MASERU – At exactly 19:07 on Wednesday evening, three vehicles rushed out of the Maseru Correctional facilities.
Two turned right into Kofi Annan Road towards the city centre, sirens blaring and blue lights flashing.
The speeding convoy wove in and out of evening peak period traffic as weary drivers hurriedly made way for the VVIP cargo inside the lead van.
Reporters gave chase to the speeding cars but tailed off at the traffic lights at Pioneer Mall.
The convoy beat the red lights, signifying the importance of their passenger.
It was ’Maesaiah Thabane.
Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s third wife had just been freed from remand prison on M1000 bail and was being spirited home to State House to escape the not-so-swanky prison cell she had occupied the night before.
The murder accused ’Maesaiah has etched her name in local folklore as the first sitting First Lady to be hauled before the courts to answer to such a heinous crime.
’Maesaiah – the burly and rambunctious Mokhotlong native – is also facing an attempted murder charge for allegedly wounding Thato Sibolla in the same early evening incident in which her love rival, Lipolelo was murdered.
The 2017 cold blooded killing for the next three years riveted Basotho as it became a classic case of whodunit.
The police were mum for three years, stocking fears the case would become another unresolved killing, a common occurrence in Lesotho.
Then out of the blue, Police Commissioner Holomo Molibe dropped a bombshell last month naming first; the PM as a person of interest in the murder probe, and later ’Maesaiah.
Thabane vehemently denied any role in what he has termed the “senseless” murder of his estranged wife and offered to leave power as both political allies and opponents cranked up pressure for him to resign.
His wife escaped a police dragnet and slipped into South Africa.
On Monday, she surrendered herself to police after Public Eye last week revealed she had been hiding in Ficksburg.
After that, events moved rapidly.
On Wednesday morning, she appeared before magistrates and was formally arraigned, completing her fall from a moderately respected First Lady to an awaiting trial prisoner.
Magistrate Nthabiseng Moopela read the charges to the ashen and unusually subdued ’Maesaiah.
“’Maesaiah Thabane, it is said that you are a 42-year-old Mosotho lady of Makhoakhoeng in Maseru (Abia) under Chief Mamakhoakhoa Thabane, is that you?”
“It is so,” Thabane replied.
“My dear, you are facing two charges here, first you are accused in charge one with contravening section 40 (1) (2) of the penal code Act no 6 of 2010, in that upon or about the 14th day of June 2017, and or near Ha Masana in the district of Maseru, it is said that you performed an unlawful act or an omission with the intent to cause the death of Lipolelo Thabane by shooting her with a firearm.
“Secondly, you are charged still under the same law. This time around you are charged for contravening section 22 (1) of the penal code Act no 6 of 2010 read with section 109 of the same act, in that upon or about the 14th day of June 2017, and at or near Ha Masana in Maseru district, it said that you the accused did unlawfully and with intent to kill, fired a gunshot at one Thato Sibolla and inflicted upon her gunshot wounds and thereby contravened the provisions of this section, you are charged for an attempted murder of Thato Sibolla,” Moopela said.
The magistrate then asked Thabane if she understood the charges before advising her on her rights to bail and to legal representation of her choice.
She further told Thabane that the magistrates do not have jurisdiction to grant bail in murder and attempted murder charges and advised her to apply for bail in the high court.
’Maesaiah, clad in a reddish seshoeshoe dress but devoid of her usual poise, was whisked down to holding cells through the magistrates’ entrance after the less than 10-minute hearing.
This drew both celebrations and despair from the gallery.
Two unidentified women traded insults after one of them was heard saying: “Finally, she will get the taste of what jail is like, there is justice for Lipolelo.”
This sparked a harsh retort from a ’Maesaiah supporter, evidently an All Basotho Convention (ABC) member.
’Maesaiah, who has divided public opinion since she elbowed Lipolelo out of Thabane’s boudoir, has been likened to former Zimbabwe First Lady Grace Mugabe.
The acerbic wife of the recently deceased Zimbabwean strongman, Robert, who presided over the collapse of that country from a model state to a global pariah
brazenly interfered in government affairs.
Like ’Maesaiah, Grace had a notoriously short fuse and took aim at anyone who crossed her path.
In late 2018, the ABC’s Butha-Buthe constituency MP Motlohi Maliehe accused the ’Maesaiah of usurping the authority of her husband to appoint and fire ministers and other top government officials.
In early 2019, ’Maesaiah shocked civil servants when she paid surprise visits to a couple of ministries, including Home Affairs, seeking explanation for poor service delivery.
In a video that went viral on social media in the aftermath of the incident and has received a second wind since her legal troubles started, ’Maesaiah can be seen having a go at Finance Principal Secretary Motena Tsolo, accusing her of refusing to release the money to fund stalling government projects.
While this is going on, Thabane is seen in the background wearing a tracksuit and smiling.
’Maesaiah has also courted controversy for allegedly beating people up.
She reportedly had an altercation with a worker at Maseru Private Hospital in 2018 and another one with a waitress at the Oxbow Lodge in Mokhotlong.
During a recent media briefing at State House, ’Maesaiah accused the press and social media bloggers of being quick to judge her “without first trying to ascertain why I do the things I do sometimes”.
“I wish people could take time out to understand me and why I react the way I do. People get on my wrong side all the time but when I react, I am the bad guy,” ’Maesaiah said.
’Maesaiah has also come under fire for sowing divisions in the ruling ABC by influencing Thabane’s decisions.
In late 2019 at the height of ABC internal squabbles, while giving an address at the 80th birthday party she had thrown for her husband, ’Maesaiah told Thabane to not give people the ABC on a silver platter.
“I was there with you all the way. I saw how you struggled to build this party from the ground. You will not give it to any man or woman on a silver platter”.
’Maesaiah’s relationship with Thabane’s daughter ’Mabats’oeneng Hlaele, has also soured sharply with the latter indirectly accusing the former of killing Lipolelo.
“At least I did not have to kill anyone to get married,” Nkoya said in a WhatsApp voice note that went viral in December 2019.
Thabane’s recent attempts to remove Molibeli have also been blamed on her, with Molibeli not helping the speculation when he declared that the Prime Minister tried to boot him out of office as a result of the police investigations into the Lipolelo murder.
Despite failing to convince Acting Chief Justice ’Maseforo Mahase to deny ’Maesaiah bail, police believe she is not be trusted and is a flight risk.
Deputy Commissioner of Police and Head of Criminal Investigations, Paseka Mokete said when she was in hiding, police established that she had been getting support from high profile citizens, including ministers and businesses.
“It is the discretion of the court whether to grant or decline a bail application, we will oppose her bail application by advancing our arguments but at the end of the day, it’s the court that will make its own decision,” Mokete said at a press conference before the bail hearing.
DCP Mokete announced that they have a very strong case against ’Maesaiah, adding if the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Advocate Hlalefang Motinyane declined to press ahead with the case, it would be prudent to allow a private prosecution, in the interests of justice.
At least eight more suspects could join ‘Maesaiah in the dock.