Some of the major characteristics of emerging or dying dictatorships are the instilling of fear amongst the populace. This fear can come overtly or covertly, but the consequences are the same. Often the combination of the two is more common. For fear to be effective it tends to be preceded by either a demonstration effect or by deployment of both heavily armed police and military personnel amongst the people. While the former is more dramatic in that people can be beaten up or killed for showing dissent, the latter is creeping and is accompanied by public statements by the organs of the state, that those who refuse to submit to the emerging order will be crushed. In all above cases, the intention is to bring about submission to the dictatorship. Often the wishes of the dictatorship prevail until people can no longer bear the oppression.
The reasons for trying to silence the populace are many, but the key one tends to be the slide in popularity of either the new regime or the old one. The problem however is that crackdown results in fear and not love and support. This is always the achilles heel of all fragile regimes. They fail to distinguish fear for support. As it totters to collapse, the Mosisili regime has from the beginning utilised all the above. For some time, people were fearful and only appealing for international intervention, but of late, resistance has been the order of the day. Indeed you hear less and less reliance on the SADC action, though the decision of SADC based on the Phumaphi Commission has provided the rallying point.
Waiting for International Community
After the narrow victory in the 2015 elections which allowed Mosisili to cobble together a coalition government of seven political parties, the crackdown began almost immediately. The coldblooded murder of Lt. Gen. Mahao; the detention and torture of over sixty soldiers; the exile of other soldiers; and the exile of all leaders of opposition political parties represented in parliament provided the demonstration effect to quieten the populace. This was followed by strident statements at governmental level and some of the political parties allied to the government to the effect that the killers and torturers would not be made accountable since they were involved in an approved operation. Threatening statements from the regime were a common feature. These combined with the regime’s demonstrated effect that killing and torturing are not excluded from the actions it can take, for some time brought about fear to some in the public. It was not unusual in the early days of the Mosisili regime to hear people saying they are opposed to the regime but are afraid. “re ea it’sabela” in Sesotho.
These however did not quieten the people since SADC had established a Commission of inquiry headed by Justice Phumaphi from Botswana investigating the circumstances leading to the murder of Lt. Gen. Mahao, former Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force. Evidence heard by the Commission exposed the grand plan to impose a civilian led military regime in Lesotho. It was shown how the Military Command actively perpetrated and protected crimes committed by the army including attempting to assassinate the then Prime Minister by exploding bombs where they thought he was; attempting to take over the government; and murdering several civilians throughout the country. But more importantly, the inquiry heard how the Commander placed the Prime Minister’s military guards as spies who would inform him about the movements of the Prime Minister and whom he has and plan to meet. They were thus not body guards but spies who would be useful during the intended takeover of the government.
The Commission identified the people in the military who committed all those crimes and have to be subjected to court processes. On completion of its work the Commission’s report became the rallying point for all the opposition political parties and civil society organisations. In particular the decision that Lt. Gen. Kamoli who had been reinstated as Commander of the army when the new government came to office in 2015, be removed as Commander, and that the soldiers suspected to have committed serious crimes should be suspended pending investigations of their alleged transgressions.
The major drawback of the opposition parties and civil society organisations over the period was to place their hope on SADC’s decisiveness to have its decisions implemented. In that, they were disappointed. The cries of wives of the detained soldiers and those in exile did not move SADC to be as decisive as its decisions seemed to indicate. It is probably only with European Union and United States pressure that Kamoli’s commission as Commander was finally terminated in December 2016. A combination of public demonstrations by many sections of the people and foreign pressure ensured that, as Kamoli conceded in his last date as Commander, ensured that Kamoli was removed from the command. However the pressure has not been enough to ensure that the suspects in all the crimes specified in the Phumaphi Report are suspended. On the contrary they have been promoted to higher ranks and some of them skipping ranks contrary to the promotions policy. Some of them have actually been promoted twice since 2015. The intention is very transparent. This was meant to ensure a firm grip at all levels of the officer corps by tainted personnel who would ensure that any future government which wants to institute reforms and accountability would find it difficult to do so. Moreover, the government has tabled an atrocious bill in parliament termed the Amnesty Bill. This Bill was meant to exonerate all the crimes committed by military, police, correctional services and civilians who committed those in their official capacity or on their own frolic from 2007 till 2015. It is the most undignified law that any government could think of. It is however unlikely to muster the necessary votes in parliament.
The unexpected revelations during the sittings of the Phumaphi Commission and the rallying cry to implement the decisions of SADC resultant thereof probably forced Mosisili to intensify the clampdown which unfortunately brought into the surface the resultant resistance which had been building up over the past eighteen months. The crackdown has been multifaceted but for purposes of this paper only the most significant will be dealt with.
Mosisili’s crackdown and resistance
The clampdown began with an intensified intimidation of the media. The regime spent a lot of time on government controlled media including television, commonly known now as “TV Monga eona” in Sesotho. This essentially means that it does not serve the public but its owner. It a propaganda tool which most people now ignore. The message was largely to berate the private media and the opposition. Indeed the former Minister of Communication, Letsatsi, went so far as to write to some of the radio stations giving them warning that they would be closed if they continued to air things which he was against. But more bizarrely Letsatsi announced that government was preparing to close down social media which, unlike the newspapers and radio stations had become the major source of news and exposure of the goings on in the government.
Particular focus of the government and its supporters at times was an attempt to intimidate Lesotho Times, a weekly Lesotho newspaper. Both the editor of the newspaper and the reporter were arrested and threatened by a joint police and army team for having written a story about negotiations between the government and the then Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force to award him M40 million as a separation payout. They demanded that those journalists should reveal their sources. They refused and consequently the reporter skipped the country having heard that a worse fate awaited her. Over and above the threats by the government, some of the loose tongue members of one of the parties in the seven party coalition headed by Mosisili went on radio to threaten to have both the U.S. Ambassador and the editor of Lesotho Times killed. True to his word a few days later, the editor was ambushed and shot as he entered his residence after work mid 2016 and is still recovering from his injuries. In a normal country threats like those would have lead to a criminal charge. Ramat’sella is still roaming around and making more threats to whomever he thinks does not support the regime.
This did not diminish the resistance against the policies of the regime. One of the first signs of resistance was a demonstration organised by the wives and children of the detained and exiled soldiers under the banner of”Breaking the Silence”. It was a rally which attracted large crowds revealing that people have overcome fear. At the end they narrated their suffering and determination to speak at every possible forum about their husbands/fathers in detention and exile. The size of the gathering must have shocked the regime because from that time onwards it became more difficult to get permission from the police to organise any march.
Three important marches took place almost all of them after court orders had been granted by different groups protesting against corruption and also lack of implementation of the SADC decisions after the Phumaphi Commission. The civil society organisations were all concerned about the lack of action since it would endanger Lesotho’s eligibility under AGOA. The last of those marches attracted even more public participation despite the intimidation which included over flight of army helicopters over the marchers. Almost all opposition political parties supported the marches. The public has now discarded the fear of the regime which could have been expected after its display of brute force to impose its will on the people.
With limited success to discourage people to go for demonstrations, and with the courts increasingly ruling in favour of the organisers, the latest tactic by the regime is to track the process of providing permits for demonstrations and also to harass and intimidate the organisers of such marches.
In the context of diminishing number of supporters of the regime in and out parliament as a result of Moleleki’s feud with Mosisili, (former Deputy Leader of the DC lead by Mosisili) leading to an ultimate split of the party with each controlling about 50% of Members of Parliament, crackdown intensified. In an unprecedented move police stopped Moleleki’s supporters from going to the airport to welcome him from an overseas trip. They deployed riot squad in all routes leading to the airport. The police put up roadblocks, deployed all types of riot gear in all directions to the airport. However Moleleki’s supporters together with others from the opposition bared the obstacles. While most did not reach the airport, some did. They thus created a convoy to Moleleki’s house where he addressed them and the media. His message was that he wants to distance himself from the divisive Mosisili stance that those Basotho who follow the congress tradition and beliefs are like oil and water to those who stand for the nationalist course. The crowds in Moleleki’s courtyard belonged to all political streaks in Lesotho. The crowds also included plainclothes members of Military Intelligence (M.I.) who were taking pictures of those in the compound. Machesetsa Mofomobe, Spokesperson of the Basotho National Party (BNP), who was also in that crowd, took pictures of the M.I. people who were in the crowd.
It is this incident which sparked the resistance against the establishment. A few days after that incident, Mofomobe was arrested in the evening. While his lawyers went to court for him to be released, Maseru witnessed massive spontaneous reaction by people who wanted him to be released. Throughout that evening until he was released at midnight, roads leading to the Police Headquarters were barricaded by angry opposition supporters who burned tyres until the early hours of Saturday demanding Mr Mofomobe’s release. Skirmishes with police were everywhere in the city centre. This was only the beginning of the protests. When Mofomobe went to court on Monday following, he was accompanied by hundreds of supporters who were incensed that he had been arrested over the weekend. Their chants were very clear. The suspected that he would disappear in the hands of the police who have increasingly become political pawns in the on-going struggle for power in Lesotho.
Machesetsa was then charged under the Lesotho Defence Act. He was charged with inciting public violence for allegedly taking Military Intelligence (MI) pictures at the Moleleki’s residence in Qoatsaneng, Maseru on 28 October 2016. It is alleged that he promised to post the said photographs on Facebook wall owned by a mystical person by the name of Makhaola Qalo who publishes secret government documents. Alternatively he was charged with obstructing army officers from performing their jobs. The case was adjourned for further investigations.
Two things are pertinent here. First, Mofomobe is not a soldier. Charging him under a military law is curious to say the least. Second, it is clear that people who fought for his release did not flinch when confronted by armed police. Fear no longer predominates their thinking. Mofomobe himself has not retreated in his opposition to the Mosisili regime which no longer has the necessary numbers in parliament after losing about 50% of his party’s members of parliament to Moleleki led Alliance of Democrats (AD). He was arrested again but released without a charge this time for defaming high ranking police officers and inciting violence. The fact that he was not charged in indicative. It was only to distract him and other organizers of another protest march which ultimately did not take place.
In a similar manner Thuso Litjobo, leader of the youth movement of the newly formed political party led by Moleleki was arrested and driven far away in a rural police station. The reason for moving him away from Maseru was ostensibly to ensure that protesters do not accompany him to the police station as they have been doing whenever Machesetsa is arrested or detained. This did not succeed because crowds got to that police station to ensure that, as they said, that he does not disappear. Following a habeas corpus application by his family, Litjobo was presented to the High Court and released since there was no reason as the judge ruled to have arrested him. When he was finally charged with criminal defamation of a senior police officer whom he had accused of dabbling in politics, the case was dismissed. The central issue here was that the police were merely trying to arrest Litjobo, Machesetsa and others as a way of disorganizing people who were organizing a march to demand that parliament should be re-opened after it was closed sine die without Members of Parliament voting on it in terms of known procedure.
In order to illustrate the depth of the attempt to intimidate the people through use of police the incident which took place in the offices of the Lesotho Times a few days ago is indicative. Machesetsa Mofomofe and other organizers of the march demanding the reopening of parliament were stopped by people describing themselves as police in vehicles with no blade numbers and not in police uniform. They claimed they were looking for him. He responded that he was there for an interview and can only attend to them after such interview. In any case Machesetsa went on to ask for their identification and they refused to produce such identification. With the crowds increasing Machesetsa left them there to continue his interview with the newspaper staff. He told them that without identification he was not sure whether they wanted to kidnap him or not. A police spokesman, Molefe, later argued on radio that police without identification must still be obeyed. Molefe seems to have lost some of his training even though he is one of those who are repeatedly been promoted of late.
Increasingly people seem to have overcome fear. They crowd police who are trying to detain and arrest people just to divert attention from the bigger issues of rule of law and governance. Crowding the police in whatever place they try to take their victims seems to have been the preferred mode of operation of the populace. Resistance is now intensified. People no longer just hide or run away from agents of the state. They resist them.