A strong state that acts negatively and coercively, imposing censorship, restricting the expression of grievances and opinions and viewing citizens as objects to be controlled rather than as partners, is a vulnerable state. (Gary T. Marx)
Recent developments in Lesotho about actions of police have brought focus on the state of policing in democratic societies. We have been witnesses to a police force which has no capacity to investigate political crimes ending up virtually outsourcing its investigations; we have seen a police force turning on itself in order to satisfy political masters; and we have now seen the development of a hunter police force which goes house to house beating up students whose only crime is that they wanted to demonstrate about failure by the government to release their allowances.
It must be understood however that police tend to reflect the dominant ethos inculcated from the top. If the government and the top leadership of the police view society as an enemy rather than a partner such police will drift towards that dominant ethos from above. When society decays and the rule of law deteriorate, it is foolish to expect that democratic policing can survive. Amongst the ethos that define democratic policing in society is a police force that (a) is subject to the rule of law embodying values respectful of human dignity, rather than the wishes of a powerful leader or party; (b) a police force that intervenes in the life of citizens only under limited circumstances; and (c) is a police force that is accountable.
It is thus not the job of the police to kidnap some of its own and make them disappear in order to satisfy the political goals of the political bosses; it is not for the police to determine whether people can use a bus or walk to a place of their choosing. The worst they can do is to protect places which they may fear are being damaged or could be damaged. Democratic policing involves negotiations and accommodation with the public rather than using unnecessary force. None of the above ethos are present in the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) as it’s not styled. We have seen the police becoming more militarised and also more unprofessional and unaccountable. LMPS has adapted to the political and security chaos that Lesotho has degenerated into in the past few years. An analysis of some of the unsavory developments within the police will illustrate the point. They involve undisguised unprofessionalism and subordination to the current political climate which does not embrace accountability for all those who are aligned to the present government.
For starters it was obvious that the Lesotho police are either subordinated to the political masters or they lack capacity to investigate crimes which have a political flavour. After the cold blooded murder of Lt. General Mahao, the police failed to do basic preliminary investigations like securing the crime scene and trying to secure physical evidence. If they had, but failed like previous police management, that would have been understandable. To their credit former Police Commissioners from Mlakaza to T’sooana attempted to have LDF suspects investigated for murder, high treason and other serious crimes. They failed to have suspects before the courts, but they documented their attempts. What remains is that the international community and future generations will still be tasked with ensuring that those suspects face trial even after thirty years as the Argentina and Chile cases have illustrated.
The best police work in relation to that murder was ironically made by the South African police. Giving evidence before the Phumaphi Commission, Ballistics expert Major Chris Mangena, who attended a forensic examination on the body of Mahao in Bloemfontein provided an unchallenged scene of incident reconstruction as well as a bullet trajectory determination. The testimony was detailed and credible. It once and for all discredited the concocted evidence of one Sechele of the LDF who claimed that there was an attempt to point a weapon at the members of the LDF who had surrounded Mahao when he was killed. After Major Mangena’s professional presentation of the evidence, there came a bambling Mapola a member of the LMPS who later became head of the C.I.D. He had no clue about the investigations, but mumbled about some civilians who are being investigated for crimes linked to those of the detained soldiers. Since his evidence was not organised and helpful, Phumaphi summarily dismissed him from any further bambling in front of the Commission. It is no wonder that the Commission accepted the evidence of Major Mangena and recommended that the LMPS investigations should be resourced – a code for being provided with skilled and professional personnel in their investigations of the murder of Mahao.
Another incident which needs elaboration and analysis is the disappearance of Police Constable Khetheng in the hands of Hlotse Police in March 2016. Constable Khetheng who was based in Mokhotlong Police Station, was arrested by four police officers based in Hlotse in broad day light at Sebothoane in Leribe where he was attending a traditional feast. The police involved were ‘Mabohlokoa Makotoko, Molapo, Ntoane and Mphutlane whose ranks I don’t have. The police through the Minister of Police, answering a question in Parliament later denied having arrested Khetheng but claimed that he was seen around the police station and was nowhere to be seen after lunch when they wanted to talk to him. However evidence by Police Constable Makotoko in a sworn statement reveals that either the Minister deliberately lied to Parliament or he was fed lies by the police.
Constable Makotoko obtained an interim court order forbidding the police to transfer her from Hlotse to some remote police station when she refused to sign a false affidavit about the disappearance of Constable Khetheng. In her founding affidavit, she narrates that she and her other colleagues above, went via Sebothoane after being informed that Khetheng was likely to be found there. They found him and put him at the back of a police van with two other suspects. On their way to Hlotse, Inspector Mofolo, their supervisor called the driver of the vehicle instructing him not to enter the police premises with Constable Khetheng. Since they were hungry they went straight to the Police Station and were stopped from entering the premises by Inspector Mofolo who took over the keys of the vehicle. After locking up the other two suspects in the cells, they found that neither Inspector Mofolo nor the vehicle were around. That was the last time Khetheng was seen.
Perhaps the key to understanding the issues around this disappearance and the fear by ordinary policemen/policewomen is best characterised by Constable Makotoko’s affidavit challenging her transfer to a remote police station. She swears:
…I fear for my life over everything. I am best protected at Hlotse police station over any other area in the country. I wish not to disclose my security arrangements. In Leribe I live within a community that knows the proper story behind the disappearance of policeman Khetheng. I do not wish to disappear myself and at the same time I cannot lie to conceal the disappearance of a fellow police officer.
In an application for habeas corpus by Khetheng’s family, Constable Makotoko in oral evidence stuck to this story. It is obviously up to the courts to decide who is responsible for Khetheng’s disappearance, but this shows that we have a police force which has turned on itself. It probably had long turned against police ethos in a democracy. It is a privatised police force which serves the political bosses rather than the public.
Finally, I turn to the militarised hunter police force which has emerged in Lesotho. All this week beginning 05/09/2016 there has been turmoil within and outside the National University of Lesotho. As we learned, a large number of students have not received their living allowances making it difficult for those who live outside campus to even pay their rent. Students decided to go to the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) to express their displeasure. They hired buses to go to Maseru about 35 kilometres away. About six kilometres from Roma their buses were stopped by heavily armed police who forcibly stopped their travel to Maseru. The following day students began to march to Maseru and again they were confronted by heavily armed police who liberally used teargas and bullets to disperse them. Several students were injured and were treated in hospital. Wednesday brought about a new aggressive tactic by the police. They went to the surrounding areas of the University, going room to room where students were. Students were liberally beaten and some had to seek hospital treatment.
No attempt was made to arrest any student who could be suggested to have been breaking the law. The hunter police were unleashed to beat up students. Like hunters, the smell of blood from those who were brutalised enlisted more beating and hunt for others. Thus the ethos we associate with police like rule of law have disappeared.
I reiterate that even in cases where the political situation is bad some means are simply too detestable to associate with policing. Kidnapping and taking the law unto themselves are demeaning to any police force even under conditions of a dictatorship. In spite of pressures to the contrary police are not expected to act in an explicitly political fashion. When opponents of the regime in power operate within the law, it is police obligation to protect those. Democratic policing is professional and politically neutral. These are the values that the Lesotho police no longer have.