SA once again intervenes to save Lesotho
- Special envoy Radebe says PM not guaranteed immunity for murder prosecution
Despite his belligerence, pressure has inexorably mounted on Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to quit and he may not be able to hold on for much longer after South Africa’s timely intervention this week.
Mr Thabane’s own All Basotho Convention (ABC), two of his governing coalition partners, the opposition and civic groups this week agreed with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s envoy, Jeff Radebe, to expedite processes to retire the premier.
Mr Radebe said various stakeholders had agreed that Mr Thabane be allowed to retire from office with “dignity, grace and security”. Though he did not mention a specific date for Mr Thabane’s departure, Mr Radebe said in response to a question at a press conference that the process of opening parliament to facilitate Mr Thabane’s departure must happen immediately. Political parties, including Mr Thabane’s ABC, said they had told Mr Radebe that Mr Thabane must go now and expressed regret that the South African president’s envoy had not made that categorically clear.
It now remains to be seen for how long Mr Thabane can cling to office despite this mounting pressure. The premier told this publication that he would not allow anyone to force him into retiring earlier than he intends to (See lead story on page 2). His remarks, coming before the ink has hardly dried on the agreement for his departure may mean the country remains in the throes of more chaos.
In another sign of mounting woes for the premier, Mr Radebe also said the prime minister was not guaranteed immunity from prosecution for his alleged role in the June 2017 murder of his ex-wife, Lipolelo Thabane.
Mr Thabane first announced his plans to retire in January 2020. The soon to be 81-year-old premier promised to quit end of July 2020 saying he was now tired after more than 50 years in active politics and the civil service. He promised to go even earlier by July if his party agreed on a successor
His ABC party – in conjunction with other political parties – has since settled on Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro as his successor but Mr Thabane has failed to acknowledge that and quit as per promise.
He is instead digging in heels. He vowed this week not to bow to any pressure to quit despite the seemingly insurmountable pressure he is now facing.
The courts have nullified his unilateral prorogation of parliament. Political parties including his own have vowed to ensure he goes sooner. A deal has been signed between his own party and others for a new coalition without him.
It was against this backdrop that the increasingly desperate premier deployed the army around Maseru on Saturday, saying it must deal with political rivals and others bent on destabilising his government. The move ignited fears that the country would slide into an open police-army conflict prompting Mr Ramaphosa to dispatch Mr Radebe to try and diffuse the situation.
“The special envoy’s visit to Lesotho was necessitated by recent developments that took place in Lesotho, particularly the threatened suspension of the commissioner of police and events surrounding that suspension,” Mr Radebe told journalists in Maseru.
“…The (political) temperature (in Lesotho) as we see it from South Africa has been very high with the deployment of troops on Saturday. His Excellency President Ramaphosa was extremely concerned about the political developments here in the Kingdom of Lesotho.”
Mr Radebe subsequently signed an agreement with Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki stating that “the coalition government of the Kingdom of Lesotho commits to effecting the implementation process or modalities for the dignified, graceful and secure retirement of the Honourable Prime Minister (Mr Thabane).”
It is not clear why the agreement was signed by Mr Moleleki instead of the Prime Minister himself. But judging by his strong remarks so soon after Mr Radebe’s visit, it seems like another clear sign that Mr Thabane has no intention of going immediately as demanded. He may even refuse to go end of July, plunging the country into chaos.
The Radebe/Moleleki agreement does not give a timeframe for Mr Thabane’s departure. But Mr Radebe had said parliamentary processes should begin immediately to ensure the smooth transition from Mr Thabane to his successor.
Mr Radebe said Mr Moleleki, in his capacity as leader of the national assembly, had informed him that he was working with the speaker of the national assembly, Sephiri Motanyane, to implement last Friday’s Constitutional Court order to re-open the National Assembly. The Senate, headed by ’Mamonaheng Mokitimi has already re-opened. Mr Motanyane is a key ally of Mr Thabane and has faced several accusations of frustrating efforts to dethrone the premier in Parliament. He recently rejected a no confidence motion against Mr Thabane saying it had been improperly filed.
ABC caucus chairperson ’Matšepo Ramakoae has threatened court action to compel Mr Motanyane to expedite the re-opening of National Assembly.
Mr Radebe said in all his meetings with various stakeholders, there was consensus that Mr Thabane had to retire.
“Without any exception, they (stakeholders) ask that the prime minister has to leave office with dignity, grace as well as security.
“We are very confident that all stakeholders are representing the broad views of Basotho. In the words of the Archbishop of Roman Catholic Church (Tlali Lerotholi) the simple message of the people of Lesotho is that the prime minister should leave with dignity, grace and in security,” Mr Radebe said.
Asked if the “dignity, grace and security” meant that Mr Thabane would not be prosecuted for Lipolelo’s murder, Mr Radebe said the premier was not guaranteed immunity from prosecution.
He said he had not been dispatched to Lesotho to make any such deals. His mandate was merely to secure a smooth transition to a new prime minister.
“…. As a special envoy that is not part of my mandate. My mandate is very clear. We need to make sure that there is a peaceful Lesotho (and) there is peaceful, secure transition to a new prime minister,” said Mr Radebe in response to a question about immunity from prosecution for Mr Thabane.
Mr Thabane has asked the Constitutional Court to quash the murder charges, claiming immunity from prosecution as a sitting premier.
Meanwhile, Mr Radebe said the rule of law had to be upheld in Lesotho, adding it was important for everyone to accept and respect court judgements especially the verdicts of the Constitutional Court.
Asked to share his thoughts on the legality of the deployment of the army in Maseru on Saturday, he said, “it is not for me to explain how they were there but they were there”.
“But the good news is that yesterday (Sunday) and today (Monday) they are no longer there. In other words, I think we are now on the right direction. I think the most important thing is that there are no more troops,” said Mr Radebe.
Lesotho and South Africa also agreed to work closely to combat the spread of the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Mr Radebe said Mr Ramaphosa’s message was for Lesotho to focus its energies on the fight against the deadly coronavirus (COVID-19). He said he hoped they would not have to come back to Lesotho as they had discussed all the pressing issues with various stakeholders and agreed on the way forward which now had to be implemented.
South Africa deployed 600 troops into Lesotho on 22 September 1998, under an operation code named Operation Bolesa, to quell widespread riots and an army mutiny that left Maseru severely damaged. The riots occurred after disputed elections in May of that same year won by the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) amid allegations of electoral fraud. Nine South African soldiers, 29 members of Lesotho’s military and about 47 civilians died in the rampage.
It appears South Africa has taken a leaf out of that experience. It now intervenes in Lesotho diplomatically at the slightest whiff of trouble to avoid any further degeneration.