Strife within Lesotho’s largest political party, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), is slowly tilting the country’s already shaky coalition government off a cliff, barely two years after it assumed office.
Fearing a possible ousting through a no-confidence vote, on Friday Prime Minister Tom Thabane opened Parliament – but there was no sitting. Instead, his ABC MPs forced Thabane to agree to host a meeting to discuss urgent ructions threatening to collapse the coalition government.
While discord has been fomenting for some time in the ABC, matters came to a head early last month when the party’s national executive committee (NEC) – voted out at an elective congress – refused to hand over power.
NEC positions which were up for grabs during the party’s election in Maseru earlier last month include those of deputy president, chairperson, secretary-general, treasurer, spokesperson and their deputies.
The deputy president position was won by the popular Professor Nqosa Mahao, who won the contested position against Thabane’s wishes.
Mahao is also vice-chancellor of the National University of Lesotho. His victory places him in pole position for higher office should the ABC continue its current trend in the country’s next election in 2022. Thabane has reportedly described Mahao as a “useless rag”.
The old NEC then rushed to the high court, seeking the nullification of the election, which they argued should be rerun in three months.
Two weeks ago, Thabane axed his law and constitutional affairs minister Lebohang Hlaele and social development minister Matebatso Doti from his Cabinet. Hlaele, who is married to one of Thabane’s daughters, had contested the ABC’s coveted secretary-general position during the congress, and won by a landslide. Doti had successfully contested the position of deputy spokesperson.
This week, local media in Maseru reported that Thabane axed Doti and Hlaele because of their open support for Mahao.
Fault lines in the ABC emerged early last year when Thabane fired a number of senior ABC members from his Cabinet, including tourism, culture and environment minister Motlohi Maliehe.
In May last year, Maliehe, who was the ABC’s chairperson at the time, launched a public onslaught on Thabane, accusing him of destroying the party by allowing his wife, Maesaiah, to interfere with the running of government by ordering ministers around. Thabane did not deny the charge.
A recent video, which was widely circulated on social media, showed Maesaiah summoning senior government officials to an impromptu meeting after her car hit a pothole. She scolded them in front of TV cameras while Thabane looked on quietly.
Early this week, more than 30 ABC MPs signed a petition to pressurise Thabane to allow the newly elected NEC to assume office. Among other things, they argued that should the situation be allowed to escalate further, it could collapse the fragile coalition government.
During the 2017 election, the ABC won 50 seats in Parliament, which fell short of the 61 seats necessary for a party to form a government without a coalition in the 120-seat Parliament. This forced Thabane to form a coalition with the Alliance of Democrats (AD – nine seats), the Basotho National Party (BNP – five seats) and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (one seat) to give it an overall majority.
Statistics from Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission show that out of the 29 parties registered in 2017, only 12 are represented in Parliament. Out of the 1.2 million registered voters, only 581 692 showed up at the polls.
The result of the 2017 general election – Lesotho’s third in five years – led to Thabane’s four-party coalition government, which replaced former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s seven-party coalition.
Mosisili’s government descended into chaos and crashed after he lost a no-confidence motion in Parliament in March 2017.
It is this fate that Thabane is now trying to avoid.
Lesotho has been plagued by a slew of coalition governments since 2012. Sources close to power in Maseru told City Press that the three elections held since 2012 have cost Lesotho, a country of fewer than 2 million people, more than R1 billion.
With new coalition governments, permanent secretaries (known as directors-general in South Africa) are reshuffled too, as are senior managers in government and state-owned companies. Institutional memory is lost, and policy uncertainty reigns.
A businessman close to the ruling elite in Maseru said Lesotho had had three health ministers since the 2017 election. “It is the same in the public service ministry. Tourism is declining and investments are drying up.”
The three coups Lesotho has experienced since 1970 mean that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has kept a close eye on the country, working to defuse the highly charged political situation.
Ironically, the answers to Lesotho’s problems could lie in the June 2015 assassination, by his colleagues, of former army general Maaparankoe Mahao – Nqosa Mahao’s brother.
Following his murder, then prime minister Mosisili asked the SADC to help the country investigate Mahao’s death, and it appointed a Botswana High Court judge, Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi, to lead a 10-person commission. In the end, Phumaphi recommended a raft of constitutional, legislative, security and civil service reforms aimed at helping Lesotho to get back on the straight and narrow.
But these reforms have yet to be implemented.