A FRANTIC telephone call from Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli, who was away on official duty, prevented a potential deadly shootout between officers of the Special Operations Unit (SOU) and a heavily armed police team led by Assistant Police Commissioner Beleme Lebajoa.
Well-placed sources within the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) this week told the Lesotho Times that the standoff between the two sections of the police force was triggered by Assistant Commissioner Lebajoa’s refusal to accept Deputy Commissioner (DCP) Keketso Monaheng’s decision to demote him to his previous rank of inspector.
Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Lebajoa was promoted in January 2018 along with the likes of the then Senior Inspector Lefu Ralethoko who was elevated to become senior superintendent. Police Spokesperson Inspector Mpiti Mopeli and Butha-Buthe Senior Inspector Thato Ramarikhoane were promoted to become superintendents. Inspectors Mohlapiso Mohlapiso and Boipuso Monne were also promoted to the rank of senior inspectors.
The promotions have since been challenged in the courts by the Lesotho Mounted Police Service Staff Association (LEPOSA) on the grounds that they contravened the laws governing police promotions because none of the candidates had been interviewed to ascertain their suitability for the promotions or lack thereof.
Police sources this week told the Lesotho Times that last week’s near deadly shootout stemmed from DCP Monaheng’s desire to punish ACP Lebajoa for allegedly leaking a recording of the latter’s mobile phone conversation with Defence and National Security Minister Tefo Mapesela three weeks ago.
In the controversial audio recording Mr Mapesela, who was also Acting Police and Public Safety at the time, attacks the three top security chiefs; Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) Commander Mojalefa Letsoela, Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli and National Security Service (NSS) boss Pheello Ralenkoane.
The outspoken minister accused the security chiefs of refusing to take lawful orders and engaging in actions that he said could collapse the current democratically elected government. He also accused them of “badmouthing” him to Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.
It was on this basis that, according to the sources, DCP Monaheng attempted to demote ACP Lebajoa to his previous rank of inspector as punishment for recording and leaking his telephone conversation with Mr Mapesela.
DCP Monaheng, who is due to take leave pending retirement on 21 June 2019, had remained behind as acting police boss in the absence of Commissioner Molibeli who was away in Namibia on official business.
DCP Monaheng is said to have written to ACP Lebajoa and six other police officers informing them about their looming demotions, a move which they all rejected on the grounds that the former was only acting police boss and they could only be demoted by the substantive boss, Commissioner Molibeli.
In the aftermath their resistance, DCP Monaheng is said to have last Friday ordered a team of SOU officers to change the locks to ACP Lebajoa’s office at the police headquarters and guard the place to prevent him from entering.
But ACP Lebajoa would have none of it. He is said to have arrived with six of his own team of heavily armed police officers in readiness for a gun battle. It only took a frantic minute telephone call from Commissioner Molibeli to order the reversal of the punitive measures against ACP Lebajoa to prevent what the sources said would have been a “shootout and bloodbath” at the police headquarters between the two heavily armed sides.
“In the absence of Commissioner Molibeli, DCP Monaheng took it upon himself to resolve the controversial issue of the police promotions by demoting all the police officers that LEPOSA complained about including ACP Lebajoa,” said one source.
“The demotions did not happen because the six officers refused to accept their demotion letters, saying that Monaheng was only acting in that position and only the substantive commissioner had the right to demote them. And when the mission to demote ACP Lebajoa and his team failed, DCP Monaheng immediately ordered that Lebajoa should be prevented from entering his office.”
Another source added that DCP Monaheng ordered two senior officers to ensure that locks to ACP Lebajoa’s office were changed and the place guarded to prevent him from accessing the office.
“Immediately after the locks were changed, DCP Monaheng ordered SOU officers to be stationed at the door to ensure that ACP Lebajoa did not enter the office. It appears that when ACP Lebajoa arrived at the police headquarters on Friday morning, he was aware of the situation and was ready for a fight. He was escorted by six heavily armed police officers.
“They appeared ready to fight but Commissioner Molibeli’s last minute phone call saved the day. Had he not called to diffuse the situation, ACP Lebajoa’s team would have exchanged fire with the SOU officers.
“It is not clear how Commissioner Molibeli, who was in Namibia, got wind of what was happening in Maseru but he called to get the full details of the situation.
“Upon being briefed by some of the police bosses, he (Commissioner Molibeli) immediately ordered the removal of the SOU officers guarding ACP Lebajoa’s office to allow the latter access as usual. ACP Lebajoa was then given the keys to his office and entered his office.
“He (ACP Lebajoa) also went to ACP Mofokeng Kolo’s office and returned looking calmer upon realising that things had returned to normal. The situation is normal now after that Friday tension was diffused by the Commissioner (Molibeli),” the source said.
Another source told this publication that Commissioner Molibeli had to cut short his Namibia trip by two days when he learnt of the tensions between his officers.
“He returned that very day (Friday) after learning of the tensions at the police headquarters. He was supposed to come back from Namibia on Sunday but he had to cut his trip short to attend to the conflict.
“Monaheng had told Lebajoa to never set foot at the police headquarters but he (Lebajoa) disregarded that and came anyway. Lebajoa entered despite Monaheng’s directive to SOU officers to deny him entry into the police headquarters.
“Upon Lebajoa’s arrival, Monaheng attempted to give him a letter his letter of demotion but Lebajoa told him to give that letter to his (Monaheng)’s mother,” the source said.
Another source said that, “Lebajoa has not known peace since the leaked audio of his conversation with Ntate Mapesela”.
“While the commissioner (Molibeli) has been shielding Lebajoa from any harassment, DCP Monaheng sought to use his (acting) position to demote him as punishment for allegedly leaking his private conversation with the minister.
“But things did not turn out as he (Monaheng) had planned because Lebajoa refused to take the demotion letter. He (Lebajoa) was furious and told Monaheng to give that letter to his (Monaheng) mother. What would he (Monaheng) have done after that? He did nothing and held his peace after realising that Lebajoa was ready to fight.
“At this workplace all of us have guns and he (Monaheng) knew that whoever was first to draw out the gun would be in control of the situation and so he (Monaheng) let it slide,” the source said.
ACP Lebajoa could not comment saying he was in a meeting. DCP Monaheng was not reachable and the person who answered his phone said he was in a meeting.
Meanwhile, a senior police officer this week told this publication that such incidents tarnished the image of the police as well as that of the country.
“It is regrettable that senior police officers behave in this manner as it portrays an image of a lawless organisation. The country’s security agencies have had this reputation of lawlessness and anything that reinforces such perceptions doesn’t augur well for the government’s efforts to reform the security sector,” said the officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.