Behind Lesotho’s current political crisis, security cluster ructions and infighting are the real threats to stability. As Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s allegations of a coup disintegrated, the fractious nature of the relationship between the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) and the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) has emerged as the catalyst for the violence on Saturday, August 30. Tensions have been building over months, with allegations of bombings, attempted assassinations and insurrection. The trouble began in January 2014 when uniformed soldiers were alleged to have attacked and bombed the residence of LMPS Police Commissioner Khothatso Tšooana as well as the homes of Liabiloe Ramoholi (Mr Thabane’s romantic partner) and her neighbour Mamoletsane Moletsane. The accusations went further, suggesting an assassination attempt on Mr Thabane as he was believed to be at his partner’s residence. The claim in itself is extraordinary – the head of the police was accusing the military of trying to kill him and the head of government. There was no apparent motive and, more surprisingly, almost no reaction to the extraordinary allegations which the military denied.
However, during April, Commissioner Tšooana allegedly wrote to LDF military commander, Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, requesting that several soldiers – including two majors and a brigadier – be handed over to the LMPS for interrogation in connection with the alleged bombings in January. A police spokesperson confirmed that Commissioner Tšooana had written and sent the letter to Lt.Gen. Kamoli requesting assistance in the investigations, stating they were at an advanced stage. Unfortunately, the letter and several doctored versions thereof appeared simultaneously on the internet in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to embarrass the military and force the handover of the soldiers. The police claimed to be unaware of who could have leaked the letter and uploaded it on the internet, but the LDF questioned the authenticity of the document. LDF spokesperson Major Ntlele Ntoi said at the time (in April) that such a letter, widely circulated on the internet, could not be taken seriously.
Local media reports at the time quoted Major Ntoi as stating there had been many versions of the letter “purported to have been written by Tšooana to Kamoli” in the days before the dramatic police announcement of its intention to question the soldiers in connection with the bombings. Major Ntoi said the internet letters were the work of a “certain man” (unnamed) that he accused of trying to foment discord in the security cluster and destabilise the country. Local media also reported a lengthy LDF statement that talked of “fictitious allegations spread by this certain man on a campaign to tarnish the image of the army.” The man was not named and has yet to be named, but there are strong suspicions that politicians were involved.
The festering relationship between the police and the military that had been smouldering since January was by April this year close to open warfare, with no element of trust and little or no formal co-operation on security issues. Police suspicions (and then those of some political party) were aroused that elements within the military might possibly have been involved in some wild plot to kill Commissioner Tšooana. As the conspiracy theory grew wings it quickly reached the point where speculation included the fact that Mr Thabane was also a target. Lt. Gen Kamoli, for his part, denied that he ever received a letter from Commissioner Tšooana, further denied any military involvement in the January bombings, and accused the police of acting to destabilise and discredit the military. But by now the relationship between the two security agencies was poisonous, making the events that unfolded one Saturday morning late in August only a matter of time.
Then the politics of Lesotho and the security dispute merged. At the same time, the prime minister was facing a no confidence vote in Parliament, which would almost certainly have seen the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) – who entered a coalition with Mr Thabane’s All Basotho Congress (ABC) after the 2012 election – link up with the opposition Democratic Congress (DC) and remove the premier from power. In desperation, Mr Thabane requested King Letsie III to prorogue Parliament for the maximum nine months, to which the monarch agreed. Given that the LDF were either involved in an assassination attempt or more likely had merely been linked to such a plot, this put Mr Thabane and his ABC into a different camp from the LDF. As the coalition government drifted apart due to several failures of Mr Thabane to honour undertakings to ask the king to reconvene Parliament, two main alignments appeared: between the military and the LCD, and between Mr Thabane and the police. Then the extremely dangerous set of circumstances emerged – largely as a result of the conflict and ructions between the LDF and the police – not only of the security cluster losing its political neutrality, but of the two forces finding themselves on opposite sides of a widening political divide.
Mr Thabane’s actions in granting the Gupta family diplomatic passports (apparently at the behest of South African diplomats) proved to be the final straw – not so much because of the action but because, as usual, Mr Thabane acted unilaterally and without any consultation with his coalition partners. The LCD and potentially members of the opposition DC, as well as several civil society organs, planned a massive march on Mr Thabane’s residence for Monday, September 1, in order to demand he request the king to reconvene Parliament so that the motion of no-confidence could proceed. The police in Maseru banned the march in what was subsequently widely regarded as an overtly political decision to protect the prime minister. It was soon clear that the organisers of the march were going to go ahead, with or without permission from the police.
Now developments get very murky. It does become an issue of what is more or less likely, and what is believable, and whom one chooses to believe, but the events that unfolded on Saturday, August 30, certainly were directly related to the events planned for the Monday thereafter. The LDF said that it had information of a group alleged to have strong links with the ABC and known as the Under The Tree Army (UTTA), who had been armed with the specific intention of disrupting or even preventing any march taking place on the Monday. The real issue – and the tricky bit to believe – was that the LDF accused the police of supplying the weapons to the UTTA and other elements aligned to the ABC with the specific intention of causing mayhem and preventing any anti-ABC protests. Apparently, persons opposed to the march were to be armed with guns and explosives attainable from the police service through dubious ways.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of LDF intelligence, the military opted to act against the police on that Saturday morning with the specific intention of disarming them. That was the LDF’s take on the events. The police and ABC supporters (including several dozen bureaucrats) asked why, if the intention was to prevent weapons falling into the wrong hands, the troops who hit police headquarters also wanted to take any files on Lt. Gen. Kamoli, as well as the soldiers allegedly implicated in the series of politically motivated bombings in January. In addition, the troops also wanted to see files relating to the corruption charges against Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, leader of the LCD.
WHY DO WE CARE? Obviously we are dealing with smoke and mirrors here from several sources. As usual – particularly in Lesotho – the truth is taking some time to emerge, and even then it will probably not be complete. What the ructions within the security cluster in Lesotho demonstrate is why Mr Thabane and his supporters cried ‘coup’ when the military moved against the police (not for the first time incidentally), while at the same time the LDF could say with some conviction (and an element of truth) that there had been no coup. Mr Thabane desperately wanted a coup as that would allow him to muster diplomatic and possibly even military interventions to restore him to power, whereas now he will almost certainly lose his position to a no-confidence vote. It is extraordinary that the LDF and the LMPS remain at each other’s throats over allegations and counter allegations that urgently need to be cleared up and clarified. It is a potential disaster to see elements of the national security cluster on opposite sides of a political divide that neither should even recognise. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) may need to re-examine its role in Lesotho and focus on the security cluster and resolve that problem – it seems more potentially dangerous than petty party politics and coalition busting. Finally, the idea that Lt. Gen. Kamoli teamed up with the LCD to remove Mr Thabane because the former was peeved at being sacked has a fatal flaw – Lt Gen Kamoli was ‘sacked’ only after Mr Thabane had already fled Lesotho on the Saturday.
Analyst: Gary van Staden