We had to step in to restore the peace: army commander

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TWO months ago, the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) arrested 74 people, mostly youths aged from 15 to 34 and detained them at Makoanyane Military Barracks.

The youths were arrested in an army operation against gangs who have turned the lives of people in the Maseru and Berea districts into a living hell.

Dubbed Operation Namola (intervene), the army operation was aimed at weeding out the dangerous criminals who have caused residents of the two districts to live in constant fear after a spate of murders, rape, knife-stabbing, stealing and housebreaking activities.

One of the gangs, known as Manomoro, was said to be concentrating its criminal activities in Ha-Tšosane, Koalabata, Sekamaneng, Naleli, Khubetsoana and neighbouring villages.

The Manomoro gang was said to include hardened ex-convicts and even famo musicians.

It also includes teenagers of both sexes who are recruited by ex-convicts. The teenagers are forced to prove their loyalty to the gang by undertaking “assignments” which include stealing from their own families and terrorising residents through housebreakings, stabbings, rape and even murder.

Tired of living in fear and having been left despondent by the police’s failure to act, the desperate residents subsequently turned to LDF commander, Lieutenant General (Lt-Gen) Mojalefa Letsoela (Lt-Gen Letsoela), for help.

While the affected communities praised the LDF for rescuing them, some sections of society expressed misgivings over the army operation. They expressed fears that the army was overstepping its mark and usurping police functions.

They said the army was not trained for everyday operations against civilians and its operations, no matter how well-meaning, could lead to human rights violations. This week, the Lesotho Times’ (LT) Kaleen Chikowore caught up with Lt-Gen Letsoela to explain the operation and respond to the misgivings. Below are excerpts of the interview:

LT: Why did you launch Operation Namola?

Lt-Gen Letsoela: I was troubled by the images of the youths and their activities that I had seen on social media. At that instance, I felt there was a need to act without delay.

They were involved in murder, stealing and harassing residents in the villages. Their criminal activities were clearly well planned. They used numbers to identify each other. They did not call each other by names but by numbers just like you would see with prison gangs. We believe that some of these methods they were using were adopted from prison gangs. They may have also learnt this from the internet. These days information is easily accessible from the internet.

I was shocked by these criminal activities and this pushed me to consider ways of stopping them. It dawned on me that we weren’t going anywhere as a country if the youths who are supposed to one day take on leadership roles are currently involved in such activities.

LT: But why you and not the police? Surely these are policing duties and as some would say, you are overstepping your mark and usurping police functions?

Lt-Gen Letsoela: As the army, our mandate is to safeguard peace from all threats. These threats could be internal or external. Our role is to make sure peace abounds therefore when we figured that the peace was being threatened, I decided to deploy the military police.

Before we got involved, the police were trying to apprehend the culprits but we figured peace was threatened. Whenever peace and stability are threatened, we step in to assist. We closely cooperate with the police. We could not continue sitting while things were getting out of hand. It is better to address a problem while it is still manageable rather than wait for it to get out of hand.

We have what we call military operations other than war activities and these may include peace support operations, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, security assistance and support for counter-drug operations among others. We have the power to assist other departments. We also work hand in hand with the Ministry of Gender, Youth, Sports and Recreation, Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Education and Training, Ministry of Health among others.

Therefore, we detained some of the gang members. We sat down with them to find the root cause of the problems and understand the reasons they were involved in crime. The reasons differed from one individual to the other. Some ended up in crime due to poor backgrounds, some because of lack of guidance, others because they had befriended the wrong individuals who got them into trouble.

We managed to reach out to all of these youths and considered how best to assist them.

To correct the behaviour instilled in them by the gang culture, we had to come up with a strategy where they would live together in a controlled environment, signifying a family setup.

We had to remove the harshness they had adopted in the gangs and bring back unity, togetherness and re-instil the importance and value of life in them. These young people no longer valued human life, so we had to teach them about the importance of life and how we have to value life.

Our desire is to see them lead crime-free successful lives as productive respectable citizens. Though this is a short-term thing, we believe we have reduced the level of crime in our country. My vision is for Lesotho to have a national youth service. I believe this programme will help youth development. We also need to instil patriotism in Basotho from a tender age. They should know that they need each other from a tender age and value the life of every individual.

LT: What challenges have you encountered in the rehabilitation programme?

Lt-Gen Letsoela: The media must support us rather than fight our initiative. We have seen reports that are not true. There is no bad blood between the police and LDF. This programme was wrongly reported. We were not harming the youth; we were working towards bringing the best out of them and helping them realise the path they were taking was bad and illegal.

It is disheartening to see our efforts being painted in black. When I started this programme, I had a clear motive to take out these youth from the pit of crime. I was misquoted as the media reported that I had held the young people captive and that it was illegal for me to take them in.

Some harsh words were said. My position is critical and every move that I make is closely monitored. But being a believer in Christ helped when my moves were misinterpreted. Whenever I would face criticism I would go back to God and say you know my heart. Afterwards, I would be at peace. We have involved other partners such as the church, commercial institutions among others and they have positively assisted us reshape the youth.

In the long run we must work together as stakeholders. All of us including the media and civil society have a duty to make sure that we have a vibrant youth population that is free from crime.

We had minors in these gangs and we had to be careful not to violate their rights. So, we also engaged the families and guardians of these children. They were also happy that their deviant children were receiving help.

Initially when I saw the images of their criminal ways, I thought that tough discipline would work well for them. However, when I saw them in person, I realised that most of them were teenagers, just young children. I felt they needed to be nurtured rather than be disciplined in a tough way.

So, in order to nurture them we had to take them in, put them in a controlled setup and monitor them closely. As the army we generally do not have the nurturing aspect but we identified army personnel who are skilled in nurturing, offering support, encouragement and training.

This was not too difficult as we already had Captain Bokang Melato, Lieutenant Hlapane Tshehlo, Lieutenant Dick Makoetlane and Warrant Officer Thulo Matobole who were in charge of training and taking care of our own recruits.

This was more of a crash programme as we had not planned or budgeted for it. We had to find ways of getting food, clothes and basic needs the youths needed during their stay. We made sure that as long as they were under our care, they would lead the same lifestyles as us, eat the same food and do the same activities.

Since they were staying at a training facility, we had to suspend our programmes that we had planned for our calendar year to make sure that the youngsters were well taken off and their lives transformed.

LT: After you release them back to their families what kind of support will you put in place to ensure that they do not fall back to crime?

Lt-Gen Letsoela: When they are released, we will to go to their victims to plead for forgiveness for all the wrongs.

However, we are not going to interfere with the justice system. We will not hinder the prosecution of cases that are before the courts of law. Justice must prevail at all costs.

After this rehabilitation programme, we will surrender them to their parents. We have recommended that the ministry of gender identifies areas where they can fit them in so they do not go back to the villages and do nothing. Idleness is one of the factors that led them to this situation of crime. An idle mind is the devil’s workshop, so we have asked the responsible ministry to come up with ways to keep the youths busy. I recommended community-based projects like constructing roads in their villages, farming among others so that they keep busy.

We discovered that some of these youths are good athletes, musicians and academics. These young people have got talent and what is now needed is to groom them to bring the best out of them.

LT: What is your message to the nation with regards to crime?

Lt-Gen Letsoela: Basotho must know that it is everyone’s responsibility to help stop crime. This starts at the family level. Parents should rebuke their children if they have done wrong. Even if the child is not your biological child, be responsible enough to rebuke rather than wait for the police. Basotho must always remember it takes a village to raise a child.

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