Govt vs army: A dangerous cat and mouse game

Lesotho Times
14 Min Read
Lesotho's first Prime Minister Jonathan


Lesotho's first Prime Minister Jonathan
Lesotho’s first Prime Minister Jonathan

PERHAPS this has been our democratic curse, for ever since Lesotho was introduced to democracy, the country has been marked by a never ending turf war between the government and its military. The country has experienced a string of coups and coup attempts that have ended in blood baths and brought the country to the brink of a full blown war.

In 1986 the then prime minister of Lesotho, Leabua Jonathan, a great grandson to Moshoeshoe I, was overthrown in a military coup, spearheaded by the then army general Metsing Lekhanya, which  culminated in the country’s seven years of military rule from 1986 to1993. Within that period, there was yet another a coup, within the military itself, that ousted Major-General Lekhanya inaugurating in his stead Colonel Elias Tutsoane Ramaema as the head of then ruling military council.

Although one can never be sure of the events that lead to the 1986 coup, it came amidst great turmoil. It all started in 1970, with Lesotho having gained independence four years earlier. There had been a great political rivalry between the two principal political parties in the country; the Basotho National Party of Chief Jonathan and the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) lead by Ntsu Mokhehle.

Elections were held that year with the BCP winning the majority of the votes. However, Chief Jonathan would not admit defeat. From then on, chaos could only ensue. In a desperate bid to hang on to power Chief Jonathan allied himself with South Africa as seen in his adherence to a number of collaborative policies of the then apartheid regime.

The alliance, however, would not last. Perhaps in a bid to serve a bigger political ambition, he turned around to shun the very oppressive policies he had collaborated with. Chief Jonathan then switched sides to lend support to the African National Congress which, at the time, had been fighting against the oppressive tendencies of the apartheid regime. It is not surprising then that the South African government retaliated. It gave its support to the military wing of the BCP and the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA); based in the republic at the time subsequent to a failed coup by the BCP in 1974. The LLA in the coming years would carry out a series of nuisance raids in Lesotho.

The SA government carried its own military raids into Lesotho following suspicions that the BNP was harbouring ANC stalwarts. Noteworthy was the 1982 raid which resulted in a number of deaths and is still commemorated in the country to this very day. Furthermore, the SA government imposed a blockade as well as diplomatic, political and economic sanctions which would all prove crippling to Lesotho’s developmental prospects. The situation was dire. Perhaps it is this turn in events that prompted the military coup that soon followed, or maybe it was the eminent unrest owing to the BNP’s own establishment of a military wing; no one knows for sure.

Lesotho finally returned to civilian rule in 1993. However, it was not long before the army made demands for pay increases. The move sparked internal fighting within the military as many officers did not see eye to eye. Lesotho sought international intervention to the crisis which had already claimed five lives. A Commonwealth-brokered peace accord saw the disarmament and return to barracks of the feuding factions. Not long after, a government promise of a probe into the events that led to the factional squabbles within the military sparked further instability. Certain government ministers were abducted while one was killed when he had resisted. There were other isolated acts of defiance to follow. Action had to be taken and government then convened a commission of enquiry. The commission was tasked to “look into the events that took place, to investigate the role of the [R]LDF and its officers in those events and to make recommendations regarding the future composition and command structure of the  [R]LDF”.

In August of 1994, the focus was, for a brief moment, shifted from the government-military rivalry to the monarchy. The shift followed the King’s announcement of his dismissal of the then prime minister and to suspend the constitution. Civilian rule was restored a month later.

A significant split in the ruling BCP that followed saw the breakaway faction; the LCD, lead government for the reminder of the term leading up to elections of 1998. The   LCD won with an overall majority. However protests ensued over claims that the election were rigged. Instability could only be the order of the day. The LCD government, fearing an eminent coup, sought the military intervention of South Africa.

The intervention of the South African Defence Force (SADF), later joined by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), was bloody and left the country in ruins. The wanton destruction of buildings in Maseru’s central business district painted a horrid picture of the aftermath which would later be termed as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) invasion. The political parties agreed to the formation of an Interim Political Authority (IPA) whose mandate was to oversee the transition to a fresh election, which by unanimous consent of all parties concerned, would be in 2000. Perhaps a more pressing issue the IPA was faced with was the introduction of proportional representation model within the existing first past the post model. The venture was met with resistance by the ruling LCD. As a result, the elections were delayed well into the second quarter of 2002. Meanwhile, a team from the SADC forces had remained to assist in professionalising the LDF.

The 2002 elections came and went. What was historic was the peace that followed the elections. This was to break a long and a rather best forgotten status quo of political party feuding and unwelcome military involvement to add fuel to an already raging political wild fire. The 2007 elections that followed five years later did well to quell the fears and answer to an ever recurring question in Basotho minds; “will the peace last”?

Five years on, Basotho’s fortunes seemed set to blossom as in 2012 not only were the elections a success, they portrayed a never seen before tolerance and maturity in the political sphere. It is worth noting at this point that no one party won an outright majority. The Democratic Congress led the pack with 48 seats, the All Basotho Convention was in second place with 30 seats while the LCD and BNP followed in third and fourth places with one attaining 26 seats and the other 5 seats respectively.  The three smaller parties went on to form the never seen before coalition government meanwhile stripping the leading DC of the almost certain victory. The DC was not going to be sore losers either, they peaceably accepted their new role as the opposition in His Majesty’s government.

The years of peace and tranquillity proved to be but a dormant phase for the turmoil that had wreaked havoc in the country over the years. The instability was to rear its ugly head when the tripartite coalition government failed to settle its differences and to lead the country in unison. The events leading up to the ultimate collapse of the coalition government are well documented. What is worth reiterating here for the purpose of this article is the subsequent involvement, put rather mildly, of the military in civilian affairs. We are tempted to ask at this point, will it ever end?

The supreme law of the land, of which section 146 thereof establishes the LDF, states that there shall be one such force for the maintenance of internal security and the defence of Lesotho. The subsequent legislation, the Lesotho Defence Force Act of 1996, merely mimics the constitution as far as the legal duties of the defence force are concerned.  The Act is however elaborate on issues such as, institutional organisation of the force, command structure, discipline and so on.

I have to say that until this point I was inclined to view the military as an unruly horse that could not be tamed. My sudden change of heart, for reasons that will become vivid later, is thanks to Khabele Matlosa in his comprehensive and insightful work titled From a destabilizing factor to a depoliticised and professional force: The military in Lesotho. Similar to my viewpoint, Mr Matlosa acknowledges that the government-military divide has been rife. He, however, goes on to conclude that, on a positive note contrary to my initial inclination , despite the seemingly robust divide, remarkable inroads have been made towards ensuring a depoliticised and professional military backed and answerable to civilian democratic government.

On top and above the legislative safeguards already covered, he notes that the institutional framework, to wit, the establishment of the Ministry of Defence. Of course it’s through the Ministry of Defence the military becomes accountable to civilian rule in that the commander of the LDF is required to account to the minister in charge of defence in his day to day running of the military. Secondly, defence policy, articulate policy creates a road map along which military functions are to run.

As I indicated earlier the writer managed to sway my thoughts. The initial view was that the military is unruly and needs taming. Perhaps we don’t differ as much, as I did indicate that we are unanimous in the government-military divide. Convergence seems to lie then as to why the military is unruly. My initial and rather ill-informed view that the military was neglecting its defensive mandate to pursue political ambitions out of malice and hunger for power is laid to immediate rest when he attributes at the least, most of the military’s misdeeds to political manipulation. He says for example that during the period between 1970 and 1986 “the BNP exercised stringent control over the armed forces and constructed the forces after its own image in order not only to ward off external threat but also to emasculate internal opposition”. Assuming his findings to be true, I am swayed to share his sentiments.

If political manipulation is the cause for the unruly nature of this horse then it follows that to tame it we best rid it of unhealthy political subordination. I say unhealthy because we still need healthy subordination to render it answerable to the electorate.

That being so, the status quo, that the prime minister being head of government is also the heard of the ministry of defense thereby also eligible to the chairmanship of the military council, is a development that cannot and should not, as the paper recommends, be maintained.

The incoming coalition government would best be advised to look into this matter urgently. The military ought not to be a political tool, if not by the rule of law, then by the harsh lessons of our history as a nation.

Mnikelo Kili.




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