, they were met with gunfire. Four people were shot dead by the soldiers, who clearly supported the actions of Letsie III.

Again, outside intervention was needed to restore the BCP to power. To save face, Letsie III justified the entire exercise as an attempt to restore his father to the throne. And while his father, as of 1 January 1995, has been reinstated as King of Lesotho, it is doubtful that any kind of lasting solution to Lesotho's political constitutional crises has been achieved.

Indeed, as of mid-March 1995, Lesotho found itself once again at the centre of regional security-building procedures. The Foreign Ministers of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe were in Lesotho to hold wide-ranging talks with members of the government, the police and defence forces, and with the King. According to a report by Radio Lesotho, "[T]he ministers emphasized the firm resolve of the three countries and the rest of the region to counter any attempts to overthrow the democratically elected government of the Kingdom of Lesotho."

Integration as an option?

Given its dearth of natural resources, Lesotho's economic viability has depended on a fragile combination of migrant remittances and foreign aid. Neither of these sources can be counted on in the long term. Faced with continuing political unrest, donors may be inclined to shift already limited resources away from Lesotho toward more hopeful endeavours. At the same time, the profitability of South African mines continues to decline. This has resulted in a slow but steady retrenchment of Basotho mineworkers. The question then arises, in the absence of foreign aid and migrant labour opportunities, what are the long term prospects for Basotho sovereignty?

Over the last 5 years, ideas concerning Lesotho's formal integration with South Africa have been widely discussed. Ntsu Mokhehle recently said, "once apartheid is completely eradicated and South Africa is totally free it will be 'inconvenient' for the Kingdom to remain independent". At the time, he envisaged Lesotho becoming part of a new federal state. Since coming to power, however, he has reversed his thinking and now argues for the return of the so-called "conquered territories", i.e. land taken from Basotho during the 19th Century's protracted period of warfare with the Boers.

Recognising the unlikelihood of state-makers ever voluntarily giving up sovereignty, James Cobbe has mooted what he calls "the Eire option." According to Cobbe, this option envisages:
a situation similar to that existing between Eire and the UK, under which all citizens of Lesotho would have the same rights as South Africans when within South Africa, and would face no immigration restrictions when attempting to move to South Africa, but Lesotho and South Africa would continue to retain independent polities with the freedom to pursue independent tax, customs, fiscal, and monetary regimes if they wished. The implication is full freedom of movement of labour (and dependents), and full freedom of establishment (of enterprises), at least for movements form Lesotho to South Africa, but that the continuation of the Customs Union would be subject to mutual agreement.

Clearly, Cobbe is seeking solutions to pressing economic and demographic problems within Lesotho. Unlike integration, the Eire option would afford Basotho freedom of movement to seek a living beyond Lesotho's borders without doing away with the state. In this way, "those groups within Lesotho who gain from the existence of the sovereign state, would continue to have it, and therefore would not lose in any serious way."

However, the prospect of thousands of Basotho coming to South Africa in search of work, or as families to live with primary wage earners at their job sites, is a controversial and politically- charged issue and, as such, is unlikely to find support among South Africa's Government of National Unity. The increasing inviability of the Basotho state cannot be ignored; nor can it be adequately addressed through an on-going series of regional peace-making missions.


Lesotho faces many future challenges that are only partially addressed through attention to party-political democratic processes. These are problems whose essence is only partially captured by discussions regarding regional cooperation. Yet, Lesotho seems to find itself in a Catch-22: until political problems are settled, no profitable action can be taken to address its difficult economic problems. As such, their negative impacts on ordinary Basotho are likely to increase. The longer these issues go unattended, therefore, the more they will contribute to political instability. The country's leadership does not appear sufficiently interested in or enlightened to address these problems.

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