Was it a coup d’etat? Or rather a failed attempt to overthrow the government of Lesotho? Two days after violence broke out in the nation’s capital Maseru, analysts remain unsure of how to classify the events that shook the tiny country of about two million people. “I would not call it a coup”, says Dimpho Motsamai from the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. “Rather, I would call them actions of anarchy. Actions that are criminal in nature, a subversion of authority.”
What happened, precisely? On Friday, Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thomas Thabane fired his army chief, Tlali Kamoli. In response, the ousted commander assembled soldiers loyal to him, attacked several police stations and stormed the prime minister’s residence. That is why Webster Zambara from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town believes it’s fair to label the events an attempted coup. “The army occupied some important buildings including taking over the head quarters of the police force – that has all the hallmarks of a coup.”
Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thabane fled before the military arrived
Months of friction
Prime Minister Thabane thinks so, too. Thabane, who fled into South Africa before the military arrived at his home, accuses his coalition partner – Deputy Prime Minister Mothejoa Metsing – of being hand-in-glove with the general, plotting to overthrow him. On Monday, the exiled leader asked the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to send troops to Lesotho in order to restore peace. King Letsie III has officially appointed a cabinet minister to temporarily run the country, but the power vacuum effectively remains.
The rupture within the government is not a new phenomenon, says analyst Motsamai. “It stems from months of friction and fragility within the coalition government. Every time parliament would open, the party of the deputy prime minister would push for and pursue a motion of no-confidence in the prime minister. So they were trying to remove him from power.” Tensions rose further when Thabane suspended parliament in June.
The country is surrounded by South Africa, and cooperates closely with its neighbor
History of failed talks
Both the prime minister and his deputy are now in neighbouring South Africa, where President Jacob Zuma is mediating between the parties. But even before violence erupted, talks brokered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) did not show any way out of the political deadlock. This history of failed talks hardly bodes well for a quick solution.
“We have been flogging a dead horse for some time”, political analyst Motsamai says. “And I think the only way forward is to admit that the coalition partners want to form new alliances.” It remains uncertain whether or not South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma will succeed in brokering a road map out of the crisis. Some consider him too close to Lesotho’s Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, a longstanding supporter of South Africa’s ruling ANC party.
Water and power
South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper claims that Special Forces from the country had foiled the coup and escorted Thabane out of Lesotho. The small country has a history of attempted coups and rebellions since it became independent from Britain in 1966. Being completely surrounded by South African territory, it is largely dependent on its immediate neighbor. “You can’t go anywhere out of Lesotho without going into South Africa first”, Motsamai says. “But this dependency also has a security implication for South Africa’s borders. If there is any instability in the country, the potential spillover into South Africa’s provinces is direct and immediate.” A possible integration with South Africa has been discussed more than once in Lesotho, but remains a highly controversial issue.
South Africa also has serious economic interests, depending heavily on water from its smaller neighbour. The Lesotho highlands water project is a joint venture that secures the water supply of South Africa’s industrial heartland and generates hydroelectric power for Lesotho. A number of dams in Lesotho have already been constructed; the 185-meter (607-foot) high Katse dam was completed in 1998. Contracts for another phase of the joint project were signed in March of this year.