Like most of Southern Africa, the Drakensberg Escarpment was inhabited by hunter-gatherers groups until the XVII century. AT about that time, the area was occupied by refugees from Bantu tribal wars. In 1818, Moshoeshoe, a local chief of the Southern Sotho, the survivors of the devastating Zulu and Matabele raids, occupied the high ridges of the Drakensberg Mountains and founded the Basotho nation. From his fortress in Thaba Bosiu, Moshoeshoe – by now King of the Basotho – was successful in repelling attacks from other ethnic groups. Little he could against the better armed Boers. In a series of wars (1856-68), the new kingdom lost most of its fertile land to the Boers from the Orange Free State. Moshoeshoe had no choice but appealing to Great Britain for protection. His appeal was accepted in 1868 and Basutoland became a crown protectorate. After Moshoeshoe’s death in 1870, the kingdom was annexed to the Cape Colony, to return to direct British control in 1884. Local government was introduced in 1910 with the creation of the Basutoland Council, an advisory body composed of the British resident commissioner, the paramount chief, and 99 appointed Basotho members. In effect, for the next 50 years the chiefs were allowed to govern. Under a new constitution that became effective in 1960, an indirectly elected legislative body, the Basutoland National Council, was created.
Great Britain granted independence to the newly named Kingdom of Lesotho on 4 October 1966; paramount chief Moshoeshoe II was proclaimed king on that date. The first general election following the attainment of independence was held in January 1970. When it appeared that the Basotho National Party (BNP) – which controlled the Legislative assembly – would be defeated, Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. The Basotho Congress Party (BCP), led by Ntsu Mokhehle, claimed that it had won 33 seats to the BNP’s 23. Jonathan admitted he had lost the election but nevertheless arrested the opposition leaders. King Moshoeshoe II was placed under house arrest, and later went into exile. He was permitted to return in December 1970.
Scattered attacks on police posts occurred in January 1974 in an alleged attempt by supporters of the BCP to overthrow the government of the ruling BNP. The abortive coup d’etat resulted in the arrest, killing, imprisonment, or exile of many people. In March 1975, 15 BCP followers were found guilty of high treason. The struggle against the Jonathan government continued through the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), the military arm of the BCP in exile, claiming responsibility for periodic bombings in Maseru, ambushes of government officials, and attacks on police stations. The Lesotho government charged South Africa for allowing the LLA to use its territory as a base of operations. South Africa, which completely surrounds Lesotho, accused Jonathan of harbouring ANC militants.
In 1985, South Africa stepped up its destabilization activities, conducting a commando raid and aiding antigovernment elements. On 1 January 1986, South Africa imposed a near-total blockade of Lesotho that resulted in severe shortages of food and essential supplies. On 20 January, a military coup led by. General Justin Metsing Lekhanya overthrew the government. All executive and legislative powers were vested in the king, acting on the advice of a six-man military council and political activity was banned. In 1990, after the king refused to agree to the dismissal of several senior officers, Lekhanya sent Moshoeshoe II in exile. Later, a new law was approved providing for a constitutional monarchy but barring Moshoeshoe from the throne, and Moshoeshoe’s son – King Letsie III- was elected king by an assembly of chiefs.
In April 1991, rebel army officers staged a bloodless coup, forcing Lekhanya to resign and opening the way to a return to democracy. On 27 March 1993, the Basotho Congress Party won all 65 seats in the Assembly and formed a government under Prime Minister Dr. Ntsu Mokhehle. The BCP offered to nominate four BNP members but only one opposition politician accepted. Several cabinet members were appointed from opposition ranks. Mokhehle faced a military mutiny in January 1994, which quelled after three weeks of sporadic fighting. At the end, the military agreed to a Commonwealth-brokered deal for negotiations with the government.
In July 1994, Mokhehle appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the dethroning of King Moshoeshoe II in 1990. King Letsie III was angered by this move. He dissolved parliament, dismissed the government and suspended sections of the constitution. The action was widely condemned outside Lesotho, and the king had to capitulate returning the throne to his father. King Moshoeshoe died in a car crash two years later, and his son was re-elected by the Council of Chiefs.
In the 1998 elections, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) won 78 of the 80 seats of the National Assembly. Protesters in Maseru claimed the vote had been rigged. Defeated candidates filed protests at the High Court, asking for a recount. As evidence of irregularities began to emerge, popular unrest grew, with the King refusing to intervene. A commission led by South African Pius Langa studied the ballot returns and declared the elections valid, which did not stop people’s anger. At the end, in September 1998, South Africana and Botswana troops entered Maseru to restore peace. Peacekeepers remained in the country to the end of 1999, with a number of military advisers remaining longer to train the Lesotho Defence Force, with the aim of making it a more professional and less politicized army.
Political life remained troubled, with the different bodies unable to reach a consensus on reforms. General elections were finally called in May 2002. The LCD won once again and Prime Minister Mosisili was sworn in for a second five-year term. Once again, in 2007 the electorate awarded a good majority to the LCD, even though the government had been accused of corruption and more than one minister had been demoted on charges of incompetence and corruption.