Maseru-Tom Thabane (81), the embattled veteran Lesotho politician, has finally bowed to pressure to resign as the Prime Minister of the politically volatile southern African nation of 2.2 million. This comes at least two years before the end of his term. But, will his replacement by Moeketsi Majoro (58), enable Lesotho to move in a more progressive direction? Majoro is an economist, former executive at the International Monetary Fund as well as the country’s former finance minister.
He was recently appointed to lead the governing coalition of the majority All Basotho Convention (ABC), and the Democratic Congress (DC), ahead of Thabane’s resignation. The Thabane saga, revolving around allegations that he was party to a conspiracy to murder his then estranged wife, and that his new wife interferes in state matters, has been dragging on for more than a year. These events have fed into the raging political conflict within his ruling ABC party and its governing coalition with DC. This has provided a major distraction to any attempt to address the country’s massive developmental problems.
But, setting Lesotho on a significantly different political trajectory will not be easy. Majoro’s installation as Prime Minister is welcome. But it does not guarantee much needed political stability in an era of complex coalition politics in which none of Lesotho’s parties has a clear majority. Nor does it guarantee internal peace when the military and police both remain significant political players, with linkages to different political parties and actors.
Questions have correctly been posed whether Majoro, a technocrat with a great deal of international experience, has the political skills to hold his governing coalition together. For the moment, Thabane remains leader of the All Basotho Congress, and cannot be guaranteed to lend his support to the new government.
Thabane can be expected to use his position to try to secure immunity for himself from prosecution for his alleged role in the murder of his estranged wife, Lipopelo Thabane (58). She was shot dead in June 2017 – two days before he was sworn in as the Prime Minister. Maesaiah Liabiloe Thabane (42), the woman he was living with at the time, and eventually married, is on trial for the murder. Thabane was also later charged with the murder.
Majoro must know that if he concedes this immunity, he will lose a great deal of domestic and global credibility. But if doesn’t show some leniency he may lose the support of a disgruntled element of his party which continues to back Thabane. How this plays out may influence whether Majoro can secure the leadership of the party at its next congress, expected in February 2021.
This may not be plain sailing. One of the big factors will be the willingness of the deputy leader of the party, Nqosa Mahao, to support him. Mahao defeated Majoro for deputy leadership position in the party in February 2020. Though both will now want Thabane out of the way (a conviction in court would be convenient), it’s not clear whether they will work cooperatively together.
Beyond the immediate political problems, there are three major issues which need to be confronted. One is whether the country’s electoral system can be restructured to render the political landscape more predictable. Another is whether a recent tendency for the judiciary to be politicised can be reversed. A third is whether the political entanglements of the police and military can be neutralised.
To appreciate how difficult this may be, it is necessary to recall that Lesotho is governed by a small elite (military and judicial as well as political), whose members’ knowledge of each other and their families often goes back decades.
In a country where poverty is intense and resources are so few, personal feuds can easily translate into political issues.
The National Dialogue process, launched in 2015 under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has led to proposals for electoral reform. Introduced in 2002, Lesotho’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system combines first-past-the-post constituency elections with a national list proportional representation system to ensure proportionality of party representation.
But, its outcomes have been undermined by politicians crossing the floor for personal advantage, upsetting the intended proportionality and encouraging fragmentation of political parties. SADC has now proposed that such floor crossing should be banned, and parties should obtain a minimum proportion of the vote before they secure representation in parliament. The real issue still to be resolved is how to form political parties which are genuinely constructed around political programmes rather than personal ambitions.
Lesotho’s political parties have often sought to resolve their problems by directing them to the courts. Most recently, the battle for control of the ABC led to Thabane throwing his weight behind Acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase, whose curious rulings in Thabane’s favour were to be thrown out by the Court of Appeal, amid popular accusations of her political bias. It seems unlikely, with Thabane out of the way, that Mahase will now be confirmed in her position. But, Majoro will need to avoid the temptation of securing the appointment of a crony as the Chief Justice. Prior to Thabane’s politicking, the judiciary had more or less been kept above the political fray.
This neutrality now needs to be restored. Yet the major problem confronting stability in Lesotho is presented by the military and police. They have been a major factor in the country’s politics, stretching back to 1970, when the then Police Mobile Unit backed Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan to overthrow the adverse results of the first post-independence election.
Headache for new PM
The military’s penchant for direct intervention in the political arena has been curtailed by the insistence of South Africa, SADC, and the African Union that the legitimacy of coups will not be accepted. But this has not stopped governments seeking protection from political opponents by forging strong links with the senior military. In an era of unstable government coalitions, this has itself become a source of major tension, with incoming governments seeking to counter-balance military leaderships left over by the previous government by cosying up to the police.
Determined efforts to neutralise the military have been made via training programmes carried out by, among others, South Africa, SADC, India, Britain and Zimbabwe. None have yet succeeded. For all that Majoro may want attend to tackling Covid-19 and the economy, his biggest headache may yet turn out to be the army. Roger Southall, Professor of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand