Lesotho in Limbo as Emergency Talks Held After Coup Crisis

Lesotho was left in political limbo after the prime minister and head of the armed forces fled to neighboring South Africa following what they said was an attempted military coup.

South African President Jacob Zuma convened emergency talks in a bid to resolve the crisis and met today with Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and his deputy and rival Mothetjoa Metsing, said Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation.

Thabane fled the mountain kingdom on Aug. 30, saying the army tried to overthrow him. The military claimed it disarmed police officers who threatened to destabilize the nation. Lesotho has been run by a three-party coalition government since elections two years ago. In June, Thabane suspended parliament until February, a move opposed by other coalition partners.

“Metsing has assumed control over the government and he is likely to end the parliamentary suspension and form a new coalition” with former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s Democratic Congress party within a month, Robert Besseling, principal analyst at IHS Country Risk in London, said in e-mailed comments.

Maseru, the capital, was calm today and there was no sign of uniformed police officers or soldiers on the streets. Police stations and courts in the capital were closed.

Metsing said the army’s seizure of the police headquarters was a misunderstanding between the two institutions and not a coup.

Military Crisis

Thabane removed Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli as head of the army on Aug. 29 and replaced him with Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao, who fled to South Africa after his home was attacked by soldiers, he said today on People’s Choice Radio. While Mahao said he was still in charge of the armed forces, army spokesman Ntlele Ntoi said on Aug. 30 that Kamoli was in control.

“Kamoli remains an important person in Lesotho society,” two political parties in the coalition, the Basotho National Party and Thabane’s All Basotho Convention, said in a joint statement today. “We call upon him to respect the laws of Lesotho and abide by the decisions of the command authority.” He should use his influence to “diffuse the situation and avoid further disruption and potential bloodshed,” they said.

Water Source

Lesotho, which has a population of about two million, supplies water to South Africa’s industrial hub and is an enclave within its bigger neighbor. The kingdom earns foreign exchange from tourism and exports of mohair and supplies labor to South African mines.

“Despite condemnation of the army’s action as a coup, South Africa is unlikely to intervene unless its interest in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which supplies water to South Africa, is threatened,” Besseling said.

Ntoi told reporters in Maseru yesterday the Lesotho Defence Force had seized an assortment of weapons from the police, including AK-47 rifles. He said information from army intelligence sources indicated the weapons would be used to equip individuals to shoot at protesters during planned demonstrations by the Lesotho Congress for Democracy, which is led by Metsing.

Khothatso Ts’ooana, the commissioner of Lesotho Mounted Police Service, told People’s Choice Radio today the soldiers who attacked the police headquarters were looking for a case file for Metsing, who is being investigated for alleged corruption.

Political Friction

The army raid killed one police officer and injured nine, according to Ts’ooana, who said he was in hiding. The soldiers, who also attacked a police training college and another police station, didn’t find the docket, he said. Most police officers had stopped wearing their uniforms and abandoned their posts for fear of being attacked by the military, he said.

Zuma, who is head of the Southern African Development Community’s defense, politics and security council, traveled to Lesotho in July to ease the friction after his government reported “unusual” troop movements there. South Africa and its ruling party, the African National Congress, have condemned the attempted coup.

A former British protectorate, which won its independence in 1966, Lesotho has previously suffered military coups. South Africa’s apartheid government backed an army takeover in 1986, before a counter coup in 1991 enabled elections to be held in 1993.

In 1998, South Africa dispatched more than 600 troops to Lesotho as part of a regional effort to quell a mutiny by junior army officers. More than 60 people were killed, including South African soldiers.

“What is expected from now is for those in power like SADC to intervene so that the government can be restored constitutionally,” Kopano Makoa, a political analyst and professor at the National University of Lesotho, said by phone from Maseru. Whether it happened accidentally or by design, a coup had successfully occurred, he said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.