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THE disarming of All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader Thomas Thabane’s bodyguards by members of the police and army last Saturday has ignited a lot of debate in the country. Dr Thabane’s bodyguards were disarmed by members of a joint armed forces platoon while the former premier was on his way to Qacha’s Nek for an ABC rally scheduled for the next day.
Police spokesperson Superintendent Clifford Molefe has since issued a statement saying the operation entailed searches of vehicles and passengers, adding that various types of guns were found.
Supt Molefe said the guns were confiscated on suspicion they were used in violation of gun control laws.
But the police statement has since been dismissed by many commentators arguing the operation was “an ambush” orchestrated by the government against Dr Thabane to intimidate and demoralise him ahead of the 3 June 2017 snap elections.
In this interview, Lesotho Times (LT) reporter, Lekhetho Ntsukunyane, speaks with former Maseru District Administrator and retired Major-General Sam Makoro about the incident and related issues. Retired Maj-Gen Makoro is now an active member of the ABC and he was present when events unfolded at the scene last Saturday.
LT: You were among the people accompanying Dr Thabane when his bodyguards were disarmed by the police and the army last Saturday. Can you narrate how the events unfolded?
Makoro: On Saturday 25 March 2017, we were heading to Tsoelike constituency, in Qacha’s Nek, to prepare for the ABC rally scheduled for the following day. We then bumped into what I would call a surprise operation or ambush by the police and the military at a place called Matholeng within Qacha’s Nek district. I can’t say that was a roadblock because I didn’t see elements of a roadblock in it. It did not look like what we know an ordinary roadblock to be like. Members of the army were actually the ones who stood in the middle of the road and stopped our convoy. Other soldiers were seated in vehicles nearby, while others we seen obviously taking cover around that area. It was a platoon of heavily armed police and army officers. A platoon is about 24 to 30 armed forces members. They stopped the vehicles, confiscated the guns from all the bodyguards together with their licences. They said they had suspicion the guns were used in violation of the laws. It is a very unfortunate incident that happened against the ABC leader, obviously meant to harass and shame him. This is the former prime minister and former leader of the opposition in parliament we are referring to. He is elderly on top of it. And all this happens at the time we are expecting the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Oversight Committee to be keeping an eye on Lesotho ahead of elections.
LT: What do you suspect was the actual plan of the police and army in conducting this operation?
Makoro: I guess whoever authorised this operation was doing that to cause some tension ahead of the elections. His or her intention is to frustrate our elections preparations. A million-dollar question that comes into my mind is that if the police have always had a suspicion that the guns used by Ntate Thabane’s bodyguards were used in violation of the law, why wouldn’t they summon those bodyguards to any police station in Maseru because all these bodyguards stay in Maseru? We also understand the police had earlier summoned these bodyguards to Police Headquarters in Maseru to inquire about the same guns. They were interrogated about them and released. Why didn’t the police authorities confiscate those guns there and then? Why did they have to wait for this particular day to come together with the soldiers to cause a scene? This leaves so much to be desired. These people in government are actually out to harass Ntate Thabane.
This incident confirms the parliamentarians were right to pass a vote of no confidence on Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili and his government. Ntate Thabane and two other opposition leaders, namely Chief Thesele ’Maseribane of Basotho National Party (BNP) and Mrs Keketso Rantšo of the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL), recently came back from exile where they hid because their lives were threatened with guns. You can imagine how Ntate Thabane felt on Saturday when he saw all those rifles in the hands of police and the army pointed at him. His fundamental human rights were violated.
Following the unfortunate assassination of former Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander, Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao by his army colleagues, Defence Minister Tšeliso Mokhosi announced this happened because there was exchange of gunfire between the army officers and General Mahao, resulting in his untimely death. I suspect the same plan was initiated by authorities to similarly assassinate Ntate Thabane. The expectation was that the bodyguards would resist cooperation with the army resulting in the crossfire. But then the target was going to be Ntate Thabane. People were going to die in that incident if things went according to plan. It is obvious now why parliamentarians showed that Ntate Mosisili was incapable of leading the government. Ntate Mosisili proves that in his everyday administration.
LT: How many guns were actually confiscated here?
Makoro: Ntate Thabane’s bodyguards normally use pistols, not big guns. The guns were not as many as being said by some people. The big machine guns were in the hands of the police and the army themselves. Again, my conclusion is that some authorities want to frustrate the general preparations for elections. They want to cause some tension ahead of the elections.
LT: If I may take you back a bit, you have argued this was not a roadblock but an ambush. Can you elaborate?
Makoro: In a genuine police or military roadblock, there are supposed to be stoppage signs a few meters away from the roadblock itself. This is done so that anyone driving towards the roadblock will notice that in time and prepare his or her vehicle to stop. The signs should also show whether the roadblock is being conducted by the police or the army. You will see a few officers, often just two of them, standing-by with their rifles. Not as many as the ones we saw on Saturday. In an ordinary joint roadblock, soldiers do not take cover somewhere. They stand just around the area as a stop party in case some people try some trouble. But in an ambush, that’s where some people hide the same way we saw some soldiers taking cover during the incident. There were no stop signs that I have mentioned above. This is why I classify that operation as an ambush, not a roadblock.
LT: The police have issued a statement this week saying they suspected the guns were used in violation of laws governing the use of guns in the country. In your knowledge as a former senior military officer, what constitutes violation of laws in the use of licensed guns? And what is the procedure followed in prosecution?
Makoro: The main reason people are allowed by law to carry licensed guns is such that they can be able to protect themselves, others and their property. I have never heard of even a single incident where these people who guard Ntate Thabane are accused of any violation in relation to their guns. These bodyguards are professional people. They are former soldiers and police officers. They are in no way criminals. Their job has been to protect themselves and the people around them, as well as their properties. But in this particular case, they were protecting the former prime minister and leader of the main opposition party ABC; a senior citizen of this country for that matter. Even if the reason why they confiscated these guns is genuine, I doubt the approach they used was right. I maintain, this was an ambush meant to either assassinate Ntate Thabane or alternatively harass him the way they did. Other vehicles that passed through the so-called roadblock were not even searched, including mine, to show only Ntate Thabane was the target. If this was a genuine roadblock, every other vehicle that passed through there would have been searched.
LT: How has this incident affected the preparation for elections in terms of campaigns by political parties in general? Will these coming elections be free and fair under the circumstances?
Makoro: I doubt the coming elections will be free and fair under circumstances like this. We can’t have incidents like this during the elections period. It is a menace to democracy. People should be afforded freedom to campaign. They should be protected equally. But what we see is totally different. Those who are in power are abusing state resources for their political gain. They use state media all by themselves, for instance, and they refuse to cover and broadcast events of the opposition parties. They also take advantage of the power they have over the national security agencies by influencing the armed forces to ill-treat the opposition. Already there are signs of intimidation on opposition parties ahead of the elections. Fortunately enough, the nation can see what’s going on and judgement day will soon come when the people will cast their votes for a better leader.
LT: How did the Saturday incident affect your rally on Sunday?
Makoro: To be honest, the incident did more good than bad to our rally on Sunday. Because of instant reports on social media about the incidents, a lot of ABC supporters and ordinary people reacted by attending the rally to witness what happened to Ntate Thabane. Some people would not have attended the rally had it not been for the incident. Sometimes when bad things happen, they pave way for good things to come. The incident changed the entire face of the rally positively.