The small mountainous Southern African state of Lesotho, with only 2 million people, grabbed the headlines earlier this month of September when gunfire woke up residents in the capital, Maseru. Armed soldiers reportedly seized the police headquarters and surrounded Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s official residence. He managed to flee to South Africa, the country’s giant neighbour. Speaking from his daughter’s home where he had taken refuge, Mr. Thabane said, “there was clearly an effort to launch a coup.”
He had reasons to fear an imminent coup d’etat. He leads a fractions coalition government and last June, he dissolved parliament to stave off a no confidence vote in the two-year-old collation government. The country’s armed forces, especially the army and the police, are said to have divided loyalties, with the army backing the ambitious deputy prime minister and the police lining up behind the prime minister. When the army allegedly raided the police headquarters and occupied it, signaling the start of trouble, the army spokesman who denied any attempted coup said that the army only moved against certain elements in the police suspected of planning to arm a political faction. According to him, “there is nothing like that (coup); the situation has returned to normalcy, the military has returned to the barracks.” He added that “the military supports the democratically elected government of the day”.
Meanwhile, efforts by the fleeing prime minister to sack the army chief were rebuffed by the military whose spokesperson claimed that the army chief was still at his post.
Lesotho, since becoming independent from the British in 1966, has had a turbulent history with several military coups, the bloodiest taking place in 1998 when many people including soldiers from South Africa were killed. However, its coalition government considered reasonably inclusive of all the political tendencies in the country was highly praised for aggregating a minimum of national consensus. It seems now, in retrospect, that the early optimism was premature. However, if it is accepted as the army said that it did not launch a coup, but rather made an effort to rein in some elements in the police elements who attempted to ferment trouble, then the divided loyalties in armed forces, and now the police, mean that there is a keg of gun powder that will explode with time.
Lesotho’s neighbours, especially the big one, South Africa, quickly condemned the ‘attempted coup’ and the Commonwealth Office in London also lashed out at the apparent attempt at dethroning an elected government. While we welcome the global outrage that greeted the attempted coup d’etat in Lesotho, we are mindful that incumbents in Africa have this tendency to perpetuate themselves in office or violate the constitution with impunity and, in many respects, make a peaceful change of government almost impossible. Mr. Thabana’s dissolution of parliament was in bad faith.
Just as violent seizure of power is reprehensible, incumbents who resort to extra-constitutional means to stay on in office should be adjudged equally guilty of overthrowing constitutional rule. Finding a balance between restless elements who want to come to power by all means and desperate incumbents who want to stay on in power by all means, would not be easy but it is the only way to ensure sustainable democracy