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Security forces should not be used to solve political conflicts: EU

FOREIGN missions in Lesotho are anxious to see peace and stability prevail in the country even it remains under lockdown as part of measures to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19).

While there is a general consensus that the lockdown is necessary to fight COVID-19, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s moves to prorogue parliament from 20 March 2020 to 19 June 2020 have elicited strong protests from his own All Basotho Convention (ABC), fellow coalition partners the Basotho National Party (BNP) and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL).

The three parties were joined by the opposition Democratic Congress (DC) to launch a successful Constitutional Court application to nullify the prorogation of parliament. This and moves by the police to arrest Police and Public Safety Minister Lehlohonolo Moramotse have escalated the political temperatures in the past few days. Mr Thabane went as far as illegally ordering the army onto the streets to deal with his party rivals and all those he accused of destabilising his government.

Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli claims Mr Thabane had even ordered the army to arrest him, a development that would have plunged the country into chaos. Diplomatic missions such as the European Union (EU) have long supported efforts to achieve lasting peace and stability in Lesotho.

Lesotho Times (LT) senior reporter Ntsebeng Motsoeli engaged the EU ambassador to Lesotho, Christian Manahl (CM) for his views on the unfolding developments in the country. Below are excerpts of the interview.

LT: We understand that the government briefed development partners on the latest security situation after Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’ televised speech calling on the army to deal with threats to his government and the subsequent deployment of soldiers on the streets.  Was the EU part of the meeting and is EU satisfied with the government’s explanation for the army deployment? 

CM: Yes, I attended the meeting. The government informed us on the legal implications of the lockdown and state of emergency, as well as on the role of the Council of State in taking decisions related to restrictions imposed to counter the threat of COVID-19. The government also informed us about the situation of citizens of the Kingdom of Lesotho stranded in South Africa and efforts to address their concerns.

Furthermore, the government informed us about investigations against the Commissioner of Police and about the troop deployments last Saturday in Maseru. The government also reassured us that it will fully comply with the court decision regarding the prorogation of parliament, which was declared null and void. I am quite satisfied with the explanations.

LT: EU has been a firm supporter of the SADC-led process to reform the security sector and improve civilian-military relations. Do you think the show of force by the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) in the streets of the capital on Saturday is in line with democracy?

CM: We are told that the deployment of troops in the capital last Saturday was aimed at ensuring stability in what appeared, in the wake of the court decision on the prorogation, as a tense situation.

Luckily, nobody was harmed and the troops returned to the barracks. I do not see this deployment as a threat to democracy, as the troops did not threaten any of the democratic institutions.

LT: What do you think of the recent incidents where LDF members were involved in the violation of human right by torturing people who contravened the lockdown regulations?

CM: Human rights violations committed by members of the security forces are always deplorable. I trust that the high command has investigated these unfortunate incidents and taken corrective action.

My understanding is that these were isolated incidents committed at the beginning of the lockdown when there was perhaps a lack of clarity on the restrictions, and on the ways to enforce them. Luckily, we have not heard of any new abuses in recent days.

LT: Mr Thabane has lost the support of his own party and some of his coalition partners who have now agreed a deal to forge a new government which excludes him. These are lawful processes being done within the confines of the law/constitution. Is it proper for him to unleash armed forces on his rivals when he himself came to power in the same manner of striking a deal with Monyane Moleleki’s Alliance of Democrats before a no confidence vote to oust the Democratic Congress-led government in 2017?

CM: There is no need for a motion of no-confidence. Prime Minister Thabane has announced his intention to retire at the end of July 2020, or earlier. When he made this announcement, he gave a relatively long timeline for his departure, and this was certainly because his party, the ABC, had not yet found an agreement on his successor.

Luckily, the vote in the ABC caucus on 22nd March 2020 has overcome this obstacle: Minister Moeketsi Majoro has been chosen to become the next Prime Minister when Mr Thabane retires. I understand that there is also broad political agreement that the Prime Minister shall be afforded a dignified departure.

Hence, the stage is set for an orderly transition, which should happen as soon as possible but taking into account the legitimate interests of all key stakeholders, and that of course includes the members of the current coalition. I am aware of the deal between the ABC and the DC and I am told that it is, in principle, open to other interested parties. A broad coalition would be desirable, even necessary, as some of the constitutional provisions of the reforms require a qualified majority in parliament, and the reforms should be a priority for the government together of course with tackling the threat of COVID-19.

Which is not only a threat to people’s health, but also to national economies and livelihoods. I trust that things will fall into place along the lines mentioned before and that we shall soon have an efficient and effective government that focuses on the urgent priorities of the Kingdom.

Like many countries these days, Lesotho faces very serious challenges, and it is time that the main political and social forces jointly address them. They should leave the political squabbles and the settling of scores behind and cooperate in good faith in order to overcome the present crisis related to COVID-19, and to work together for a better future.

LT: Opposition parties are of the opinion that Mr Thabane abused his power to intimidate the courts and his political rivals by making the Saturday statement ordering the army to deal with his rivals. They say he was bitter because he lost the prorogation case. What is the EU’s take on this?

CM: In a meeting on Sunday, the Foreign Minister (Lesego Makgothi) reassured the diplomatic community that the government fully respects the court ruling on the prorogation of parliament which was declared null and void.

Parliament will resume its work as soon as the current difficult circumstances permit. I am not aware that the Prime Minister questioned the court decision in his statement. The government may have expected a different decision but the separation of powers has to be respected.

LT: What does the European Union (EU) make of Mr Thabane’s decision to try and use the army commander to execute the dismissal of the police commissioner?

CM: I have seen on social media a “show cause” letter sent to the police commissioner. I am told he (Commissioner Holomo Molibeli) received the letter and he challenged the intention to suspend him in court. Let’s wait and see what the judiciary will decide, the matter is currently pending and we should abstain from commenting on it.

LT: Some development partners recently held trainings for security agencies to capacitate them with conflict resolution capabilities. Based on recent events, do you think that the trainings have yielded the desired results?

CM: I am aware that France sent a team about a year ago to train selected LDF members for peacekeeping missions because I was asked to facilitate contacts with the high command. Unfortunately, for reasons I am not privy to, no contingent has been deployed yet, in spite of the constant search by the United Nations for troop contributing countries. I hope that once the acute phase of the COVID-19 threat is overcome, troops from Lesotho can be deployed in peacekeeping missions.

LT: Lesotho’s political turmoil has always been characterised by the involvement of the security agencies and the latest development occur during the multi-sector national reforms process. How will moves to set the army against the police affect the reforms process?

CM: It should not affect the reforms. The security forces are working together well and their leadership has been very clear about staying out of political conflicts.

In the reform recommendations, there are proposals regarding the procedures for the appointment of senior officials, including the commanders of the security forces. It would be advisable to “freeze” all appointments, suspensions and dismissals until these reform proposals are implemented and the proper procedures put into place.

LT: Development agencies like EU have in the past expressed displeasure over the use of security agencies to settle political scores. What is the EU’s attitude towards the PM’s statement, especially where he orders the army to deal with his political rivals?

CM: The EU is a political union which entertains relations with all countries (and regional entities) in the world, and development cooperation is one part of our external relations. As a matter of principle, we believe that political conflicts, whether within or between states, should not be solved by force but by dialogue and compromise.

The role of the security forces is to maintain law and order in the case of the police, correctional services and national security, and to protect the borders in the case of the army. They should strictly abide by the constitution. Unfortunately, security forces get drawn into political conflicts when mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflicts fail, or when politicians try to take advantage of their influence on the security forces.

The reforms dialogue has identified this as a major problem of Lesotho and has made recommendations to address this. The security forces have already done a lot of work among themselves to improve relations, and they are working together very well. The specific reform recommendations should now be implemented swiftly.

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