Instabilities at the NUL during BNP and military dictatorships

Instabilities at the NUL during BNP and military dictatorships

The undemocratic national political environment of the 1970s and 1980s left an indelible mark on all institutions in Lesotho. The political crises led to lawlessness and abominable deeds not only by men in authority, but even by the ‘man in the street’. In the midst of these crises NUL, like most national institutions, was turned into a political battleground during the reign of the Basotho National Party (BNP) government (1970-1985) and the Military regime (1986-1992) .

The undemocratic national political environment of the 1970s and 1980s left an indelible mark on all institutions in Lesotho. The political crises led to lawlessness and abominable deeds not only by men in authority, but even by the ‘man in the street’. In the midst of these crises NUL, like most national institutions, was turned into a political battleground during the reign of the Basotho National Party (BNP) government (1970-1985) and the Military regime (1986-1992) . The purpose of this paper is to bring to the fore the nature of instabilities and struggles at NUL between 1980 and 1992, occasioned by the presence of a large ‘elephant in the room’.

Power and resistance, by residing in the same spaces, have a reciprocal relationship because where there is power, there is resistance (Foucault, 1976: 1980). It is my thesis in this paper that repressive state power on one hand, and tendencies towards ‘power over’ by University authorities on the other hand, both generated overt and covert resistance as well as discursive and non-discursive struggles which tended to destabilise the institution during this period.In 1970, when the ruling BNP lost elections to the Basotho Congress Party (BCP), Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and went on to rule by decree.

Then in 1986, the army removed Jonathan from power and went on to rule the country through the Military Council. This chapter looks at the struggles and instabilities at the National University of Lesotho, between 1980 and 1992, occasioned by government intervention and interference in University affairs. The government having been invited, or having invited itself, into the University, began to dictate to, and to displace duly constituted authorities and processes, thus destabilising the University. Yet those at University did not remain passive recipients of the state’s repressive power, but responded in ways that further destabilised the institution.

The chapter is divided into two major sections; namely, the BNP dictatorship and the University, 1970-1985; and Military rule and the University, 1986-1992. What was happening at Roma during the period covered in this chapter was merely a reflection of the bigger national political environment. It was, according to the VC Report of 1981, part and parcel of the history through which the country was passing, at the time, and which should therefore not be judged in isolation.

It was also a reflection of the statism of African social formations. Universities on the African continent were designated as either state-controlled, or state-directed, as examples of University of Makerere, in Uganda (Eisemon and Salmi, 1993:159), and University of Zimbabwe (Cheater, 1990), demonstrate. For NUL, it is both an irony and a contradiction that, it was during the highly turbulent times of BNP rule and Military rule that the University was witnessing its golden age.

Two principal questions that this chapter grapples with, throughout, are:l What incident, or developments, led the BNP government to station soldiers and security forces at NUL  and how did the University (administration, staff and students) react?l By what means did the BNP government and the Military regime seek to control NUL and how did the University react?
BNP Dictatorship and the University, 1970-1985

After the declaration of the state of emergency in 1970, many pro-BCP people were dismissed from government, arrested and detained without trial, while others were forced into exile. The period from 1970-1986 became the era of de facto one-party authoritarian rule in which the BNP government exercised stringent control over the armed forces and shaped the military to serve its own political ends (Matlosa & Pule, 2001). The BNP government extended this stringent control over almost all national institutions, including the University.

While in exile, the BCP formed, in 1979, a military wing known as the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) to fight the BNP government, with the support of the apartheid regime (Pule, 2002). According Mashologu (2006), the formation of the LLA presented the government with the opportunity it had long sought and rounded up several members of staff and students of NUL, holding them in detention for several days. Many of those who were dismissed from government following the declaration of the state of emergency tended to find both employment and ‘refuge’ at the University in Roma. But even here, they were not safe as they were systematically targeted and flushed out of the institution.

The LLA was known to enjoy the sympathy and support of some of the staff and students of the University. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the reign of ‘white terror’  on the Roma campus followed immediately after the launching of the LLA. The PM publicly condoned what was happening at NUL, including firing people from their jobs based on hearsay in support of his own pro-BNP staff (Pule, 2002; Former Minister Interview, 07/08/2014). A former Minister (Interview, 07/08/2014) in the post-1993 government reminisced, “…during BNP rule, students and workers—even a cleaner—were untouchable at Roma. If you touched a cleaner and she called the PM, you were fired”.

The PM also publicly condoned the terror tactics of his Police Mobile Unit (PMU)  which went about terrorising, torturing, killing, and maiming opponents and innocent civilians (Pule, 2002). These terror tactics were aimed at ensuring that the BNP government remained in power. Instead, repressive BNP power achieved the opposite because, as Hall (1997) and Mbembe (2001) argue, the same agents and mechanisms that a state can rely to ensure its sustainability can also be used to contest and counter its very existence. The same forms of subjugation profoundly reconfigure relations of resistance, sacrifice and terror.

Repressive State Power, Overt and Discursive Student and Staff Resistance at NUL, 1980-1985
Relations between the GoL and the University started to deteriorate when the government showed its determination to keep police and government security agents on campus, impose its own candidates as Vice Chancellors as evidenced by the appointments of A. M. Setsabi, in 1980, and B. A. Tlelase, in 1984, and unilaterally amending the University law, among others. The NUL management faced the difficult task of dealing with a government bent on imposing its will on the institution on one hand and handling a highly restive and politicised student body on the other hand. As a direct or indirect consequence of repressive state power exemplified through the keeping of police and government security agents on campus, the student body was divided mainly between two movements which battled for the control of the Students Union.

These were the Student Democratic Front (SDF)  which had close relations with the ruling BNP, and the Student Liberation Front (SLF) which had close connections with the opposition BCP (Likate, 1989; Commission Report, 1989). These two student movements actually mirrored the party divisions of the country . The political unrest in the country, and on campus, was well captured by Stan Motjuwadi in the Drum magazine of April 1983 when he wrote,

The political unrest in the beleaguered mountain kingdom is spilling onto the National University of Lesotho. Just as Chief Jonathan’s Basotho National Party and its Para Military Unit and Ntsu Mokhehle’s Basotho Congress Party and its military wing, the Lesotho Liberation Army, are killing each other, the pro-Jonathan, Student Democratic Front and the pro-Mokhehle, Student Liberation Front, are fighting a no-holds-barred fight on the Roma campus (Motjuwadi, 1983:228).

The division in the Students Union led to instability in student government and to deteriorating inter-relationships between students and other students as well as between students and administration (VC’s Report, 1984/5). Issues and challenges of campus security and its academic freedom and autonomy came to the fore through numerous politically motivated incidents. The detention of ’Makabi Kabi, a Year III law student, for 20 days in October, 1981, under the Internal Security Act of 1966, allegedly for subversive political activities (VC Report, 1981) was one of several such cases. Students overtly protested by boycotting lectures, denouncing the BNP government and demanding Kabi’s immediate release. Their actions finally forced University authorities to seek audience with the Government, leading to the release of Kabi from detention. Students with close relations with the state often overtly defied University authorities in many ways.

One of the ways by which they did so was by openly carrying guns around the campus, and threatening their opponents with them, despite the existence of University regulations that banned the possession of such weapons (VC Report, 1981:10). It is important to note that when University authorities protested against the practice of keeping police and government security agents on campus, the response of the state was that it was the duty of the Police to be anywhere at any given time when the break of or possible break of the law of the land was suspected and that Police did not need any permission from anybody to be on campus (VC Report, 1981:11). The government further justified keeping security agents on campus on the grounds that NUL was listed as an African National Congress (ANC) base.

This followed the 1982 attack on Maseru by the South Africa Defence Forces (SADF) that left 42 people dead. In the light of this attack, the government argued that it was necessary to transplant a small trained element of security officers who would form the first line of defence against the SADF pre-emptive strike (VC Report, 1985: Likate, 1989:3). Clearly, the state found a very appealing argument to keep NUL under surveillance, thus inducing a sense of permanent visibility that ensured the functioning of power, what Foucault (1975) calls the technology of power. The visible presence of security agents on campus resembled Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon or ‘inspection house’ in which housemates were kept under surveillance (Bentham, 1962). The activities and the numerous meetings of the BNP Youth League on campus also led to struggles and instabilities on campus. For example, at one meeting held on 12 December, 1981, the Youth League resolved to urge the PM, among other things, to urgently amend the University Act and to offer “militant support and solidarity with SDF” (VC Report, 1981:15).

It was also resolved to demand the repatriation of Mothusi Lekalake and Ladu Gore. Lekalake came from Botswana and was, at the time, the Vice President of the SRC. Gore came from Uganda and was a former SRC President and an active member of the SLF. The GoL considered Lekalake and Gore as undesirable in terms of the Aliens Control Act of 1966, and the two were declared as persona non-grata. On the day the BNP Youth League was making its resolutions, Lekalake and King Moloi, President of the SRC, disappeared from campus. It was later discovered that they had skipped out of the country into Botswana to escape impending arrest by the Police for allegedly calling Jonathan’s government “neo-colonialist [and] fascist” (VC Report, 1981:14).

The BNP Youth League and BNP students accused the University Administration, Senate and some members of staff of bias against the SDF in favour of SLF (VC Report, 1981:15). Consequently, BNP students decided to take matters into their own hands. In one typical case, they threatened James Putsoane, a top University official, into withdrawing his application for the position of Registrar. The threatening letter by BNP students warned him to resign or follow Odilon Seheri, one of the many people allegedly assassinated by the regime (Motjuwadi, 1983; SLF Statement, 1984). According to the VC Report (1981:7), the letter to Putsoane read, in part,

It is well known to us that you are personally not interested in becoming the Registrar … and that the only reason why you applied was that you were under pressure from the LLA … Tomorrow before sunset you should have officially and in writing have withdrawn your application for Registrar….Failure to follow instructions will result in the loss of your life before December [1981].

Before this threat, on 26 November 1981, Putsoane had allegedly received, in an envelope mailed from Maseru, a message in which nothing was written in it except a photograph of a rifle (VC Report, 1981:7-8). The VC who was actually thought to be a BNP supporter was similarly threatened by pro-BNP students. They accused him of bias and of being a stumbling block. He was pointedly warned not to be “a stumbling block” because there were

…several ways of removing a stumbling block, sometimes it may have to be pushed aside but at other times it is broken into pieces until it is good for nothing, in other words the stumbling block is made to be non-existent. Beware, therefore … (VC Report, 1981:8).
On their part, SLF students were pushing for the candidacy of Putsoane. “When the Registrar’s position became available”, reminiscences one government informant who was on campus at the time, “we [SLF students] wanted it to be given to Putsoane who had been vice-registrar since 1967, but BNP students objected” (Former Minister Interview, 2014). By resorting to such blatant threats and psychological violence, BNP students were clearly using their apparent proximity to state to instil fear in the hearts of their perceived opponents and to influence whoever was and was not employed in the University. Threatening memos and notes became forms of coercion by those with close relations with the state. Both Putsoane and the VC were not only made to feel more vulnerable to attack, but were also psychologically and emotionally blackmailed.

These are a few of the many politically motivated incidents that took place on campus. In 1981, in the months of October and November alone, well over ten politically motivated incidents  took place, or were reported (see VC’s Report, 1981:1-15). Following numerous cases of conflict on campus pitting SDF against SLF and the University against the students and students and staff against the government, the then Minister of Education was obliged to address the Senate of the University. In his address, the Minister blamed and attacked both students and academic staff at the University for wanting to be “autonomous politicians who can get away with murder” (VC Report, 1981).

The Minister noted that professionals, academicians and students were free and capable of changing their vocation and even becoming politicians. “Having made such choice and decision” warned the Minister, “you must expect to bear the natural consequences of your subsequent behaviour (because) I do not know a single politician who is autonomous” (Minister of Education quoted in VC Report, 1981:13-14). The Minister sought to emphasise the difference between academic freedom and autonomy on one hand, and political activity, on the other hand, stating unequivocally that the government cannot be expected to “silently accept being subverted”.

The thinking in government circles about what a university ought to do and not to do is well captured in this speech which not only implored the University to focus on its core activity, but also made clear that the government was capable of responding to what it unconsidered political conduct by University staff: Please accept to be teachers and run your University; please accept to leave us alone as politicians so we can run the political affairs of Lesotho. …Criticise us if you must, but do not subvert us and expect us to take it sitting down. …let NUL teach and award degrees; let the Government of Lesotho serve and protect Lesotho” (Minister of Education quoted in VC Report, 1981:14).

Munyaradzi Mushonga

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