PRIME Minister Thomas Thabane needs to move swiftly to assert his authority and act against those responsible for human rights abuses under the previous coalition, even if it means asking Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) military help to apprehend the perpetrators, regional military experts say.
Even though Dr Thabane promised reconciliation and not retribution during his campaign, the experts said it would be a mistake if he let the more egregious forms of rights violations, like the cold blooded murder of former Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander Maaparankoe Mahao, go unpunished. Letting criminal offenders go unpunished could in fact impede long-term reconciliation, peace and stability as it encourages more impunity, the experts noted.
“Truth and justice are pre-requisites for sustainable peace and reconciliation. That’s why we had our own TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) here in South Africa,” said one military expert with the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) who declined to be named for professional reasons.
The experts are close to a contingent of South African Special Forces brigade, whose members were deployed to monitor the situation in Lesotho before and after the 3 June 2017 elections amid rumours that the LDF had been planning to cause trouble if Dr Thabane was elected to power, allegations that the LDF vehemently denied.
South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane had issued a bold declaration that South Africa would not tolerate a coup in Lesotho. The minister said her country had communicated such to authorities in Lesotho, two weeks ahead of the election.
The military experts said the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was still closely monitoring the situation in Lesotho for any signs of trouble that could arise should Dr Thabane decide to act against those responsible for various atrocities committed during the tenure of the previous coalition and the new prime minister’s moves then face resistance.
The experts said the SANDF was monitoring various scenarios that may require SADC’s intervention.
The first scenario was if Dr Thabane decided to immediately change the top guard at the LDF and the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) and then faces serious resistance.
The second was to assess the loyalty of the current command of the LDF led by Lieutenant-General Khoantle Motšomotšo.
If, for instance, Dr Thabane decided to order Lt-Gen Motšomotšo to handover to the police suspects in the LDF accused of perpetrating atrocities for interrogation, investigation and prosecution and then faces resistance, trouble could ensue.
On the other hand, if Lt-Gen Motšomotšo agreed to release the suspects to the police for prosecution, then it could be a good omen that the new LDF command is prepared to work within the bounds of the rule of law and respect civilian authority. If he refuses, it would be a sign that the LDF would remain a belligerent institution and unwilling to obey civilian authority, the experts said.
In that case, the experts said Dr Thabane would be within his rights as the sitting prime minister to ask SADC for some form of intervention to help apprehend the suspects in the same way he asked South Africa for protection after the 30 August 2014 LDF raid on three key Maseru police stations which Dr Thabane said was a coup attempt.
Police Sub-Inspector Ramahloko was killed during the army raid which the military said was a special operation to seize firearms from rogue Lesotho Mounted Police Service officers.
“Whether or not such assistance will be granted will be a political decision,” said one expert.
“But our advice as the military to our political superiors in the region will be that it be granted because there will never be stability in Lesotho if transgressions go unpunished and impunity is seen as being encouraged by not punishing wrongdoers.
Lt-Gen Motšomotšo’s predecessor Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli, refused to hand over at least eight suspects accused of having been behind the simultaneous bombing of the Moshoeshoe II residence of Dr Thabane’s wife, ‘MaIsaiah Thabane, and then Police Commissioner Khothatso Tšooana’ Abia home. The homes were attacked by unknown assailants on 27 January 2014. .
An investigation commissioned by Mr Tšooana concluded that the projectiles used in the attacks could not have been available to ordinary civilians. The then commissioner had written to Lt-Gen Kamoli asking for the release of eight LDF members believed to have been behind the attacks but the then LDF commander refused to hand them over.
Lt-Gen Mahao was shot dead on 25 June 2015 outside Maseru by his fellow soldiers who claimed they had come to arrest him for alleged mutiny. However, the Mahao family has accused the army of killing him in cold blood basing on the account of his nephews who were with him during the incident.
“I don’t see how an inference that Kamoli was behind all these attacks can be avoided,” said one SANDF official.
“Any arrests and prosecutions must involve him and we still see that as a source of potential problem. This is why our interest in Lesotho remains.”
The military experts said the best time for any leader to act in terms of changing the command of top military and security structures was immediately after assuming power when the leader still enjoyed the goodwill of the people and the international community. That was also the best time to take drastic action like pursuing any transgressions.
“A leader who waits to take action a long time after winning power may take actions that may backfire as he would either have lost goodwill or the momentum that propelled him to power. This is why there is an expectation that Thabane will take action sooner or later and we have to be prepared to step in should he face violent resistance from all those implicated in the wrong things that have been done in Lesotho,” said a South African military official.
Any SADC military action in Lesotho, should the need arise, would be fronted by South Africa and Botswana, whose president, Ian Khama, had become increasingly fed up with what he saw as the belligerence of the outgoing coalition.
The military experts said the expectation in SADC was that Thabane would have to act soon against the killers of Lt-Gen Mahao.
“We expected no action against Mahao’s killers when the previous regime was in power. But action against his (Mahao)’s killers represent the best deterrent against any such future abuses by the army. His (Mahao’s) killing became a symbol of repression and impunity. It cannot go unpunished. Its handling may as well prove to be the best example that abuses will not be tolerated especially if his killers are successfully prosecuted,” said a military expert.