Lesotho. The coup that never was

After the murky events of 30 August, peace has formally returned to Lesotho. However, the roots of the crisis run deep and many questions are still open in Maseru

On 30 August, the people of Lesotho felt that they had been involved in something bigger than them. The true nature of the events that occurred in those hours, however, was – and to some extent still is – unclear. For sure, military personnel attacked and briefly occupied the police headquarters and other key points of the capital, Maseru, killing one police officer in a gunfight. This prompted the Sports minister and Basotho National Party (BNP) leader, Thesele Maseribane, to denounce a “coup” against the shaky coalition government headed by Thomas Thabane.

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The PM himself fled to neighbouring South Africa, blaming his political enemies for trying to overthrow him: one of them was renegade general Tlali Kamoli, the former army chief of staff, whom Thabane himself had replaced with a close ally of his own, Maaparankoe Mahao.
Even if the army, threatened by a reaction from South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), withdrew from the streets shortly afterwards and Thabane was able to return to the country, the crisis was far from over, as shown by the protection provided to the PM by South African policemen. On the one hand, Kamoli was said to have taken refuge in the mountains around Maseru with some 200 highly trained and heavily armed men. On the other hand, the roots of the 30 August ‘attempted coup’ ran much deeper: the military, in fact, alleged that they intervened because the police were arming civilians against “political opponents”. In other words, they were quite openly accusing PM Thabane of planning recourse to violence a mere two months after he persuaded the King, Letsie III, to suspend parliament, where the government risked facing and losing a no-confidence vote.

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In such a situation, many observers – including the prime minister himself – saw in Thabane’s deputy, Mothetjoa Metsing, the man behind Kamoli’s move. In fact, the vice-PM and his Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) were the ones who threatened to break up the fragile coalition set up after the 2012 elections and were widely expected to join Pakalitha Mosisili, the former head of government – now leader of the opposition party Democratic Congress (DC) – in his efforts to get rid of his successor and of his All Basotho Congress (ABC).

Mediation efforts

For some weeks “people weren’t able to look after their business freely”, recalls Archbishop Gerard Tlali Lerotholi of Maseru, even if they tried to behave normally. “The crisis affected their lives in a very negative way”, the prelate adds. Even Pope Francis, on 7 September heeded the Catholic bishops’ call for peace in the kingdom, but an effective mediator was still badly needed. Some hoped that the church itself could take up this role, as it did many times before, including after the 2012 elections. Indeed “religious leaders talked to politicians, trying to find a solution”, says Fr. Tumelo Pone, a Salesian priest based in the capital, but at a grassroots level the effort has been that “of showing that we did not take sides between the politicians”, encouraging common people to do the same and pray for peace he explains. That is when SADC stepped in, trying – on its part – to defuse tensions and to find a political solution acceptable for all.

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However, the efforts of the regional organization were at risk of being marred by the rivalry between South African president Jacob Zuma and his Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe. Both leaders hold a key position in the SADC (Zuma is the head of the defence and security organ, while Mugabe is the rotating president of the whole community) and both saw the Lesotho crisis as an occasion to improve their international image at a moment when they were facing rising difficulties at home. Mugabe had to deal with the internal rift in his own party, where key leaders – including the president’s own wife – were struggling for the succession to the 90-year old leader, while Zuma was under fire from the internal opposition because of long-standing corruption allegations.
The South African president, on his part, also had to defend his country’s economic interests in Lesotho, in particular the 15 million rand-worth (more than 1.36 billion dollars) second phase of the Highlands water project: this series of dams is aimed to provide South Africa with much-needed water. Zuma and Mugabe finally managed to go beyond their lack of communication and Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s deputy president, was appointed as a mediator. On 2 October he managed to bring the political leaders of the tiny kingdom around a table in Maseru, to sign a declaration which outlined a roadmap to end the crisis. The parliament – much to Thabane’s disappointment – was to reconvene in two weeks but the outgoing PM still had the possibility to contend the elections, which were due to be brought forward from 2017 to the end of February 2015.

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Even if Thabane now vows that he wants to “fight for every vote” and let the ballot papers solve any issue between him and his foes, there are still many open questions in Maseru. Many believe that only the presence in the country of Namibian, Zimbabwean and South African police under the SADC banner will prevent another outburst of violence. The army and the police, let alone the politicians, are still at loggerheads and shootings took place even on the eve of the much celebrated peace agreement. Moreover, General Kamoli is still at large, his intentions are unknown and even Ramaphosa was not at ease when asked – on that same 2 October – who actually was in charge of the military. Nevertheless, Archbishop Lerotholi is still confident that the people – who long for peace – will manage to make their voices heard: “We will overcome this crisis”, he says.


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