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SADC army chiefs meet over Lesotho

by Lesotho Times
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Keiso Mohloboli

Regional army chiefs are holding a closed meeting in Pretoria today to discuss the security crisis in Lesotho.

Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao told the Lesotho Times from Pretoria last night that he had been invited to attend the meeting in his new capacity as head of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF).

The meeting comes in the wake of South African  President Jacob Zuma’s two-day ultimatum for Lesotho’s warring political leaders to decide when to re-open Parliament, as a key measure in resolving the country’s political crisis.

Lt Gen Mahao, who left the country late yesterday, said he would brief fellow army commanders from Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations about Lesotho’s current turmoil and his on-going feud with Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, who has refused to relinquish the command of the LDF following his dismissal by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane about two weeks ago.

Lt Gen Kamoli—whose dismissal and replacement with Lt General Mahao was gazetted on 29 August 2014 — has refused to step down, arguing both the dismissal and Lt Gen Mahao’s promotion were “ illegal”. He has since allegedly emptied the LDF’s armoury and moved soldiers loyal to him into the mountains, allegations Lt General Kamoli has vehemently denied.

The stalemate over the leadership of the LDF has nonetheless, left many Basotho fearing for their safety, with many opting to vacate their workplaces early to be indoors at their homes. Some businesses have also been closing early due to security concerns. Allegations that Lt Gen Kamoli has vowed to fight “to the last man” if Dr Thabane persists with dismissing him, have particularly frightened many citizens despite the top soldier’s denial of the claims.

Lt Gen Mahao told the Lesotho Times that he had received the invitation to attend the meeting as the “rightful Commander of the Lesotho Defence Force”, adding he was in the company of an undisclosed number of LDF personnel at the meeting.

Lt Gen Mahao has been trying to take charge of the LDF from hiding, albeit unsuccessfully, as Lt General Kamoli has stayed put in the barracks. A Lesotho Times news reporter met with Lt Gen Mahao in Maseru on Saturday and he ordered all soldiers to return to the barracks and follow his commands.

Lt General Mahao said his invitation by SADC attested to his recognition by the regional body as the legitimate head of the LDF.

“The invitation to attend this very important meeting of SADC defence chiefs here in Pretoria came to me yesterday. As we speak, I have just been briefed on the agenda of the meeting, which is expected to take the better part of tomorrow,” Lt Gen Mahao said.

“I am looking forward to the meeting and I am already in one of the hotels in Pretoria, whose name I cannot disclose for security reasons. I am here with other LDF officers whose names and ranks I cannot also disclose due to security reasons. I have also been informed that this is going to be a closed meeting, which means it is only going to be for security chiefs.

“What I don’t know is if Kamoli has also been invited to the meeting since the issues that are going to be discussed directly concern him and myself, and of-course, the whole nation of Lesotho.”

Lt Gen Mahao said his invitation letter specifically stated that the meeting would be  for SADC defence chiefs to discuss “the security crisis in Lesotho”.

“From what I have been told, we are not going to talk about the political instability in the country because the military is supposed to be apolitical in every country. We will only be focusing on the security crisis that Lesotho is currently going through, and particularly the change of command which has become such a big issue in our country, with Kamoli refusing to vacate the commander’s post,” Lt Gen Mahao said.

According to Lt Gen Mahao, the region is “very much aware” that he had failed to access the LDF barracks since his appointment as army chief through  the  government gazette of  29 August 2014.

“SADC is very much aware that I don’t have an office and these are some of the issues my fellow commanders would want to understand, and why nothing has been done to rectify the situation.

“From what I have seen here, there will be 15 commanders from all SADC countries in including myself  in tomorrow’s  (today’s) meeting….”

Lt Gen Kamoli refused to speak when contacted for comment yesterday.

Asked to shed more light on today’s meeting and the current situation in the LDF,  Ministry of Defence Principal Secretary, Thato Mohasoa, said: “I don’t know who would be attending the meeting between Lieutenant General Kamoli and Lieutenant General Mahao but I believe the Minister of Defence, Police and National Security,  Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, was loud and clear when he pronounced the new LDF Commander (Lt General Mahao). The prime minister did this through Legal Notice no 64 of 2014.”

Prime Minister Thabane told the Lesotho Times that he did not have details about the regional army chiefs’ meeting.

“That is a technical meeting between the army chiefs and I really don’t know much about it.

“If Lieutenant General Mahao has been invited to the meeting, we should let him attend it and wait for him to give us a report of what  would have transpired on his return home.”

Dr Thabane, Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) leader Mothetjoa Metsing and Basotho National Party (BNP) leader Thesele ‘Maseribane agreed to open Parliament on 19 September in an agreement brokered by South African President Zuma about two weeks ago.

Mr Zuma jetted into Lesotho on Tuesday after Dr Thabane had hinted he would delay the re-opening of Parliament due to the security situation in the country. Dr Thabane and other political leaders supporting him are being protected by the South African Police Service after he returned home from South Africa last week. Dr Thabane, Chief ‘Maseribane, and others  had fled to SA as LDF members attacked police stations and State House in what the two leaders described as an attempted coup.

Mr Zuma is said to be adamant that the re-opening of Parliament must happen as originally agreed to enable all other problems in the country to be discussed and resolved. It is not clear how today’s meeting will help resolve the stalemate over the leadership of the LDF, which remains a major security threat.

Dr Thabane has repeatedly stood by his decision to dismiss Lt General Kamoli while the LCD and Democratic Congress (DC) are standing by the latter.

Discussions over the re-opening of Parliament were proceeding at the time of going to Print. The LCD had earlier said the opening of Parliament on the 19th was not negotiable and should proceed without hindrance. The ABC  and BNP had  nevertheless cited security concerns as an obstacle to the re-opening.

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