Is Lesotho a praetorian state yet?
By Sofonea Shale
DISCUSSIONS on the import of the recently-presented national budget have given way to debates about the alleged military despotism with some saying it has not only inflicted fear in the psyche of ordinary citizens but systematically and effectively eroded confidence in the governance system which the military is ironically supposed to protect.
The recent events within the Lesotho Defence Force where some members were taken into custody by the institution were interpreted and explained differently. Some see the manoeuvres as abduction, while others see them as normal military operations.
To some, the acts constitute a violation of human rights, are disrespect and dehumanising, while for others it is part of normal military conduct in similar situations which remains above board. In the highly emotionally charged conversations that have been prompted by this debate along partisan political divides, the question begging a satisfactory response is whether Lesotho has become a Praetorian State?
It is not the intention of this article to provide an answer to this otherwise difficult question. Instead, it simply contributes to the on-going public debate by throwing some ingredients for the more robust yet rational and hopefully helpful engagement in terms of pointing the direction which Lesotho needs to take.
If a dignified family man, who by occupation happens to be a military officer or a soldier, leaves home in the morning to work and never comes back home and his whereabouts are not traceable even the next day, only to be found that the institution for which he works does not only know about his whereabouts but it is the one which keeps him in custody, what would it mean?
Maybe for the soldier this is normal and perhaps in line with his military training which, for all intends and purposes, entails deviating from the normal conduct of civilians.
For example, it is in the military orientation that one should not fear the otherwise ordinarily frightening reality of a war. When demonstrating the ordinary human behaviour of fear, in military orientation it is deemed cowardice.
In terms of the Lesotho Defence Force Act, 1996 soldiers are not expected to be cowards and cowardice constitutes one of severely punishable offences. This means that even it were normal for a soldier to just disappear, it would certainly disrespectful of the rights of members of his or her family who are not soldiers. In desperation, family members ran to the courts which ordered Habeas Corpus (a legal action or writ by means of which detainees can seek relief from unlawful imprisonment). Though eventually the missing family members were brought to court, it was not a swift process.
The LDF officers’ unusual appearance in court and show of force which were deemed by the courts as disrespectful to the judiciary add content to the public concern. When it was reported that some soldiers who were in custody had gone without antiretroviral drugs, then the respect of human rights in custody became an issue.
But what is a praetorian state? The response to this question starts from a logic of Civil-Military Problamatique. Lesotho is by definition a constitutional state which means that all institutions of governance are directed, empowered and limited by the constitution.
The constitution of Lesotho provides for the defence force but it creates it to enhance not to demean the constitutional state. In the constitutional state, the civil-military relations put people above the military but this has been a problem in many states. In this principal-agent power arrangement, it does not really matter whether they are right or wrong in their policy direction, civilians call the shots. If this obtains, then the country remains a constitutional state.
This is not normally easy in states which are mainly characterised as weak states. The military is a distinct discipline that has to remain immune from unnecessary interference from non-military actors. This is why the military takes its operational autonomy seriously. This is normally found in the frequent military rebukes to the so-called meddlesome civilian wiseacres. On the basis of their source of power emanating from their monopoly on the means of coercion and licence to withhold information from their civilian principals, soldiers are better positioned to easily cloak their mischievous deeds in a constitutional state.
A state is praetorian when this equation puts the military on top. For a state to be praetorian, it does not need to be under the military rule with soldiers occupying positions of head of government or ministerial responsibilities. It can be so if there is abuse of the peculiar position of advantage by the military to undermine other constitutional institutions to renege on its duties or act ultra-vires. It is a praetorian state when the military does as it deems necessary irrespective of whether it is in line with the constitution or not.
In a praetorian state, everything starts and ends with the military. If the military likes it, it is done and if the military does not approve it does not happen irrespective of the constitutional provisions. The term Praetorian is an adjective derived from the ancient Roman office of praetor, the commander of a Roman army.
When Defence and National Security minister, Tšeliso Mokhosi told parliament government had uncovered a plot to rebel against authority by some LDF members, he said the operation was part of normal military activities. He went on to warn Members of Parliament, with particular reference to Butha-Buthe legislator Motlohi Maliehe not to make claims without basis.
The caution came after Mr Maliehe claimed in parliament that there were reports that one of the military captives had lost life. While Mr Mokhosi was right, Mr Maliehe was also likely to believe a death rumour especially considering it had followed reports that the soldiers had gone missing from their families which turned out to be true yet the government had remained silent.
If the many things that were reported on social and mainstream media were later proven to be true, would it not be unusual for MPs to equally fall prey when it is said people are dying in custody?
The same message put in the affirmative is that government should be proactive to protect citizens and MPs from misinformation. Perhaps the question that government should respond to is whether Lesotho is a praetorian state or a constitutional state? In addressing this question, it is logical to expect that government should commit to make an investigation on the suspected violation of human rights, disrespect of the courts and other issues related to this operation.
If some military officers made errors and acted beyond the provisions of the law and command, it is equally logical to expect that government will condemn and take necessary disciplinary measures.
It is the reaction of government to this call that will become a response to the main question. This is the test on the civil-military problematique and hopefully the government will come out clean.