Murder, politicians and rebellious soldiers
AS I travel around the world and in interact on social media, the constant question I tend to be asked is why do incidents like the killing of the commander of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) last week happen? People have often also asked why when murder is such a horrendous crime, there is a pattern of protecting the culprits in Lesotho?
Say what you want, this has become a routinised practice in Lesotho where senior military, senior police and politicians, some in uniform, have killed and attempted to hide their tracks. But murder has also tended to be followed by quite a lot of turmoil and subsequent changes at the top. It happened twice during the turbulent years of our never to be forgotten Military Council in the early 1990s; it happened in 2014 as part of an attempted coup; it happened again in 2015 with the murder of Lt-Gen Maaparankoe Mahao; it happened again in March 2016 with the murder of Molakelake Khetheng; and yet again it happened a week ago with the murder of Lt-Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo by some of his underlings.
Murder and attempts to hide its commission have been a characteristic way in which those in office have tended to consolidate their rule. It has however been part of their undoing. During the early 1990s it emerged that the then Chairman of the Military Council, Major-General Metsing Lekhanya, in the dead of night shot and killed a 21-year-old student at the Lesotho Agricultural College by the name of Ramone. The initial strategy was to attempt to order a bodyguard who was with Lekhanya to make a false statement to the police claiming responsibility. This was however blown away by then Attorney-General Maope who advised against that. Maope in a secret letter argued that, Mojakhomo, the bodyguard could not have shot the student because it was Mojakhomo who stayed with Ramone’s female companion and drove her to the police station. “I do not think Sgt. Mojakhomo is telling the truth,” the attorney general said in his memorandum, warning that the bodyguard is likely to break down under cross-examination at a public inquiry and reveal the truth about the shooting.
I am informing you of this matter so that you may persuade Sgt. Mojakhomo to be honest and reveal the identity of his companion that night. It might be better if the truth was told now to avoid any possible embarrassment to the government.
That strategy was abandoned but the inquest was fixed so that Lekhanya was absolved. This was however not before his opponents in the Military Council had attempted to use that to force him out of office. They failed because at least one of them had his own skeletons which Lekhanya was aware of. Colonel Sekhobe Letsie’s involvement in the kidnapping and brutal murder of two former Ministers, Makhele and Sixishe together with their wives two years earlier. This gruesome murder had been hidden until the raptures within the Military Council were brought to the surface by the murder of Ramone by Lekhanya. Having been cleared in a fixed inquest, Lekhanya moved swiftly to arrest Letsie and dismiss three of his allies in the Military Council. Letsie went on to be convicted of murder and served several years in prison.
In both these cases, murder by key personnel precipitated the changes at state level. But more importantly, in both cases, gigantic attempts to hide and protect the murderers took place. Significantly, the two figures that murdered and dabbled in politics, left a culture of impunity and can rightly are labelled as having laid the foundations of the present politicised army and its murderous track record. Not only did both of those emerge from the police into the army, but they left in both institutions, a legacy of unaccountability.
Politicians and the rebellion
Over and above the politicians in uniform as the two examples above have illustrated, and those I will deal with below, we have had a clearly visible and declared rebellion in the army since 2014. This rebellion was fueled by some politicians, and later adopted by the government after the 2015 elections. Let us recall that early in 2014 three related incidents took place which formally brought to the broader public that there was a full scale military rebellion whereby the civilian government had lost control over the military.
Ø One Captain Tefo Hashatsi of the LDF Special Forces, who as we learned later, answered directly to then LDF commander Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli pronounced that the later could not be removed from office by the government as long as he was alive. Rather than to discipline him a senior officer, then Brigadier Mahao was court-marshalled for reprimanding Hashatsi. Hashatsi was to reiterate his stance publicly while giving evidence before the Phumaphi Commission which had been established by SADC following the murder of Lt-Gen Mahao;
Ø In January 2014 bombs by some of the rebellious soldiers were exploded in both the residences of the Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s wife and that of then police commissioner Khothatso Tšooana. This was probably an assassination attempt but it was an ominous sign that the rebellion had taken a new turn;
Ø In March 2014 in a press conference, Lt-Gen Kamoli made it clear that he could not be removed by anybody. He went further to indicate that the attempt by Prime Minister Thabane to cancel the court-martial of Mahao would not stand and prime minister had been ill-advised. This was unprecedented and indicated that the rebellion was now in full force.
The developments leading to the attempted coup of 30th August 2014 were part of the rebellion. It is during that episode that Sub-Inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) was brutally murdered by the rebellious soldiers. We all know that those who killed him were shielded from the courts by the de facto LDF commander who had refused to leave office when he was dismissed. It is the same attitude to earlier ones, where murder has been a political instrument. Just like the murder of Makhele, Sixishe and their wives, Ramahloko’s murder took time to be accounted for, but it is one of the issues which have begun to bring about tumult within the LDF and the cold-blooded murder of its latest commander.
Throughout this period, one sees a consistent hand which aligned with the rebellion. In the past, we could only deduce who the owners of these hands which were stirring up things in the LDF were, but from September 2014 to the present, those who were in the background, came to the fore. Shortly after the attempted coup, the then deputy prime minister Mothetjoa Metsing began to project himself as an alternative prime minister. Thus, after the announcement that Kamoli had been dismissed as Commander of the LDF, Metsing went on television to declare that Kamoli remains as the commander of the force. Indeed, from then onwards, no other person other than him and those in alliance with him were allowed on national television. But more significantly, both Metsing’s party, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) and Pakalitha Mosisili’s Democratic Congress, which had been in power till the 2012 elections, publicly supported Kamoli’s defiance to leave office.
Tlohang Sekhamane who later became Lesotho’s Foreign minister and later Finance minister, went so far as to say that any attempt to remove Kamoli from office would lead to a bloodbath in Lesotho. Thus the invisible hand had now come to the open. As all those things were happening, the opposition parties allied to the rebellion and the LCD which was in government and opposing government, said absolutely nothing about the murder of Ramahloko. Murder had become routinised. It was no longer something that people worried about.
Adoption of the rebellion
The post-2015 elections led to the formation of a seven party coalition government led by Pakalitha Mosisili. One of the first things which the new government did was to remove Mahao as the commander of the LDF and re-appoint Kamoli retrospectively to 30/08/2014 the day he was removed from office. A witch-hunt against soldiers who were perceived to have accepted the new commander in 2014 was begun. More than sixty soldiers were kidnapped, taken to the Setibing army camp and severely tortured. Some of those were later released while 23 were ultimately charged in a court martial for mutiny. The kangaroo court they were being subjected to where the complainants, were now either prosecutors or part of the panel to judge them was vigorously opposed by lawyers to no avail. The court martial however never took place and is on the verge of being dissolved.
This witch-hunt culminated in the murder of the Mahao who had just been removed from office by some of those self-declared supporters of Kamoli. Mahao, was waylaid just outside Mokema, where he comes from and killed. Murder had once again surfaced and the government of the day attempted to hide behind the distinction between individual responsibility and also the responsibility of the state. Sechele, who before the High Court and also before the Phumaphi Commission of Inquiry declared himself as the operation commander, argued that soldiers should not be individually held responsible since they were undertaking an authorised operation. .
The national and international outcry following the murder of Mahao was matched by the silence of the government on bringing the murderers to account. The government’s hand was however finally moved to accept the setting up of an international commission of inquiry. That however did not mean that the government had finally accepted that the rebellion had gone out of hand. On the contrary, evidence by the Prime Minister, his deputy and the Minister of Defence and National Security gave a picture of a government which was trying all it could to protect them. Typical of the answers of the government to the Phumaphi Commission were the following:
Ø Prime Minister Mosisili reluctantly accepted that Mahao was legally appointed but argued that Kamoli had been removed unfairly. He expressed his full confidence in Kamoli but claimed he did not know circumstances of the operation to arrest or kill Mahao;
Ø Deputy Prime Minister Metsing stuck to his guns, that Kamoli was never legally removed from office. On the operation to arrest or kill Mahao, he accepted the version that Mahao was involved in a mutiny and died resisting arrest;
Ø Minister of Defence and National Security, Mokhosi, got a verbal report about the existence of a mutiny and gave authorisation to investigate. He claimed to know nothing about the investigations and the detention of soldiers since those are soldiers “things”. In essence according to Mokhosi, he needed not to know anything since the soldiers know best what to do. The rebellion had not only succeeded but seems to have taken over the government.
While the above are indicative, the most significant development took place when the Phumaphi Commission was about to complete its work. It is at this time that government withdrew its cooperation with the commission. This was probably when it became clear that the commission would not whitewash the matter under investigation. The evidence which was gathered in South Africa from exiles was boycotted by government lawyers. Hashatsi, who had been recalled as a witness, launched an urgent application in the High Court to stop the Commission from continuing with its work. Interestingly, the respondents were the Prime Minister and Attorney General who had been linked with Hashatsi. Even the lawyers of the government and in the Commission and those who launched the case were the same. The conspiracy was clearly that Mosisili should not respond to the application so that Hashatsi would get a favourable judgement. This was however frustrated by Mahao’s wife, ‘Mamphanya Mahao, who applied to be part of that suit.
The government then began to argue that the Phumaphi Commission report should not be released until the courts had completed Hashatsi’s case. This was unacceptable to SADC. But these actions indicate clearly that the government was not in charge. It had surrendered to the rebellion hence whatever Kamoli or Hashatsi said had to stay the way they wanted it to be. Murder had not only been legitimised, but attempts like providing an amnesty to all those in the army and the police and also civilians who thought they were acting to protect the state became necessary.
Dissolving the militia
After three-and-half years in which the rebellion held sway, a new government took over in June 2017. The government from the beginning made it clear that the old order was going to disappear. Prime Minister Thabane during his inauguration spelled out that the civilian control over the army was not negotiable. He further announced that he was going to implement the decisions of SADC emanating from the Phumaphi Commission. These two announcements indicated that the rebellion was going to be ended. But the difficulty was that from 2015, most of the leaders of that rebellion had been rewarded with promotions leading them to be part of the command. Some of those skipped ranks, and were promoted twice in 15 months. Implementing those decisions which required suspension and investigation of their crimes was necessarily going to be difficult unless there was an external support.
At the same time, recently appointed commander of LDF Lt-Gen Motšomotšo from the beginning seemed determined to bring the army under the control of the government. His murder was directly related to his acceptance of the principle of civilian control over the army. Motšomotšo had apparently told the army that all those who have cases to answer for their crimes will have to as part of the implementation of SADC decisions. The day he was murdered was preceded by the decision to send three Commandos who were implicated in the murder of Lisebo Tang near the residence of the former Commander of the LDF Lt. General Kamoli. After she was killed her family was intimidated from talking to anybody about the murder by Kamoli’s guards and were given M10 000 funeral expenses. This was how the army behaved.
This is characteristic of the way they had behaved over the years. They answered to no one but Kamoli who shared their view of the world. With Kamoli out of LDF, there was bound to be trouble for anyone trying to dismantle his militia. Motšomotšo died trying to do what any Commander should do. It could have been anyone. The task of dismantling a militia is not an easy one. A few months ago, I warned that the militia no longer has the capacity to overthrow the government. It however retains the power to assassinate and cause disruption. This is what the two rebels did in desperation because they knew that their days of freedom to kill were numbered. They killed the second Commander of the army within two years. Any delay to dismantle the militia will certainly lead to more deaths. I was however encouraged by the statements by the current leadership of LDF in Motšomotšo’s memorial service on Tuesday that they will hunt and bring to justice all those who were involved in the murder of Motšomotšo.
May he rest in peace!
- This article was originally published on Prof Sejanamane’s blog lesothoanalysis.com His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lesotho Times.