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Thabane’s nine eventful lives span five decades in government

BONGIWE ZIHLANGU

While speculation on the retirement of Prime Minister Motsoahae Thabane was supposed to be put to rest after his announcement that he intends to relinquish power as head of government, latest by the end of July, it remains to be seen whether the octogenarian premier, who turns 81 in May, will indeed vacate office.

Fueling this conjecture is Thabane’s notoriety for “saying one thing and doing the opposite” as described on numerous occasions by disgruntled members of his ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) presently embroiled in party factionalism bouts.

Thabane has announced twice this year that he plans to retire. During his first announcement mid-January while briefing media at his former official residence, the Horseshoe House, Lesotho’s embattled premier said he had already informed King Letsie III and his cabinet of the decision.

The revelation came in the wake of allegations connecting him and First Lady ’Maesaiah Thabane to the gruesome June 2017 murder of his estranged wife Lipolelo, for which ’Maesaiah has already been charged.

While Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) Deputy Commissioner Paseka Mokete led a police investigating team to haul Thabane to court this week to be charged alongside ’Maesaiah for the murder of Lipolelo, he torpedoed the initiative and lodged an application with the Constitutional Court to determine the immunity of a sitting premier against criminal charges.

In December 2019, Commissioner of Police Holomo Molibeli penned Thabane a letter in which he informed the premier that police investigations had uncovered information that his mobile phone had communicated with one of the assailants at the scene of Lipolelo’s murder.

The murder happened at Ha-’Masana on the outskirts of the Maseru city.

Police’s search for clarity on the matter sparked a chain of events that include attempts by Thabane to sack Molibeli, while the police also upped their probe by calling ’Maesaiah for questioning.

But the First Lady outsmarted the police by fleeing for three weeks and was declared a fugitive from justice.

It was upon her return that she was formally charged.

Through it all, Thabane had been very quiet and would not take questions from the press on two successive occasions that he called the media to announce his intent to step down, save for an interview he granted a local weekly, in which he flatly denied having a hand in his estranged wife’s murder.

From as far back as 2017 when Lipolelo died, Thabane has avoided questions relating to the death and the public has questioned the reluctance by the state to investigate the murder; and other murders relating to staunch ABC members who died under mysterious circumstances.

Thabane has over the past 54 years been a permanent feature in the Lesotho government serving in difference capacities.

Having begun to work for government in the early 1950s under the British colonial administration under which Lesotho was a protectorate, the octogenarian has conceded his “energy levels have depleted”.

Following Lesotho’s independence in October 1966, Thabane served in former Prime Minister Chief Leabua Jonathan’s government as Principal Secretary for the Interior, among others, and proceeded to serve under a Major General Metsing Lekhanya-led military junta, which in 1986 unseated Jonathan and ruled through to 1993 when democracy was restored.

Legend has it that despite being aligned to the then Basutoland Congress Party (BCP), Thabane was trusted and loved by Jonathan, who was the founder and leader of the Basotho National Party (BNP) which governed from 1965 under a democratic rule, only to nullify the 1970 elections which they lost to the BCP.

Jonathan declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution of Lesotho and ruled by decree until 1986 when he was removed by the military.

Following the 1993 democratic elections, Thabane became a cog and political advisor to incoming Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle of the BCP and is said to have been instrumental in advising Mokhehle to abandon the BCP ship in 1997 to form the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) which usurped power and went on to win the 1998 general polls, a victory that sparked political riots and brought the country on the brink of civil discord.

At the time, Mokhehle’s party deputy Pakalitha Mosisili had ascended to Lesotho’s premiership deputised by Advocate Kelebone Maope KC.

Impressed by Thabane, Mosisili appointed him Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations from 1998 to 2002, after which he was made Minister of Home Affairs, a position which he held until 2004 when he was reassigned to the Ministry of Communications, Science and Technology.

After a fallout with Mosisili and failure to secure the coveted post of LCD Secretary-General in 2006, Thabane in October of the same year crossed the floor in parliament to his newly formed ABC, joined by 17 MPs, a move which precipitated dissolution of parliament and a fresh election in February 2007, after LCD was left with a simple majority in the august House.

During the election campaign leading to the 2007 polls, Thabane drew large crowds into the ABC due to the corruption trump card he used against Mosisili’s administration, earning him 17 urban constituencies and 10 proportional representation seats by virtue of the ABC alliance with the now defunct Lesotho Workers’ Party (LWP).

In April 2009, one of Thabane’s bodyguards – ex-soldier Makotoko Lerotholi, was identified as one of the assailants who stormed the State House in an attempt to assassinate Mosisili.

Thabane was also instrumental in the 2012 split of the former ruling LCD, having taken sides and supported the party’s then Secretary General, Mothetjoa Metsing, and his Litima-Mollo faction against Mosisili’s Lija-Mollo, effectively compelling the former to break away from the party in February that year to form the Democratic Congress (DC) in parliament.

It was no surprise then that in June 2012 Metsing’s LCD entered into Lesotho’s first coalition government with Thabane’s ABC and Chief Thesele ’Maseribane’s BNP, effectively rendering Mosisili’s DC opposition despite being the party with the highest number of parliamentary seats.

As if Thabane had a score to settle with Mosisili, he was again fingered at the centre of the DC split in 2016, when he took the side of his former nemesis and Mosisili’s former deputy leader Monyane Moleleki, who after prolonged squabbles that divided the DC into factions named Lithope (Mosisili’s) and Lirurubele (Moleleki’s), jumped the DC ship to form the Alliance of Democrats (AD).

Thabane’s ABC formed a coalition with the Reformed Congress of Lesotho, the BNP and AD to send Mosisili’s 2015 to 2017 seven-party coalition administration tumbling.

Ironically, Thabane himself confessed that Mosisili was his political icon, when on his first inauguration as Lesotho’s premier in June 2012 he told the world that all he had said about Mosisili during the campaign “were not necessarily true. It was smear campaign so that my political party could also become government. You will always be the anchor on which I lean. Please continue to guide us to greener pastures”.

Not one to mince his words, Thabane’s political career has been marred by a series of scandals but he has always bounced back, typical of a cat with nine lives.

As recently as 2017, Thabane notoriously threatened to remove King Letsie III from office when the monarch agreed to advice to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections, having accepted a request by the Prime Minister Mosisili who had just lost a no-confidence motion in parliament – a dissolution provided for in the Constitution of Lesotho.

An irate Thabane sought to remind King Letsie III during an end of February press conference held at the BNP Centre of his father the late King Moshoeshoe II’s tumultuous relations with previous governments and multiple stays in exile. He ominously told the King that anyone occupying that office “can be removed, although I am not saying the person in that office now will be removed”.

The opposition had been adamant that since Mosisili had lost the no-confidence motion in parliament, he had also lost legitimacy hence he could not advise the King and his advisory body, the Council of State, to dissolve parliament.

However, due to a Phumaphi Commission of Inquiry report on the assassination of former Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) Commander Lieutenant General (Lt Gen) Maaparankoe Mahao, for which Mosisili’s government was held liable, his prospects of winning the 2017 elections were bleak and indeed he lost dismally despite an electoral alliance the DC had entered into with the LCD.

Luckily for Thabane, his party emerged victorious, securing 51 parliamentary seats, which he added with the BNP’s five, AD’s 11 and one from the RCL to form the current four-party coalition government.

Ironically, while Mahao and the late Lt Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo, Brigadier Bulane Sechele and Colonel Tefo Hashatsi, had died under more or less similar circumstances which warranted investigation, Thabane’s government never established an inquiry into the trio’s death, just as no inquest was established to probe Lipolelo’s death.

However, Thabane has been hailed as one of the best and shrewdest political brains Lesotho has ever had, the most recent demonstration of his cunning tendencies being how quickly he was able to call a truce between his State House (Malumara) and the ABC’s Likatana faction sympathetic to deputy leader Professor Nqosa Mahao, whom Thabane fiercely attempted to block from contesting for the post at the party’s February 2019 elective conference due to questions over his legitimacy to contest.

After Mahao succeeded in overstepping all the barricades imposed by Thabane from contesting the election he eventually won, then followed a year-long legal battle which saw the ABC factions positioning themselves in the judiciary.

The Malumara faction claimed a hold over Acting Chief Justice ’Maseforo Mahase, while the Likatana faction laid claim on President of the Court of Appeal Justice Kananelo Mosito KC, scenarios which exposed gapping fissures in the Lesotho judicial system.

But when the allegations against Thabane and ’Maesaiah broke, the State House camp suddenly extended an olive branch to Mahao’s clique comprising, among others, Secretary General Lebohang Hlaele, who is Thabane’s son-in-law, spokesperson Montoeli Masoetsa and Chairperson Tsoinyana Rapapa.

The two factions put their differences aside and presented a united front and three weeks ago they addressed a press conference appearing for the first time in public with Thabane, exactly a year after their spilled into the public domain.

While throughout the infighting Thabane was accused by all and sundry for seemingly backing the faction that questioned Mahao’s legitimacy as Thabane’s deputy, during that press conference he said: “If there were any of you who thought I was taking sides, that is not true and I seek your forgiveness. I am not one to take sides (ha ke motho oa manyakore ‘na).”

But, the most disgruntled ABC members are not convinced, with most of them saying “our leader always makes mistakes, apologizes then does the same thing again. You can’t trust him.”

Local political analysts recently told this paper that Thabane’s announcement of the so-called “retirement” was just a “ploy to test the waters, to see how Basotho would react to news of his possible exit”.

According to these political experts, if Thabane was genuine about leaving office, he could have already detailed his exit strategy, declareing the exact date of his departure, and his ABC should have already announced the name of the candidate to fill the vacancy.

Those gaps, the experts further asserted, meant that Thabane was still exploring various prospects which could lead to him driving government to the 2022 polls.

However, they also cautioned that for his safety and the country’s reputation, Thabane should be able to provide a clear timetable of his exit “because the spotlight is now on him, the whole world is watching and closely observing this whole situation”.

Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) boss, Tsikoane Peshoane told Public Eye last week that Thabane’s planned exit was not voluntary but perpetuated by police commissioner Holomo Molibeli’s probe into his involvement in the murder, adding he doubted Thabane was genuine about wanting to go but that “he is under immense pressure”.

“We need to look at Thabane’s purported ‘retirement’ within the context of the events in recent weeks.

“Firstly, his departure was not voluntary. He is actually under pressure and has to bow down to the pressure that is mounting on him to go,” Peshoane said.

He observed that “this pressure is stimulated by the fact that First Lady ’Maesaiah Thabane fled the country and was declared a fugitive from justice by the police, having been associated with or identified as one of the suspects in the assassination of Thabane’s second wife, former First Lady Lipolelo Thabane.”

Local political and economic analyst, Arthur Majara, who is also one of the authors of Lesotho’s current constitution, echoed Peshoane, noting that Thabane’s retirement fiasco came amid a flurry of legal maneuvers surrounding his murdered wife Lipolelo, and his current wife who had been on the run and declared a fugitive from justice by the police.

“There is no legal basis in our constitution for retirement except resignation, which is provided for under section 152, read with chapter VIII in the case of prime minister resigning. The latter will automatically activate Council of State, an advisory body to the King, as Prime Minister’s powers revert to the King,” Majara said.

“The King usually asks the prime minister to hold horses until all constitutional processes have been exhausted, especially the parliamentary process of shortlisting the successor.”

According to Majara, it was therefore safe to assume that Thabane’s announcement of a retirement was part of antics to test public sympathy.

Moreover, he said, what needed to be looked into was the role of Attorney-General Haae Phoofolo, whom Majara asserted had come out strongly to support the Thabane family in the wake of allegations of their involvement in Lipolelo’s murder.

“So, we can now safely conclude that Prime Minister Thabane’s antics of the so called retirement, are designed first to test the waters of how the nation will respond to the news, and secondly how his fugitive wife’s event will play out,” Majara maintained.

“Also of concern is his role in the murder case of Lipolelo, supported by his lieutenant, the Attorney General Phoofolo, and lastly how long the ABC factions Likatana and Malumara saga, will hold on their oneness.

“In essence, the prime minister is still holding onto his most trusted instinct of years of the political underworld.”

Attorney General Phoofolo recently reprimanded Molibeli for undermining Thabane’s executive powers by demanding that Thabane goes to the police for questioning “as if he is some project manager”.

 

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