Foreign minister corrects Saharawi bungle



MASERU – Lesotho will continue to maintain her principled position on Western Sahara, and has reiterated her traditional support for the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) as an independent African country co-existing with Morocco in peace and security.

This correction follows a diplomatic bungle by former foreign minister, Lesego Makgothi, last year in a unilateral decision to change the country’s position on Western Sahara, and in particular the SADR independence. Lesotho’s position of support for the independence of the SADR was peppered with derision after Makgothi, in two statements in as many months, deviated from long-standing state support for the SADR’s struggle for self-determination and recognition against a decades-long occupation by Morocco.

The SADR is a self-declared state recognised by many governments. It has been forcefully occupied by Morocco since 1976 after it annexed the territory following the withdrawal of European colonisers, Spain, in 1975 – leading to a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and the indigenous Saharawi people. Lesotho has held the position to rally behind global states backing the freedom of the Saharawi people, condemning Morocco for its occupation of the Western Sahara.

But in early October, 2019, the world woke up to a shock of a leaked state-to-state diplomatic communication between ministries of foreign affairs asserting Lesotho’s support for the Islamic state in its occupation of the SADR, which was promptly flanked by Moroccan state media and official websites reports celebrating the addition of Lesotho to a constellation of countries the fellow Arab country had been successfully wooing to desert the Sahrawi solidarity front at the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN).

The October 4, 2019, declaration drew instant local, regional and global condemnation – and left Maseru inundated with enquiries for explanation, while both the foreign affairs ministry and the prime minister’s office maintained an eerie silence. Five days later, on October 9, 2019, the government issued a statement regretting the outing of this communication with Morocco, and reaffirming age-old support for the Saharawi struggle and support for the ongoing UN-mediated talks between the belligerents. Until this week, under a new administration, government had not given any explanation for this breach of policy, nor has any office or state agency taken a whipping for it.

On June 2 the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, ’Matšepo Molise-Ramakoae, announced that the Lesotho government underscored the need for creating conditions that would allow the holding of a peaceful and fair referendum for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara. “Government, therefore, pronounces Lesotho’s support for peaceful negotiations, aimed at holding the referendum between Western Sahara and Morocco on an equal footing and without pre-conditions,” she said. Adding that government will also dispatch a Special Envoy to Western Sahara, the SADC and the AU chairpersons to dispel all misrepresentations and distortions regarding the Lesotho position on Western Sahara and to reiterate Lesotho’s principled position on Western Sahara.

The minister said it was regrettable that Western Sahara remained the only colony on the African continent contrary to the principles of the UN Charter, adding that the issue of Western Sahara was a question of decolonisation which remained to be completed by the Sahrawi people with their inalienable right to self-determination and independence. Ramakoae said there had been no cabinet decision authorising Makgothi’s October, 2019, diplomatic note to change Lesotho’s foreign policy or position on Western Sahara. “As a matter of fact the issue was never submitted for consideration by cabinet. Therefore, any pronouncements made purporting to change

Lesotho’s positions on this issue are of no force and effect. “Indeed, Lesotho exists as a country today because of solidarity with others and her independence and sovereignty shall, to a large extend, continue to depend on solidarity with other states,” the minister continued. She recalled a SADC Solidarity Conference on Western Sahara early in 2019 in South Africa and that the decisions of that conference were endorsed by the SADC Summit that was held in Tanzania in August the same year. “Lesotho participated in both Summits at the highest level,” she said.

Speaking at the September 74th UN General Assembly in 2019 Lesotho’s former Prime Minister, Motsoahae Thabane, called for an end to the occupation and the declaration of independence for Saharawi. He said the international community could not stand idly by while some countries interfere with the sovereignty of other members of the organisation. He pointed out that the Saharawi people have been looking for independence for years and this was a right they deserved like the rest of the world.

Thabane said it was the duty of the UN to protect the sovereignty of its member states and prevent any interference in the affairs of other states, continuing that Lesotho’s refusal that the UN should remain indifferent to the plight of the people of the Saharawi people who were fighting for their right to freedom to no avail was on point.

In his epic diplomatic howler Makgothi declared in Morocco’s capital, Rabat through an October 4, 2019, Note Verbale, that Lesotho had reached a “sovereign decision to suspend all its decisions and statements related to Western Sahara and the ‘SADR’ pending the outcome of a UN process currently dealing with the matter.” “Our dialogue also allowed us to get a deeper understanding of the issue of Western Sahara. We conducted a thorough evaluation of the effectiveness of the Kingdom of Lesotho’s position concerning this regional dispute.

This evaluation of promoting a just and peaceful solution of this regional conflict will best be served by a ‘neutral’ yet strong support of the Kingdom of Lesotho to the ongoing UN-led process under the guidance of the UN Secretary General and supervision of its Security Council,” Makgothi told the Moroccans. He regretted that this new “national position has been subjected to some misunderstandings, confirming a commitment to suspend all previous decisions and statements related to Western Sahara and SADR, pending the outcome of the UN.”

“Through commitment to neutrality on the Western Sahara dispute; this position will be observed in regional, sub-regional and international meetings. “A commitment to actively support the political process led by the UN as the multilateral framework to find a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to the question of Western Sahara and a commitment from the Kingdom of Lesotho to work, with the kingdom of Morocco to develop and strengthen bilateral cooperation on multiple sectors for the shared benefits of our two sisterly countries,” Makgothi said.

Makgothi continued that Lesotho has always remained committed to its partners, and that Lesotho will remain committed to Morocco “to its new and very promising, partnership.” “This new position will be communicated to the SADC and AU, and will act accordingly in regional and international fora. Any different statement or document, be it before or after this official position, will be void and have no value,” he said following his meeting with Moroccan foreign minister Nasser Bourita.

The meeting was also attended by the Moroccan Speaker of the House of Representatives, Habib El Malki. This Morocco and Lesotho bilateral relationship, according to Makgothi, had a strong determination to develop and strengthen the union in various fields of cooperation that includes agriculture, education, water, health, diplomatic training and military cooperation; signatures will be appended to this agreement for finalisation in Rabat soon.

Speaking to this paper immediately after Makgothi’s declaration government spokesperson, Pheello Nthakeng Selinyane, reiterated the known national stance on the SADR, indicating “I even asked the government secretary for direction on these new developments when the scandal broke and he said he was not aware.” Selinyane issued a statement on behalf of government upon Makgothi’s initial bungle that Lesotho was reaffirming its commitment to the collective position of both the SADC and the AU for the immediate independence of the SADR. The government spokesperson said Lesotho had played a critical role in forging the two bodies’ positions which it remained committed to.

“The government of Lesotho will continue to support all diplomatic initiatives towards achievement of the UN Resolution on Western Sahara, including the December 2018 meeting of the stakeholders…government wishes to reiterate that the policy of the Lesotho government on the cause of the Saharawi people, and Lesotho’s solidarity with their struggle as annunciated decades ago, and in keeping with a sovereign Lesotho’s age-old tradition of solidarity with the oppressed people of the world, has not changed in the slightest,” Selinyane said in the statement.

Through successive governments Lesotho has maintained cordial bilateral relations with the Saharawi people which started after Lesotho’s 1966 independence, having maintained these through the years and continuing to nurture them; the two countries maintained high-level visits in between. In 2000 a cabinet member of the national secretariat of the POLISARIO Front and Western Sahara’s UN Coordinator visited Lesotho to present a message soliciting Lesotho’s support; with further visits in 2012, 2017 and 2018.

High level visits of note are the official visit to Western Sahara by the former Prime Minister Motsoahae Thomas Thabane in 2012; Saharawi President and Secretary General of the POLISARIO Front, Brahim Ghali, was in 2018 in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru, on a three-day working visit; he was received in the country by then Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki and several cabinet ministers.

He was received with full military honours in a reception where national anthems of both countries were played. President Ghali’s entourage comprised foreign minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek, the Minister of Cooperation, Bulahi Sid, Secretary of State for Security and Documentation, Brahim Ahmed Mahmud, Sukeina Larabas, Minetu Larabas, Abdati Breika, Councillor of the Presidency and Maleinin Lakhal, advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


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