Instability and the fate of democracy



Nthakeng Pheello Selinyane

I APPROACH this subject with both a chuckle and trepidation. Chuckle because a mischievous voice in my head says, “There we go again. Another cliché…like ‘The poverty-stricken, land-locked nation of Lesotho, characterised by ethnic-cultural homogeneity and perennial, internecine strife, etc’”.   trepidation because in philosophical terms there is anything linking, let alone binding, the two notions instability and democracy isn’t as easy as bar-talk, and definition of the terms itself might be more vexing than thought in everyday conversation.

I wish to adopt a grasp of instability as existence of obstacles to role players and institutions discharging their functions of competitive selling of ideas of self-enhancement to social groups, associating and publicising themselves for these purposes, and universally agreed and accepted modes of aggregation of the same for concretisation of the mandate for management of national affairs and for shepherding thereof.

This conception of the phenomenon of instability takes care of extra-state political processes, i.e the political sphere outside the state, or broad politicking; and the relation of this sphere to politics of managing national affairs, i.e the formation and running of government and its effect on citizens’ condition. If one thinks of instability in the image of the so-called black-on-black apartheid-spurred third-force violence that consumed Gauteng and the Natal midlands in transition in South Africa, the post-election violence in Lesotho in 1998, Zimbabwe in 2008 and Kenya in 2007 leading to latter’s International Criminal Court referral, then Lesotho doesn’t have a running history of such.

Instead, instability should mean existence of factors that constitute hurdles to smooth prosecution of the political game as defined above. Instability shouldn’t mean deviation from mainstream expectations, as long as the turn of events fall within the spectrum of outcomes contemplated, even if it a minority tendency. In this delineation of the field, the fact that two thirds of the six elections held between 1993 and 2017 (if we take 1998/2002 polls as one) qualify as snap elections doesn’t confer them with a status of index of political instability. That the Constitution provides a procedure for early termination of parliament means these are not altogether extraneous to the national political process.

Democracy is a relation of state to community. The most easily and widely embraced conception of this is the conferring and regular renewal of mandates of rulers through open, free and fair elections; and the ability of the system or political elites to resolve the problems that arise in the subsistence of this process. It is clear that the factoring of “free and fair” into the understanding of the phenomenon carries connotations of stability. I am now notorious for preferring a “relational” definition of democracy as a moment when a government choses ministers to address the needs of the community, and being open and answerable in going about the same. It is now generally or at least widely accepted that elections aren’t the endpoint of democracy.  Those who would prefer a minimalist grasp of democracy that limits the obligations of the state to ensuring citizen freedoms so that they go about their business without hindrance in a way that allows each to maximise his well-being from their talents, creativity and material endowments, also tend to view it as their obligation and mandate to make and enforce laws that keep the natural bounty gifted the entirety of the community by providence in the hands of a few privileged and powerful, and actively patrol the rest of members of the population out of such areas of entitlement.  The predilection of government here, and therefore the quality (or type, content) of democracy here, depends on the balance of social or strength of influence of societal groups.

We now have a truism that Lesotho has always had peaceful elections, including the notoriously ill-fated 1970 polls, only unfortunately followed by friction tending towards, or involving violence around the acceptance of the final results. There are conflicting accounts of the 1970 turning point; with some emphasising that then prime minister Leabua Jonathan declared a state of emergency and stayed on in power when he appeared to be losing in the declared results, while others emphasise that he was compelled to so act by the eruption of violence accompanying the ambushing and forcible seizure of ballot boxes being transferred to the central election management centre.  The raids on police stations in attempts at forcible takeover of government by the main opposition Basutoland Congress Party (BCP), despite signature of an all-party agreement to annul the re-run the polls, would seem to have played into the hands of the state, whose clampdown sent many party leaders and activists into foreign hiding, while others joined the partnership-of-the-willing Interim National Assembly (INA)which ran until the sham elections of 1985 (derogatively dubbed Likhetho Mohlolo, meaning mysterious elections).

The elections returned an exclusive Basotho National Party (BNP) parliament as the main parties boycotted, only for the army to overthrow the government in January 1986 and run the country until 1993.  These eventuated amid a BCP guerrilla campaign under the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) which was unmasked as housed, trained and deployed by apartheid South Africa; and an environment of legal prohibition of political, a transformation of the ruling party local structures into tentacles of the state dispensing “development” preferentially and also acting as security nodes; while armed party youths churned out by the Lesotho Youth Service (LYS) training centre ran amok, terrorising the citizenry indiscriminately, and posing as a virtual parallel army.

The 1993 polls results, which gifted the BCP a 100 percent 65-seat victory in a winner-takes-all race, were rejected as doctored by the BNP as the new main opposition. And from the cracks in the BCP ranks though its tenure, internal voices emerged threatening to spill the beans on the “doctoring”.

But to-date there has been nothing to write home about. The party failed to forge a stately identity and broke up in June 1997, succumbing to a parliamentary coup where then prime minister Ntsu Mokhehle and a majority of legislators formed the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and declared themselves government, thereby galvanising the first ever Congress-National opposition alliance cobbling the remaining BCP with extra-parliamentary parties on BNP and Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP). This was done in a campaign to reclaim the BCP government by petitioning the King and street protests, setting the stage for a showdown in the next elections of May 1998, with expanded 80 constituencies.  The campaigns of these parties, and the activities of other non-state actors to convert government to their liking, reflected a relatively open political space, despite the stony silence of the state in the face of all these.

The other two parties had contrived their pre-existing pact to campaign for restitution of the monarch King Moshoeshoe II who had been exiled to England in 1990 by the military regime, which left the matter in limbo in handing over power of 1993; only for the BCP in government to invoke their opportunistic spite for the palace and shrug the matter off as “a problem of the soldiers”. This probably explains the palace coup of August 1994 when the forcibly installed crown prince King Letsie III announced an early dawn dissolution of government citing the prime minister’s violation of his constitutional obligation to report government business to the Crown. The dissolution was eventually reversed.  One spin-off of the standoff was a National Dialogue Conference of September 1995 which significantly resolved electoral management and model reform. These outcomes are indicative that the constraints to political development of mature processing of hiccups to the workings of the political system can be overcome easily where the protagonists are ready and willing to trade offers for the common good.

The 1998 election, run by the first Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), was cancelled after a SADC commission concluded that material to test the validity of its bitterly contested results (where the LCD scooped 79 of 80 seats, and the BNP got 1) was so compromised as to render futile the exercise, while also strangely pronouncing that the published results couldn’t be said to reflect anything other than the electorate’s wishes. The violent opposition protests, weeks-long occupation of the capital city’s centre, seizing of state vehicles and offices, the failure of police and defiance of orders by the army to evict them; and the sulking refusal of both the beleaguered new government and its opposite to receive and transact the report in Maseru and abroad respectively, prepared the ground for a government-invited South African intervention whose repercussions included the burning of three towns including the capital.  This presented an invidious conjuncture where one might laud the security forces for refusing to intervene in a political saga, yet it would be remiss to expect of them to exercise discretion in this sphere which is not their call.

A South African-prescribed transition time-table consigned the report to the wind, and the Interim Political Authority (IPA), whose decisions were by the IPA Act of 1998 to be and translation into parliament resolutions and laws as necessary, were mostly disfigured by government, forcing the transition to 42 months.  It produced a new Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP) electoral model – where the 80 constituencies were retained, and to them was added 40 proportional representation (PR) seats allocated to parties on a compensatory basis according to their gains in the constituency ballot, expanding the National Assembly to 120 seats.  This was thanks to government quashing a unanimous parties’ agreement for parliament to be divided into equal numbers of constituency and PR seats.  The model’s maiden application in the 2002 elections produced a 10-party parliament, with only one new opposition party born of the LCD getting one constituency.  If anything these developments point to the duplicity of the national political players, a penchant for brinkmanship where little else matters – including national sovereignty and integrity and physical survival of symbols of civility and nationhood – if they stand in the way of the elite’s hunger for trophy of power.

This was seen as calming the political storm as there was no notable challenge to outcomes; but the ruling LCD contrived a distortion of the model in the 2007 elections, where it faced a new challenge from its fresh splinter the All Basotho Convention (ABC). The LCD formed an electoral pact with the National Independent Party (NIP), which enabled extra members to the LCD to enter parliament as PR legislators in NIP colours.  With the ABC emulating the LCD in a parallel pact with the Lesotho Workers Party (LWP), the outcome precipitated a squeezing out of smaller parties, prompting a court challenge by smaller parties led by the MFP demanding a redistribution of up to 21 PR seats from the LCD-NIP arrangement, which a proper application of the model allocated elsewhere.  While declaring itself incompetent, the court said nothing was wrong with pacts in law. It simultaneously ruled that the IEC could prosecute the redistribution of seats; and subsequently the IEC resisted all supplications from complainant parties in that direction. After admitting wrong-doing, and pointing out it wasn’t a lone offender, the ruling party and government shut the door in the face of SADC’s eminent mediator and former Botswana president Ketumile Masire.  The calling of the appeal court out of season to enable the LCD to get a legal approval of this pact, and subsequent elevation of the case judge to head that court, left tongues wagging as to its role in politics.  Not for nothing has media commentary never missed intermittent mention of his later remark in another case that the ruling party was too big to implode while courts stood by.

This impasse seemed to sent the country right back to the cliff-hanger political crisis of  1997/98, and ushered a partisan marriage of the state elites and the armed forces for persecution of the opposition.  While the ruling elites were playing for time in the courts and the Masire process in respect of the parliamentary seats saga, they also opened a new front of setting the army on the main opposition ABC, kidnapping, torturing, and chasing into exile its leading activists, some of whom died abroad. The head of the Military Intelligence, Tlali Kamoli, spearheaded this campaign on the eve of a fateful snap election of 2012 which threw Prime Minister Mosisili out of power after 14 years. But his legacy remained to rock the first coalition government.  Dr Mosisili flatly refused to investigate the claims of human rights abuses gathered by international fact-finding missions.

As he was fending off the MFP-ABC-led menace, Dr Mosisili was also facing a perennial storm of jostling for succession in his party while he seemed in no hurry to leave. The contenders, using wings of the youth league, found easy pickings in the widespread and deepening, ostentatious corruption of the state bearers and functionaries, which had cost the party substantial electoral fortunes over the years.

In February 2012, Dr Mosisili repeated Dr Mokhehle’s feat by striking out with a minority of 47 out of 120 parliamentarians, including the Speaker who led the process by reading out the defectors’ names beginning with herself; and declaring themselves government (later under his new Democratic Congress). This was a perfect rape of the constitution which was “regularised” by a strange maiden vote of confidence in the prime minister the next day. This transmutation of a minority into a majority government overnight was made possible by the 2007 rape of the MMP electoral model: the LCD legislators trading as NIP whom the rules prevented from migrating with their mates during minority floor-crossing which the Speaker unconstitutionally declared government, were on hand to lend their number to a confidence vote.

If the 1997 conjuncture couldn’t be easily faulted for its majority, despite omitting to procedurally declare the demise of one Mokhehle government, and then heralding the birth of another – this one was a clear and boorish violation of the supreme law. Ironically, when Dr Mosisili himself was toppled in a legendary Democratic Congress no-confidence resolution in December 2016, he chose to refuse handing over power to a nominee for his replacement (his former deputy Monyane Moleleki of the new Alliance of Democrats), calling it a mystery ambush of a people’s mandate. In his recalcitrance, he also by-passed the Council of State which is established to advise the King to either dissolve parliament or nominate a continuing premier in the circumstances; and peremptorily advised the Crown to dissolve parliament and call a snap election which is due in two weeks from the moment of writing.

In executing this drama, he also announced a third unscheduled election since 1998, and bitter rival Thomas Thabane headed a new ABC-LCD-BNP coalition government, which Dr Mosisili cursed as doomed to fail for its incongruence of the National and Congress elements in it, despite his NIP-LCD past of previous parliament.

One element of continuity between Dr Mosisili’s last government and the three-party government was the army’s initially subtle, and increasingly blatant and verbalised dislike and disrespect for the ABC leader and premier.  The ideologues of Mosisili’s DC taught the army through media of its “independence” and custodianship of the constitution against encroachment of the ruling politicians. And when, only two years later, the prime minister announced a change of command, the army staged an attempted coup, while the DC and the co-ruling LCD cheered resistance, contending the Congress section of government didn’t consent to the change.

The new commander together with the premier fled assassination attempts and remained under South African guard for the duration of the 28 February snap elections which were called under SADC auspices to resolve the crisis.  Dr Mosisili who managed to form government after the polls, still refuses to prosecute the excesses of this period and the murder of the Thabane-appointed commander Maaparankoe Mahao by the army upon the reinstatement of Kamoli under his new government.

This is despite a SADC commission of inquiry of police, military, and forensic experts putatively invited by the government to get to the bottom of these troubling questions.  As in the aftermath of the SADC interventions or assistance mission of 1994 palace coup,  the 1998 elections crisis, the 2007 parliamentary seats debacle, and now the 2015 tragedy – the Lesotho state elites have presumed upon foreign assistance to help it with avoiding its obligations to its partners in the political game by playing according to the rules, and only turned to invoke its mandate of upholding national sovereignty when it has to similarly oblige the international agency of national problem resolution.

This has constrained the growth of democracy as the ruling groups are also always at each other’s throats as witnessed by the serial splits of ruling parties and their worsening performance in elections.  The indeterminate predilection of the institutions like the courts and the electoral commission also does not do much to strengthen democracy.

The “capturing of the state” evident in the Public Accounts Committee reports, and rehashed in many state party splits, also tends to vitiate democracy, along with constrictive laws like the Meetings and Processions Act which still leave the exercise of freedoms of association and movements in the hands of security agencies.  The inaction of good institutions like the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO), and non-committal to good covenants like the National Vision, makes for a mixed picture of good institutional frameworks and high-sounding compacts, which renders the national political landscape essentially unstable because it skews the chances in favour of the powerful and deviant.


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