Will Lesotho miss SADC deadline?

… Sadc reform deadline looms as infighting continues in Lesotho

GARY VAN STADEM

The Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) deadline for Lesotho to implement a series of critical constitutional and security reforms expires in May, with what little progress made since 2017 now under threat due to coalition party infighting that suggests another government is about to fall.

In June 2017 the then opposition All Basuto Convention (ABC) led by Tom Thabane emerged as the major party in the country’s third election in some five years, but once again without the majority necessary to govern – forcing yet another coalition in a country with a history of failed coalitions.

This time Thabane joined forces with the Alliance of Democrats (AD), the Basotho National Party (BNP) and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL). The ABC started on the right foot by taking all the key posts, including the prime minister and the majority of ministers.

We thought at the time that it was extremely unlikely that the coalition would see out its five-year term and predicted yet another early election.

The reasoning was that while Lesotho politics continued to be dominated by the parties of old men who seemed to play ruling musical chairs, there was no prospect for any political stability in the country with or without Sadc’s intervention.

In a repeat of history, it did not take long for the ABC and Prime Minister Thabane to marginalise their coalition partners and create fresh tensions.

There were clashes over ministerial positions and allegations that the ABC was side-lining districts that had delivered no fewer than 11 of its members of Parliament (MP) in the directly elected vote.

Internal power struggles quickly gathered around those for and against the autocratic rule of Thabane with his ambitions to remain party leader and prime minister for as long as his body held breath.

The tensions came to a head at the ABC congress in early February when factions clearly defined by support or opposition to Thabane slugged it out on the congress floor and in the courts where the one faction attempted to overturn the election of Professor Nqosa Mahao and former Law, Constitutional Affairs and Human Rights Minister Lebohang Hlaele into key positions in the party.

Party sources told local media that the old ABC’s national executive committee (NEC), which was ousted at the party’s elective conference, had demanded that the pair step down before it handed over the reins to the new NEC.

This demand, a blatant attempt to undermine democratic processes, was rejected outright.

But amid dire warnings of ‘chaos and bloodshed’, certain ministers who had lost positions at the elective conference went to court to reverse congress decisions.

The ministers Habofanoe Lehana (trade and industry) and Keketso Sello (mining), who both lost elections, asked the courts to nullify the outcome of the party’s elective conference and order fresh polls – failing which they warned of “serious bloodshed” when warring factions try to gain control of the ruling party.

The outcome of the infighting and clamour for power is not as relevant as the fact that the coalition is tearing itself apart from within. Relevant too is the African Union Peace and Security Council (PSC) group’s latest report on Lesotho, which found the infighting in the ABC and the wider coalition could “scupper efforts to implement the multi-sector reforms that were recommended by the Southern African Development Community”.

Sadc gave Lesotho until May 2019 to fully implement the constitutional and security sector reforms required to foster permanent peace and stability, but most local commentators and people involved at Sadc believe the prospect of implementing a significant portion of the reforms is effectively zero.

The ongoing infighting and court battles surrounding the ABC elective congress that exposed inevitable cleavages in both the party and its already shaky coalition arrangement are par for the Lesotho course and come as no surprise at all.

Thabane is no democrat, as clearly demonstrated by his tactic of proroguing Parliament to avoid a vote of no confidence back in 2014 (a move that plunged the country into uncertainty and instability amid unproven rumours of a coup attempt).

He lost subsequent elections in 2015 after Sadc forced a new poll but regained power in another bout of musical chairs in 2017 with his ABC-led coalition.

Now, he is under threat once again with a faltering coalition and rampant infighting in the ABC, but Thabane’s future is unimportant in the context of stability and peace in the country.

The Sadc-imposed reforms did not meet universal approval, but they did promise some return to normality in the mountain kingdom.

Thabane, however, was not as interested in them as he was in holding onto power – despite the apparent objections in his own party.

The recent history of instability and conflict in Lesotho has thrown up several names but only one constant – Tom Thabane.

Gary Van Staden – Senior Political Analyst

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