Lesotho: Democracy and instability (1993-1998)

Updated March 2007

The Basotho Congress Party (BCP) government came to power in 1993 facing a number of difficulties. The Royal Lesotho Defence Force was apprehensive about losing its privileges and wealth gained while in power and fearful of prosecution for graft and atrocities committed; it aligned itself with the conservative Basotho National Party (BNP) which was aggrieved by its marginalisation in the legislature (Lodge et al 2002, 94; see Legislative election results 1993). The Kingdom itself was mired in poverty and its economy was wholly dependent on that of South Africa, while State administration was dominated by BNP loyalists who were fearful of the new government (Lodge et al 2002, 94; Institute of Security Studies 2003). Moreover corruption inside and outside the civil serve and security forces was pervasive and incompetence widespread. The BCP had no experience in government and its internal unity was fragile (Institute of Security Studies 2003). To this situation must be added the inability of the aging and almost paranoid Ntsu Mokhehle to provide effective leadership or to translate election promises into effective government policy, so that the government limped along incompetently from crisis to crisis, with governance shrouded in secrecy and subjected to endless delays (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Lodge et al 2002, 94).

Donors rapidly lost confidence in the new government and withdrew support, further hampering the government's ability to deliver on its mandate (Institute of Security Studies 2003). The transition to democracy was further bedeviled by a deteriorating economic situation as a result of the decline of South Africa's gold mining industry, along with the curtailment of Basotho migrant labour whose remittances had been a major source of income and foreign exchange for the Kingdom in the twentieth century; remittances which accounted for 67% of GDP in 1986 declined to 33% in 1996, dropping to only 18% in 1999 (Lesotho Government Undated).

The attempts by the government to integrate its former military wing, the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), into the Royal Lesotho Defence Force (RLDF), combined with salary grievances in the RLDF, alienated it and enabled the BNP to exploit military disaffection in inflammatory public utterances; all this culminated in unrest in the military late 1993, clashes between rival factions in the RLDF and a mutiny in January 1994 (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005; Saunders 2002, 524). The matter was temporary resolved through international mediation, but military unrest continued with soldiers killing the Deputy Prime Minister, Selometsi Baholo in a bungled abduction attempt in April and the taking of government ministers as hostages in May in wage protests (Saunders 2002, 524; Lodge et al 2002, 94). This was then followed by a strike of police officers over pay and other issues in the same month which, despite tough talking on the part of government, was resolved by negotiations with the BNP and capitulation to the strikers' demands (Saunders 2002, 524; Institute of Security Studies 2003). The disarray of the government and its weakness in dealing with the situation at the time was evident in the alarmed adjournment of Parliament in fear of the safety of its members and the subsequent flight five cabinet ministers to South Africa (Institute of Security Studies 2003).

To this already this volatile situation Mokhehle added fuel by appointing two commissions of enquiry in July 1994, one into the unrest in the RLDF and the second into the political role of King Moshoeshoe II after independence, thus simultaneously unsettling the security forces and alarming the monarchists (Institute of Security Studies 2003). The BNP organised rallies in Maseru to renew earlier calls for the reinstatement of King Moshoeshoe II on the 15 August 1994 and on the 17th King Letsie III made a radio broadcast which announced the dissolution of Parliament, the suspension of parts of the constitution and appointed a transitional government of national unity in the place of that of Mokhehle (Saunders 2002, 525; Institute of Security Studies 2003; Lodge et al 2002, 94). BCP supporters launched counter demonstrations calling for the abolition for the monarchy and a general strike followed with violent clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces in the capital (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Saunders 2002, 525). International condemnation of the Royal coup was universal, South Africa threatened economic sanctions and the USA cut off aid, but through international mediation an agreement was reached whereby the elected government and parliament would resume their duties but King Moshoeshoe II would be restored to the throne as constitutional monarch, which was effected on 25 January 1995 (Lesotho Government Undated; Saunders 2002, 525; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005).

Unrest continued in 1995 amongst members of the security forces resulting in further wage concessions, but these, while resulting in rioting, abductions of members of parliament other violence, did not seriously threaten the constitutional order (Wikipedia 2007; Institute of Security Studies 2003). On 15 January 1996 King Moshoeshoe II died in a car accident and King Letsie III resumed the throne (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005; Lesotho Government Undated). In January 1997 a violent mutiny by the police was suppressed by the RLDF (Wikipedia 2007).

In late February 1997 the increasingly aged and ill Mokhehle and his followers were expelled from a BCP party conference and in March he was replaced was replaced as party leader by Molapo Qhobela. The decision was set aside by the High Court which ruled that Mokhehle was to continue as leader until a new leadership election in July but, as a result of violent clashes between the two factions of the BCP, he left the BCP to form the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) in June (Saunders 2002, 526; Lodge et al). Since 38 MPs crossed the floor from the BCP to the LCD with him, Mokhehle retained a majority in Parliament and remained on as Prime Minister while the BCP under Qhobela, now relegated to the status of official opposition, boycotted National Assembly sessions (Saunders 2002, 526; Wikipedia 2007). Mokhehle retired from politics in January 1998 (he died a year later) and was succeeded Pakalitha Mosisili who led the LCD in the elections held between 24-26 May 1998 (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Saunders 2002, 524). The election saw the BNP increase its vote slightly on the 1993 election and gain a single seat in the National Assembly. The BCP however lost most of its support to the LCD and failed to obtain a single seat (see 1998 National Assembly election results), while the LCD won all the other seats with 60% of the vote.

The results of the 1998 election exposed once more the weakness of the single member plurality system that Lesotho inherited from Britain at independence and precipitated a new period of political instability (Lesotho Government Undated). The opposition parties which had won nearly 40% of the vote obtained only one seat in the National assembly. Once more allegations of fraud were made, this time by the BCP and the BNP, and violent protests were held in the Maseru resulting in loss of life, injuries, looting and property destruction (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2007; Lesotho Government Undated). Parliament was occupied and government was brought to a standstill (Lodge et al 2002, 95). International observers and an inquiry by South African judge Lange found that irregularities were insufficient to affect the outcome (Lesotho Government Undated; Wikipedia 2007). Nevertheless, protests continued with soldiers taking the part of the protesters against the police; on 10 September the commander of the RLDF, Lt Gen Mosakeng, and other senior officers were taken prisoner and forced to resign by junior officers aligned with the opposition (Institute of Security Studies 2003). To pre-empt a military coup the government requested military intervention on the part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and South African troops, followed by Botswana forces, occupied Maseru in late September (Wikipedia 2007; Lodge et al 2002, 95). The unpopular SADC intervention unleashed a wave of looting and massive property destruction, first in the capital, then elsewhere, which the SADC troops failed to act against, resulting in loss of life, the flight of citizens to the rural areas and serious damage to the economy (Saunders 2002; 526; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005).

As calm slowly returned to the Kingdom, and with the help of South African mediation, the conflicting parties met for talks in mid-October of 1998 and agreed to set up an Interim Political Authority (IPA) consisting of two members from each party, to review the electoral system and to organize new elections within 18 months; the IPA was constituted in December of that year (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2007; Wikipedia 2007). When it was evident that stability had been established the SADC troops, except for a team of South African trainers (later augmented by Zimbabwean soldiers), were withdrawn in May 1999 (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005).


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