SADC approves smaller standby force for Lesotho

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…the force’s three months tenure to cost US$785 000

’Marafaele Mohloboli

THE Southern African Development Community (SADC) is maintaining a small contingent of troops in the country until March next year amid concerns that the security situation remains volatile.

This was revealed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations, Lesego Makgothi, in an interview with Lesotho Times this week. He said the standby force’s tenure could be extended further if the security situation demanded it.

The latest development follows spirited efforts by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to have the regional body extend the mandate of the initial 258 strong SADC standby force which did duty in the country from December last year.

SAPMIL, also known as the SADC Standby Force to Lesotho, was officially unveiled in Lesotho on 2 December 2017 as part of regional efforts to foster a conducive environment for the implementation of constitutional, security sector, public service, media and governance reforms in line with the recommendations of the regional body.

The standby force was comprised of 217 soldiers, 15 intelligence personnel, 24 police officers and 13 civilian experts. It was eventually withdrawn on 20 November this year after regional leaders shot down Dr Thabane’s request for the force’s mandate to be extended by a further three months.

However, Mr Makgothi said that SADC did not withdraw the entire force a fortnight ago. He said the regional body agreed to maintain a 50-member contingent force in response to Dr Thabane’s pleas and its own assessment of the security situation in the country.

“There is a contingent force of 50 men and women in the country who stayed behind when the rest left,” Mr Makgothi told the Lesotho Times.

“There was a firm request from the Prime Minister that SADC should consider a phased approach rather than pulling out at once.

“There was also a SADC mission assessment report regarding security situation prevailing in the country. The report determined that the situation was still volatile and as such the government asked for an extension (of the SAPMIL tour of duty.”

The standby force completed its original six-month mandate in May this year but this was subsequently extended to November 2018 to enable it to assist Lesotho in the implementation of the reforms which were recommended by SADC in 2016.

The SADC force was essentially deployed to prevent rogue Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) soldiers from destabilising Dr Thabane’s coalition as it went about implementing the SADC recommended reforms to curb perennial instability in the Kingdom.

The reforms include holding rogue LDF members accountable for their past atrocities and helping mould the LDF into a professional force via some targeted re-training.

The standby force would also help in the investigation of the 5 September, 2017 assassination of army commander, Lieutenant General Khoantle Motšomotšo, by his subordinates, Brigadier Bulane Sechele and Colonel Tefo Hashatsi as well as the earlier killing of another LDF boss, Maaparankoe Mahao, among other tasks.

Authoritative sources within the government and SAPMIL said Dr Thabane asked for the extension of the SAPMIL during the 38th SADC summit of heads of state and government in Windhoek, Namibia in August.

The sources said the SADC heads of state however, flatly refused to entertain Dr Thabane’s plea for an extension to the SAPMIL tenure.

“The regional leaders flatly refused to budge and instead read the riot act to the government and the opposition, telling them to be serious about the multi-sector reforms process,” a source said

The rebuff did not however, deter the government and according to Mr Makgothi, they continued engaging SADC beginning with talks on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.

“I had bilateral talks with deputy prime minister and minister of Foreign Affairs of Namibia who chairs the SADC Council of Ministers.

“I also held talks with the Foreign Affairs minister of Zambia who chairs the ministerial committee of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security. This is where the (extension) was approved.

“The contingent force will cost $785 000 (about M10 796 105) for those three months they will be here.

“I must reiterate that the three months’ extension may not be final. There is a likelihood that they might stay until the end of May. This will be based on security assessments done on a monthly basis.”

Mr Makgothi said the troops that remained behind are from Angola, Zambia and Malawi.

He further said that “Zimbabwe as the incoming chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security will contribute at the level of SAPMIL administration”.

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