Lesotho’s ongoing political turmoil took on added dimension on 11 January 2020 when an arrest warrant was issued for First Lady Maesaiah Thabane. This came after she failed to report for questioning about the 2017 murder of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s estranged first wife Lipolelo Thabane who was shot and killed outside Maseru on 14 June 2017, two days before Thabane was inaugurated. Thabane and Lipolelo were involved in an acrimonious divorce at the time.
Lipolelo Thabane’s murder has become a central feature of the ongoing political tensions around Thabane in recent weeks following revelations that police asked to question him about his first wife’s death. This led to a faction within the ruling party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC) calling on Thabane to resign. ABC deputy leader Nqosa Mahao claimed that Thabane was a suspect in his first wife’s murder and that Thabane’s decision to suspend Lesotho Police Chief Holomo Molibeli was motivated by his intent to obstruct justice and prevent further investigation into the murder.
Thabane has been at the centre of a burgeoning political crisis in the past year which has jeopardised his premiership and control of the ABC he founded in 2006. The crux of the conflict is the ongoing battle for control of the party between Mahao and Thabane with both men trying to suspend and expel each other from the party. This culminated in a large contingent of ABC legislators attempting to pass a motion of no confidence in Thabane in June 2019, after which Thabane suspended parliament in a bid to avoid the motion passing. The legislature only reopened in October 2019 after Thabane ensured that the Speaker of Parliament Sephiri Motanyane would throw out the motion.
While the involvement of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and First Lady Maesaiah in the murder of Lipolelo Thabane remains untested, it is clear that Thabane’s political enemies view the matter as an opportunity to target Thabane and attempt to drive him from office. This is having some success as Thabane appears under pressure and Maesaiah is currently in hiding.
The impact is heightened as Thabane was already facing an uphill battle to govern the country in the coming months. The opposition Democratic Congress (DC) has threatened to block the passage of the national budget through parliament unless the Speaker allows debate on the rejected motion of no confidence in Thabane. The DC will likely be supported by the Mahao faction of the ABC, virtually ensuring that the 2020/2021 national budget is not passed. This will severely undercut Thabane’s government and his authority. If the budget is not passed public services and wages cannot be financed nor can the country’s sovereign debt. This will potentially lead to strikes, protests, and a deterioration in the short-term economic situation. Nonetheless, Thabane is unlikely to waver in his refusal to allow the debate as it is widely expected that he would lose such a motion. Should it pass, Thabane would again fail to complete a full term in office and Lesotho would see its fourth change in government in eight years, deepening the political instability in the country.
Lesotho has suffered from perpetual instability since March 2015 when Thabane was forced out of office by an attempted coup. Since then the country has failed to elect a majority government and has been led by a series of unstable coalitions. This repeated instability has resulted in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) intervening by deploying security, legal, and judicial assistance. In addition, SADC has demanded that Lesotho implement a series of security, political, and legal reforms to stabilise the country and reduce the likelihood of future coups. However, these reforms have been stymied by consistent political instability and infighting.
The fact that SADC would intervene again has reduced the likelihood of another coup attempt; however, the fact that Thabane may be implicated in his first wife’s murder and may, himself, be served with a warrant has heightened the possibility that the security forces could force regime change. This is particularly likely because it is clear that Thabane is willing to use his position and the levers of state to protect himself. Should the police or military arrest or force Thabane to flee, Lesotho could again face a political and constitutional crisis requiring SADC to deploy forces to ensure the peace.
South Africa, as Lesotho’s sole neighbour, could be forced to intervene in the crisis committing troops and diplomatic assets to calm and resolve the situation. A burgeoning political and security crisis in Lesotho would have a negative impact on South Africa and will also slow down the ongoing second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project which is essential for South Africa’s long-term water security. Such an intervention would be a costly endeavour and be an unwanted additional pressure on South Africa’s public finances.
In order to mitigate the damage, South Africa and SADC could need to intervene pre-emptively and attempt to ensure a diplomatic solution that could include a negotiated exit from power and Lesotho for the Thabanes.