June 2019 has seen Members of Parliament (MPs) of Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) party warn him to step down as party leader or be recalled as they threatened to take steps to reopen parliament and table a motion of no confidence in Thabane if he doesn’t budge.
Trouble has long been brewing with growing dissatisfaction with the rule of the now 90-year-old Thabane. Synonymous with Lesotho politics of the last thirty years, a young Thomas “TT” Thabane was involved in the overthrow of Leabua Jonathan, Lesotho’s second Prime Minister; served under General Justin Lekhanya’s military government in the early nineties; was twice foreign minister; and has been a key opponent of Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader, Pakalitha Moisisilli.
Elected Prime Minister in 2017, Thabane has previously held together various shape-shifting parliamentary coalitions under, or associated with, the ABC. Under his watch, the ABC has become a significant, if not the sole, dispenser of political patronage while Thabane has survived several attempted assassinations and the mysterious June 2017 shooting of his first wife, Lipolelo.
Thabane married again and his second wife, Maesiah, has become an unwelcome force in politics behind her husband. She is highly politicised and is seen as “on the make” in the style of Zimbabwe’s Grace Mugabe. She has unilaterally made several high-level government appointments and is regarded by most Basotho as the “face behind governance” ‒ especially among younger urban Basotho who are looking for a new and progressive leadership that can deliver on development.
Consolidating discontent with Thabane’s tenure, the last few years have also seen the rise of some relatively young people pushing for accelerated change in parliament, in the ranks of the ABC and in other mainstream parties. These include Lebohang Hlaele (Secretary-General of the ABC until fired by Thabane); Matebatso Doti; and Vice Chancellor of the University of Lesotho, and Thabane nemesis, Nqosa Mahao. Some of these “radicals” come from distinguished families: Mahao is related to Brigadier-General Maarparanoke Mahao who was killed in un-investigated circumstances in 2015. Other progressives have forged strong relations with influential anti-Thabane elements in the College of Chiefs (the upper house of parliament), such as Chief Whip, Chief Khoabane Theko.
At the February conference of ABC to elect a new NEC this year the Thabane and Mahao factions went head to head with a few “in-betweeners.” The former represents the old guard, and the latter, younger delegates eager for change in the party. Mahao said he was not looking to displace Thabane as President but did assume he would get the strategic deputy president position. Thabane was confirmed as President but generational tensions surfaced when the conference failed to appoint Mahao as NEC deputy chairperson. Younger members were incensed – at least in part because Mahoa was labelled “too young for senior party duties.” Allegations of fraud in the party’s internal electoral process saw Mahao supporters take the matter to the High Court where Acting Chief Justice Maseforo Mahase is rumoured to have been promised the position of Chief Justice, and other “perks” of office”, by Thabane. The High Court failed to take any action in this regard for some weeks and the Mahao faction then submitted further affidavits which eventually went to a three-judge panel, which found that their claims were not unreasonable, but there has been no further progress.
With accusations of vote-fiddling widely assumed to have some credibility given the preponderance of Thabane supporters in the NEC, the High Court’s delaying tactics have stoked political tensions significantly. Thabane seems to have the upper hand in the NEC for now, while the Appeal Court has closed due to what Thabane supporters insist is a “lack of money” and parliament has been discontinued because of the incapacity of the ABC.
Verbal mudslinging has become the order of the day as Mahao and Thabane continue to engage in a war of words. Mahao has publicly labelled Thabane a “dictator” and a “dangerous geriatric” and recent days have seen violence flare between their supporters in Maseru. An inter-party Voice of the Voiceless has been formed to possibly mediate while Maesiah Thabane adds fuel to the fire with ongoing accusations that she is violating the presidential office by appointing senior officials. These apparently include the Chief Justice and the chairperson of the Appeal Court.
Both factions have gone to the country to mobilise support for their respective positions in Maseru. Mahao continues to describe Thabane as a threat to democracy. Thabane has promised accelerated job creation and the suspension of various laws that impact negatively on the interests of woolgrowers and farmers.
The crisis touches on many critical aspects of Lesotho governance ‒ from royal intervention (which is unlikely), to institutional sustainability, the rule of law and the political impartiality of the judiciary. It also has undertones of the tension between tradition and modernity given the respective social base of Mahao’s and Thabane’s followers.
At this point, no one seems ready to come to an agreement or face-saving formula ‒ least of all Thabane who is mentally unwell (according to his critics), obdurate, or otherwise absent from the negotiating table.
No-one is especially enthusiastic about calling in the military, least of all the “progressives” around Mahao who will suffer the brunt of an intervention with little appetite for supporting an increasingly old and cantankerous leader. Anything involving the soldiers would also require the condonationof South Africa which is unlikely, with President Cyril Ramphosa’s 30 June announcement that he will be visiting Lesotho in the coming days a clear sign that South Africa wants to help calm the situation.
As political speculation gains traction there is talk that the ABC could break free of its current four-party partnership and go it alone in parliament. There is still strong support among Lesotho’s older and conservative electorate, either for Thabane as a father of the nation or for the ABC as a source of development assistance. There is also some suspicion in these circles about the motivations behind what some call the “university’ people” linked to Mahao. However, the ABC alone, or without its “radicals” does not have the numbers to make up a majority in parliament; nor do the “radicals”, or the three parties in the ABC coalition.
Hence, Thabane may well resign under pressure, the likelihood supported by his peculiar fascination for Mandela as a president who left office while still in power. This will undoubtedly open up the prospect of new elections and potentially more instability, which its neighbouring South Africa will be at pains to contain.