It is going to take some time before we fully understand the plans of Lesotho’s squabbling political elites. These elites are attempting to advance their own agendas in the mediation process led by South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, but the situation in the country is not nearly as dire as the competing elite agendas would have us believe. Media reports on Wednesday, September 24, quoted Mr Ramaphosa – appointed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as mediator in the political squabble – as stating after his short visit there earlier in the week that there was a “determination amongst Lesotho leaders to move towards resolving the problems.” The unspoken part of that sentiment was that there remain several competing agendas and no compromise as to how to resolve the problem. Meanwhile, All Basotho Congress (ABC) leader and incumbent prime minister, Tom Thabane, is to remain in power for anything up to another year – until new elections are held – amid a growing sense of SADC bullying and injustice.
What is clear is that Mr Thabane has managed to cling to power against all odds and has engineered (with South Africa’s help) a fresh set of elections in the country, rather than taking the honourable route and resigning in the face of growing unpopularity and a disintegrating coalition government. It remains quite clear that Mr Thabane’s main coalition partner, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), the main opposition party (and largest party in Parliament), the Democratic Congress (DC), as well as a coalition of Lesotho non-governmental organisations (NGOs), did not want fresh elections. They wanted Mr Thabane to set in motion the process to reconvene Parliament so that he could be sacked (via a vote of no confidence) and a new prime minister appointed without the major disruption, cost and uncertainty of another election. One commentator in Maseru has already made the point: elections have over the years proved to be the source of problems in Lesotho, now SADC thinks an election is a solution.
Questions being raised in Lesotho media include: how was it possible that Mr Ramaphosa could talk about a ‘security problem’ in Lesotho where none appeared to exist outside Mr Thabane’s imagination – SADC itself has suggested Mr Thabane was exaggerating the instability in Lesotho, that his coup claim was “a false alarm,” and that the threats against him were “insincere.” Opponents of the election solution are increasingly sceptical of Mr Ramaphosa’s role, not because they doubt his ability, but because they question his neutrality. The main question remains: why did Mr Thabane get an election instead of the sack?
A neglected and possibly key issue is the impact of this political squabbling on the investment and business climate in Lesotho, but there are few signs of any significant impact. According to Maseru sources, the situation is calm and (as SADC has already suggested) a case of business-as-usual, with no sense of the tension and instability Mr Thabane keeps trying to sell. In terms of the big issues – the mining and mineral exploration sectors, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), and several on-going investment discussions – there has been no visible impact in a country that is used to political squabbling and bouts of instability. Overall, and despite the hysteria, our political risk rating for Lesotho is unchanged, and is likely to remain unchanged for the foreseeable future. Longer-term risk depends on how long it takes to organise an election in mid-stream and how free, fair and credible that process turns out to be.
WHY DO WE CARE? An important point here is that it remains open to serious doubt that an election could be organised quickly or that one would resolve the current impasse. Nothing can happen until (and unless) Parliament is reconvened, and we have no clear idea on how long that will take given what we have seen of Mr Thabane’s ability to duck and weave. Even when this all comes to pass and elections are held, will the outcome resolve the crisis or spark a new one? We applauded Lesotho’s political maturity after the 2012 elections, but warned that coalition governments are a difficult concept even for established democracies. The election solution has not been universally welcomed in Lesotho and its outcome is no guarantee of a resolution.