The recent defeat of the militia through an electoral process has been long and bitter. Now that the new government has assumed office, it is appropriate to reflect on how the changes came about. The changes, I argue, happened in spite of the key institutions of state and beyond which in other countries tend to play a critical role. Ours are moribund and not fit for purpose.
From the beginning of 2014, Lesotho was under a full-fledged army rebellion which initially was publicly spearheaded by one junior officer by the name of Hashatsi who dared the government to remove then Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF). On the face of it, this was a rebellion led by Hashatsi, but in reality it was a rebellion by Lt. General Kamoli and most of his Command who were initially in the background. When carefully looking at the situation however, important signals came to the fore which indicated that Hashatsi was just the face of the rebellion. Military ethos would never have allowed a junior officer to be in rebellion without consequences. The rebellion was shown for what it was when the following signals came to the fore. The suspension of Brigadier Mahao, who had dared reprimand Hashatsi, for challenging the prerogative of the government of the day on matters of who is placed in Command.
Shortly after that, the rebellious troops attempted to assassinate both the Prime Minister and the Commissioner of Police by placing bombs in a place where they thought the former would be and at the residence of the Commissioner of Police. They both survived. A chain of events took place culminating in the attempted coup of August 2014. The rebellion was not quelled, instead a snap general election was held in February 2015 with the hope that it would provide the solution to the broader political and security challenge. That was delusional as events were to prove.
After the 2015 snap elections, the rebellious troops and their political allies were triumphant. The Democratic Congress (DC), led by Pakalitha Mosisili cobbled a seven party coalition to form a government. This government however, as developments were to show, was just a front for the military which ruled. It is the same rebellious troops which now called the shots. They managed to have a puppet regime which condoned all their crimes and also rewarded them handsomely with promotions and other goodies. Since this junta had no self control and the government was just a means of providing them with cover, it went berserk; killing, torturing and threatening both civilians and soldiers with impunity. International pressure and internal dynamics brought about the collapse of the regime, leading to yet another election in 2017, the third in five years.
The 2017 elections were clearly the most pivotal in modern Lesotho politics. It was a question of either the maintenance of the military backed regime or the election of a government which would be able to confront the rebellious troops which had now consolidated their control of all security structures. It was an election like no other. From the beginning there were fears of violence and rejection of the results by the losers. In the end, the losers were disarmed by international pressure from being spoilers, but the militia which had emerged, remains. This is where the challenges of the new government begin. How it handles that will determine how long it stays in office.
Post-2015 politics in Lesotho
The triumph of the military rebellion after the 2015 elections began to be felt almost immediately after the formation of the new government. The first step was to remove all the senior personnel who had been appointed by the outgoing government. This was more pronounced in the security sector where both the Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) and the Commissioner of Police were relieved of their Command. Simultaneously, a major crackdown was taking place in both the LDF and the police. Those in the army who were suspected of having been loyal to the old order were being haunted out. Within weeks after the elections, more than sixty soldiers were abducted by hooded men and taken to the torture chambers at Setibing Military base. The level of depravity of torturers was only to be revealed later in several cases of habeas corpus in the Lesotho High Court.
Reporting on its mission to Lesotho, the Southern African Litigation Centre graphically detailed the situation of the detained soldiers. Once abducted, the “soldiers were typically taken to Sedibeng, in an area that is particularly cold and where it often snows in the mountains”.
Here the detainees were forced to walk on ice, sprayed with cold water or thrown into a frozen and dirty stream. Wet and in the cold, they are then tied to a pole and hooded overnight whilst being insulted and asked for information. While tied, some detainees are beaten and gun shots are fired around them.
Two cases of severe torture were reported in Lesotho Times dated 18 June 2015, when two soldiers were brought to the High Court. Bleeding as he was sitting in the dock, Col. Posa Stemmere narrated his ordeal to the judge that he had been tortured by his captors since his arrest and was in pain.
I feel pain all over the body; from head to toe. My feet and hands are swollen, while my hands are also numb from the assault while in detention. Sometimes urine comes out of my body unexpectedly, and my feet are so weak I cannot stand for long.
Col. Stemmere then told the court that he has bruises all over the body from beatings by his captors, and now had “endless headaches” due to the torture.
He also told the judge that he had never seen a doctor since his arrest, and requested that he be allowed medical examination and treatment. A similar story was narrated by Corporal Motlatsi Letsilane , who also told the judge that he felt cold all over the body. “My feet are swollen and numb” said Corporal Letsilane, “I also have endless pain on the right side of my ribs and a running stomach”, he concluded.
The problem, he added, started after his arrest and detention by LDF members on 25 May 2015. “I am not well. My feet are swollen and numb. I also have endless pain on the right side of my ribs and a running stomach,” he said.
As part of the strategy to clampdown and eliminate all potential sources of resistance, the new military backed regime waylaid Lt. General Mahao who had just been stripped of his Command of the LDF in favour of Lt. General Kamoli, at Mokema. He was murdered and taken to Makoanyane Military Hospital where his body and clothes were washed, partly to hide evidence on details of his killing. Announcing Mahao’s death, Minister of Defence, T’seliso Mokhosi claimed that the former was killed while resisting arrest. This as was demonstrated by Major Mangena of the South African Police, in evidence to the Phumaphi Commission was most implausible.
It is under these circumstances that SADC dispatched a Fact-Finding Mission to Lesotho, headed by South Africa’s Minister of Defence and Veterans Affairs. Mapisa-Nqakula decisively reported about the deteriorating security situation in Lesotho, contradicting the Lesotho government’s version that all is well in the country. Amongst the critical issues raised by the Ministerial Fact Finding Mission Report (SADC/DTS/3/2O15/3) were the following observations:
(i) the security situation in the country is tense as evidenced by the flight of the opposition leaders, the alleged ‘mutiny plot’ and subsequent investigations and the death of Brigadier Mahao;
(ii) concern about the impending court martial and its consequences on the political and security situation in the country;
(v) general concern about the role of the army;
(ix) the King’s serious concern on the deteriorating security situation in the country, especially the role of the army.
At the centre of Mapisa-Nqakula’s mission report were issues about the overall behaviour of the military and its reach into the political process. The army, as can be observed, was seen as the cancer in the body politic of Lesotho.
The setting up of the Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Mphaphi Phumaphi from Botswana was a direct response to the Ministerial Fact-Finding Mission. It is the report of this Commission which has provided the basis for the resistance against the military backed regime in Lesotho. The central issues to understand about Lesotho politics after 2014 therefore have been laid bare. It is about the army rebellion which was not suppressed and ultimately took over the state with politicians providing political cover. The resistance to the junta; the fall of the military regime; and resultant election battle are part of a continuum of the struggle against authoritarian rule in Lesotho.
The resistance against militia
Lesotho’s peculiarities are many, but its most frustrating ones are the following:
a) Weakness of our judicial system. Lesotho’s constitution places the judiciary at the centre of our human rights protection. In addition, Lesotho is a signatory to the United Nations Convention against torture. Unlike in any other country with democratic constitutions, the Lesotho courts are docile. I dare say that they are either captured or unable/unwilling to stand for victims of human rights. The moment, a case against the militia or its associated institutions goes to court, you can always predict that the militia will win or just get a slap in the face. There are so many cases which were launched by individual soldiers who were detained at the maximum security prison for their freedom. In all those cases, the perpetrators were allowed to continue with their crimes. I am not only talking about issues of substantive law, but also those processes and the reputation of the courts. Three examples will be sufficient:
In several habeas corpus applications the report of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre points out that soldiers indicated that many had been “snatched” or “kidnapped” by heavily-armed, masked men dressed in black “with no clear procedure of arrest, no arrest warrants, and no clarity of charges under which the arrests were effected. But more importantly, the Centre pointed out that “…. masked militia armed with AK47s were reported as having ‘forced themselves’ into the judge’s chambers to accompany the detainees and sustaining a heavy presence in court in a manner intended to intimidate the judiciary”
As part of the habeas corpus applications, as already pointed out earlier, Colonel Stemmere, sitting in the dock bleeding and in severe pain, was handed over to his torturers with a lame order that he should not be tortured. But more importantly, in court, the only thing the court thought appropriate, was that he should be given some tissues to wipe off his blood. This is a case where we should just give up on the court system in Lesotho until it is reformed.
Several cases of policemen who have been dismissed by the militia and court orders for their reinstatement have been ignored. Notable cases are those of policewoman Makotoko who was based in Leribe and testified that Policeman Khetheng who has disappeared was arrested by her and handed over to Inspector Mofolo. She went further to testify that she was instructed to lie in the Attorney–General’s offices. She refused and was later dismissed for some other matter. She has not been re-instated. Another policeman Motebang Ramahloko whom the court has ordered his re-instatement, has not. He was dismissed after inquiring about the case of his murdered uncle in the 2014 attempted coup. There is usually no point to try to take offenders for contempt cases. The courts in Lesotho tend to negotiate with those who violate their orders if they are powerful. They don’t enforce their orders.
b) Weakness of the law society. Another body which constitutionally has power to protect the law is the Law Society. Since the turmoil began, the Law Society has gone into hibernation. We saw murder being committed and the institutions which are supposed to protect the rule of law not enforcing the law; we saw soldiers being tortured and vivid images of them in court bleeding; we also saw hooded men with AK 47 rifles in court intimidating lawyers and families of the detained soldiers; we have also witnessed the blatant intimidation of lawyers representing the detainees, some of whom ended up in exile. The Law Society has been conspicuous by its absence in those issues about protection of human rights, its members and indeed the protection of the constitution as part of its mandate. It is clearly an organisation which has no value to the nation as a whole.
c) Inadequate advocacy institutions. Lesotho has not been blessed with credible media and advocacy institutions. When the crisis came to the fore in 2015 it was always difficult to get the news, analysis and advocacy. Perhaps the exception was the Civil Society institutions which began to champion the cases of the detainees and other people who were harassed by the militia. In essence institutionally, the battle against the militia was only consistently fought by the civil society organisations which assisted the spouses of the detainees.
What the above indicates is that the battle for freedom was largely an individual one rather than institutions. You had individual lawyers, family member and their associates and international organisations which played a critical role leading to the collapse of the Mosisili regime. Of particular importance, were the families of the detained, exiled soldiers; it was also the families of those in the army and police who had been murdered by the militia. The #BreaktheSilence campaign where the spouses, children and allies of those families rallied in Maseru to raise the spirits which were beginning to lag was particularly important in the resistance.
The 2017 elections and beyond
The passing of the vote of no confidence on Mosisili and the subsequent calling of the June 2017 elections signalled the beginning of the end of the militia which had terrorised Basotho over three and half years. Even before the elections were held, it was obvious that Mosisili would lose those elections since he had squandered the goodwill he had by aligning himself with the rogue elements in the LDF. A few months ago, in one issue of lesothoanalysis, I had predicted that Mosisili would lose those elections and would probably not even emerge with the figures allowing him to be the Leader of the Opposition. There I missed it by one seat. He got 30 seats which, were it not because of defections in his party, he would qualify to head the opposition. It’s good sometimes to be wrong so that your adversaries can have something to talk about.
If Mosisili thought he would win the 2017 elections, it would only be if he believed fairytales which some of his advisors told him. The lesson is that people who will not tell you the truth in order to enhance your ego, are not useful. If they can’t tell you what is wrong, they are of no use to you!
The issue however is that this elections which were like no other, were saved by international pressure. The Head of the SADC Observer Mission was very strong, warning that people who refuse to accept the outcome would not be tolerated. After all the Missions gave the elections an all clear, those who still harboured to reject the outcome of the elections knew that they had to walk a straight and narrow path. This is why the opposition to the new government was limited to pleading with SADC to institute a forensic audit of an election it had already declared credible.
The second key issue which has saved the country from any turmoil has been a robust statement from the South African Minister of Foreign and International Affairs, that the coup in Lesotho would not be allowed. This was the final nail on the coffin of coup makers. They could not sustain the coup.
Beyond elections, therefore, the key issues will be those of dismantling the militia and implementing the decisions arising from the Phumaphi Commission. The robust role of the international community will also be important here in ensuring that the resistance of the militia is broken. I want to be able to see the militia in reformed courts answering for the crimes they committed over the years.