The tears of a widow

The tears of a widow

…Her quest for justice and pain of living without him..

MASERU– ON June 29 this year the Mahao family gathered in Mokema to commemorate the fourth anniversary of Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao’s death.
As expected, the mood was sombre. Yet the salient message in the hymns and speeches was distinct: this pain shall pass and justice will eventually prevail.
Four years and four days since their son was murdered by soldiers on his way from this village, his home area, the Mahaos have never let up in their pursuit for justice.
You can hear the grit in their speeches. The relatives speak of a battle that has just begun. In the crowd sits a young boy occasionally murmuring the words he can remember from the songs. He is Lt Gen Mahao’s third and last son.

A few days earlier his mother, Mamphanya Mahao, had received news from his school that he was among the students to receive an award.
The award ceremony coincided with the commemoration in Mokema.
Before going to Mokema the mother had driven his son to school for the ceremony. The idea, as Mamphanya Mahao recalls, was to drop off the boy at school and proceed to Mokema.
But when they got to the school gate the boy had a change of heart.
“He said he would rather be in Mokema instead of being at the school,” Mamphanya recalls. A few days later they collected his award for being the most improved student in his grade four class.
The significance of the honour was not lost on his mother.

When his father was killed on June 25, 2015, the boy was just a week shy of his graduation from preschool. He would be capped as his father’s body lay in a mortuary, amid a national storm and international outrage at his murder at the hands of the army.
“That reminded me of the troubled journey we have travelled since my husband was killed,” she says.
Mamphanya is narrating this story on a Saturday afternoon as we sit on a rockery in Lesotho High School’s dusty forecourt. A few minutes earlier she was playing netball with colleagues. Her team has been defeated but it seems winning wasn’t the main purpose of the game.

It was more like the ladies just wanted to get together and burn some calories in a weekend netball game. Mamphanya says she finds such games therapeutic.
Now she calmly delves into the most painful episode of her live.
There is something that says she is not holding back.
In a way, the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death make it nearly pointless to have some emotions she can keep to herself.
The world has watched as she mourned her husband. It was a murder that touched everyone in country and even beyond. It was too heinous and brazen to ignore.
As one of the most publicised murders in the country there was way to escape the avalanche of news about it. The characters involved made it stick out like a sore thumb.

The perpetrators were soldiers: the very people her husband was supposed to command were it not for the brash and cruel political machinations of that time.
They were supposed to protect him too. Yet the army had killed one of its own in cold blood.
Happening at a tumultuous time, questions were asked as to whether politicians had a hand in the murder. This was too big to be just a military operation, some opined, sure that this was an officially sanctioned hit.
Others were certain that even if the government did not sign the ‘elimination order’ it, at the very least, probably winked at the perpetrators.

The kind of attitude that says: well, you can do it but don’t say I put you up to it.
Some claimed that the fact that there was no direct instruction was just a way for politicians to claim plausible deniability. Either way, the government could not wriggle out of this one. It was roundly blamed and pressure piled on it from all corners.

The grieving face of Mamphanya was splashed in local and regional media.
The United Nations demanded a full investigation.
Among SADC countries there was a strong feeling that Lesotho had gone too far and a line had to be drawn. The crisis in Lesotho couldn’t get worse that this, so the reasoning went.
At home the outrage was palpable, fuelled in part by the fact that this was already a hugely unpopular government.

The general view, although not scientifically measured, was that this was a government whose path to power had been cleared by a belligerent and unruly army that had refused to stay in the barracks.
Indeed the trouble caused by the army had had a hand in the fall of the previous government. Those in the new government seemed to be in an unholy alliance with the army. Their statements seemed to confirm this unpalatable “scratch my back and I scratch yours” arrangement.

One of the government’s first moves had been to strip Lt General Mahao of his commandership and demote him. In his place they installed Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli who had been fired by the previous government but refused to relinquish power, a move that shoved the country back into the vicious cycle of instability.
Hours after Lt Gen Mahao’s death the beleaguered government scurried around for a response but kept bungling as it clutched from one half-truth to the next falsehood.
This was a job too sophisticated for the government’s patchy and, at times, mediocre communication system.
It was a military operation that went horribly wrong, they said as the people shook their heads in disbelief while the Mahaos aggressively pushed for answers.

Desperate to disperse blame, they resorted to the old and discredited tactic of trying to separate the actions of an army from its government. Their message was that the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing. No one was buying it.
Then the outright lie: Mahao had tried to resist arrest by pulling out his gun. Although it would take a commission of inquiry to officially quash that lie, it was a theory that already had very few takers in the public.

So as we chat under the soothing winter sun Mamphanya doesn’t seem compelled to repeat what happened on that fateful day and the elaborate cover-up that followed it.
The Phumaphi Commission, appointed and funded by SADC, lifted the veil on the repugnant details despite the army’s efforts to muddy the waters and avoid blame by claiming that military operations are supposed to be secret. She prefers to talk about the journey she has travelled with her three boys. “My son’s award illustrates how far they have come,” she says as she adjusts her cap to shield her bespectacled eyes from the sun.

A few weeks after the burial, from which the government and the army were barred by the family, Mamphanya and her sons started counselling sessions.
It soon became clear during the sessions that it would take time to nurse the youngest son to recovery.
“The therapist said we should give special attention to the youngest boy because he was not coping at all. He said the trauma on him was so huge that he had literally gone back into my womb,” Mamphanya recalls.
“Watching that boy emotionally mending and winning an award tells me that we are doing something right.”
The older boys who are 16 and 20 are getting there too, she says.

What has helped in their healing is that Mamphanya has not shied away from helping them face the truth and reality that not everyone wants justice for their father.
“Some want to hide the truth, others want to avoid prosecution while others think their father deserved to die,” she says.

In an era pervaded by social media the boys are buffeted by news of their father’s death nearly every day. If it’s not some cruel comment it is news that the trial of those accused of their father’s murder has stalled again. Not a week passes without a story that reminds them about their father. That’s, in part, because it is nearly impossible for reporters to write about the chaos and instability of the past five years without referring to Lt Gen Mahao.
It’s not for lack of empathy that the media keeps referring to the incident.
His death is intricately linked to what has happened in the recent past and what will happen in this country in the near future.

To talk about the political reforms whose progress has been mired by squabbles is to remind them that the horrible things that contributed to their father’s death persist uncorrected. Talking about SADC’s intervention in Lesotho reminds them that the instability that caused their father’s death remains alive, if not in full force then the remnants of it.
Any political story in this country, whether it’s about instability in the ruling party, the brittleness of coalition governments, the trouble in the opposition parties or the possibility of an early election, somehow has to mention Lt Gen Mahao’s death.
It might be four years later but Lt Gen Mahao’s death plays a part in how the politics of this country is covered as well as how it unfolds.

Sometimes the news comes wrapped in lies and factoids. At times it is some reckless and cruel comment from politicians and their zealots.
At other times it is someone deliberately or unwittingly twisting the knife in the collective heart of the Mahaos.
The role of separating the truth from fiction for the boys naturally falls on their mother whose passion for getting justice for their father has never dimmed.
“I explain what is going on and tell them our plan of action. I have to be their friend. Fortunately, they are not growing weary at all.”

Mamphanya admits that she is able to play this role in her sons’ lives because she has support from relatives and friends.
“But most of all, I pray. I try to see a bright side in every situation.”
The boys too have also inspired their mother to keep fighting.
“Watching the boys reminds me that I have to keep fighting so that they don’t grow under the toxic circumstances that stole their father from them. It tells me that I have to keep fighting for justice and rule of law.”
“No child should lose their father because politicians are fighting for power.”
That fight for justice has not been easy because those accused of pulling the trigger and those said to have instigated the murder keep fighting to evade the arm of the law.

For years Mamphanya has watched as the trial of the suspects trudge along in the courts. At first the army refused to cooperate with the police investigations.
This was because in the first two years the government in power seemed to be in league with the army, tacitly shielding the suspects.
It could be that they saw pushing for the investigations as tantamount to fast-tracking their own entry into the dock. The wheels of justice seemed to be turning a little faster when the new government came to power.
But boulders where soon strewn on the path to justice. In remand the suspects, who include Lt Gen Kamoli and dozens of soldiers, seemed determined to throw spanners by raising one legal technicality after the other.
The local judges seemed reluctant to handle the cases. When the government appointed foreign judges the suspects challenged their right to preside over their trials.

Meanwhile politicians have been using tricks to insulate themselves from indictments. One such attempt was in the form of an agreement between government and opposition that was supposed to pave way for the return of self-exiled leaders like Mothetjoa Metsing and Tšeliso Mokhosi to participate in the reforms without facing prosecution.
The Mahaos saw the agreement as betrayal and sued to block it.
Mamphanya says she kept her faith in the face of efforts to frustrate the prosecution.
“It’s their right to defend themselves but that will not stop me. I have told myself that I will not be too concerned with what the enemy does. What matters is what we are doing to get justice.”

Mamphanya first saw Lt Gen Mahao in 1993 during the orientation week at the National University of Lesotho. He was a senior studying law while she was a first year Bcom Accounting student.
The young Mahao was making a presentation to entice the freshmen to join the Committee for Action and Solidarity for Southern African Students (CASSAS).
Mamphanya immediately signed up and in the months that followed she would see Mahao come to her hostel to speak about the association and the Student Representative Union he led. She will not tell how their courtship started but says she thinks that’s when “he became interested”.

Mahao joined the army in 1996 and on February 28, 1998, they married.
And for 16 years they lived a relatively quiet life while he rose through the military ranks to become commander of Special Forces. Her accounting career too was gathering steam.
After roles at the Treasury and the Disaster Management Authority she landed a job at Water and Sewerage Company.

Then in January 2014 trouble started brewing. The army was divided and the rumour mill about an imminent change in command was in overdrive.
As tensions rose then Commando Captain Tefo Hashatsi announced that he would die in defence of Lt Gen Kamoli. Brigadier Mahao quickly reprimanded Hashatsi for his statement.
For reminding Hashatsi that he had no say in who leads the army Brigadier Mahao was charged with indiscipline and suspended.
Matters escalated from thereon.

One August 29 Prime Minister Thomas Thabane fired Lt Gen Kamoli and replaced him with Mahao whose suspension was lifted and then followed by a promotion to the Lt General rank. A day later Lt Gen Kamoli and a group of soldiers launched a pre-dawn raid on police stations and the State House.
At a police station the army killed an officer. Thabane had left the State House in a huff.
And so began a full -fledged political crisis that saw Thabane fleeing to South Africa and Lt Gen Kamoli sticking to his guns. Lesotho was back on the top of SADC’s agenda. Mamphanya says she knew “this would not end well”.
She began pestering her husband for details.

“I was not going to be the normal soldier’s wife who is content with being told that military matters were secret. I wanted to know what was happening.”
Then in the first weeks of June 2015 her husband told her of a plot to kill him.
He was fighting his demotion, a battle that put him on collision course with both the army and the government. The army was rounding up soldiers for alleged mutiny, charges that were generally dismissed as trumped up.
Mahao was one of those marked for arrest. Soldiers who had been arrested told horror stories of how they had been brutally tortured by the military police to implicate him and other politicians in the alleged mutiny. The Phumaphi commission would later call the charges a sham, concluding that it was highly unlikely that there was ever any mutiny.
“I feared for the worst,” Mamphanya says.

On June 25 disaster struck. Mamphanya had woken up in high spirits that day.
There was much to be happy about. One of her sons was going on a school trip and she was also set to leave for the Catholic Church’s annual pilgrim to the Ngome Maria Shrine in KwaZulu Natal.
“For years I had wanted to go there but he kept refusing. This time he had agreed and I knew that I would come back from there with some divine intervention because we were in trouble as a family.”
That morning she travelled with the boys to Mafeteng to get passports and IDs.

She came back home to find her yard full of people but says she was not perturbed.
As an aunty greeted her Mamphanya excitedly told her about her impending trip.
“She kept saying lets go and sit inside. I was busy telling her how her brother had finally allowed me to go to Durban.”
Once inside, the aunty broke the news but only went as far as saying “he has been shot but was being treated at a hospital”.

“I immediately knew that my husband was gone. I knew they had killed him because he had told me that if ever there was going to be a confrontation with the soldiers there was no way they would leave him alive.”
Her life had been torn apart.
“I knew that I had to speak out and fight. I wanted justice. I wanted the world to know what they had done to my husband”.

The Mahao family has stood by her in the battle.
But she would soon find out that the more she fought the more her enemies pushed back. Today she faces a new battalion of people who seem to believe that she has “fought long enough and must move on”.
Mamphanya sees those snide comments on social media and hears them on radio stations. “They ask what more does she wants. They say I keep fighting when the suspects are on trial. They say I have been given the benefits. They say I have a huge job as a delegate on the Lesotho Highland Water Commission”.

“But I have told them to back off because my battle is never about benefits or a good job. It’s about justice and what is right for me, my children, the Mahaos and the country.”
It hasn’t helped that Lt Gen Mahao’s elder brother, Professor Nqosa Mahao, has dived into the political fray. The common accusation is that he is using his brother’s death to further his political ambition. Some say he is doing it to avenge his brother’s death.
The sting in those statements is as clear as their misdirection.
It comes from a place of desperation and lack of empathy.
It assumes that Prof Mahao cannot make career decisions unrelated to his brother’s murder. Such is the nature of

Lesotho’s brutal politics and Mamphanya understands it well.
“As a family we know what we are fighting for. We are not concerned about what the enemies say because we are clear about our mission,” she says.
That mission is justice.
The trial of those accused of her husband’s murder is likely to drag for a few more years but she is prepared to wait. She wants to keep her husband’s memory alive.
Today she is wearing a T-shirt with her husband’s face on it.
The family has weekly meetings to discuss issues concerning her husband.

Maybe she will field questions from a journalist.
Perhaps one of the boys will have a question about his father. Mamphanya takes each day as it comes.
When she misses him she listens to their songs. A few months before the murder she had started compiled songs she wanted to play on their 20th anniversary.
Now those songs soothe her in times of sorrow. “When I play them I feel like he is next to me.”

A friend told her of an encounter she had with her youngest son a few weeks after the murder. The friend narrated how she had tried every approach to comfort the distraught boy but no avail. “But as soon as she said he must not worry because those who killed her father will also die the boy wiped off his tears.”
Brigadier Bulane Sechele and Colonel Tefo Hashatsi, the men regarded as central figures in the murder, met their comeuppance in September 2017 when they were shot dead by soldiers. They had allegedly just killed Commander Lt Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo after a confrontation over his instence that soldiers accused of several crimes should be handed over to the police.

Mamphanya understands that in his young mind the boy sees this as justice, an equalization of sorts. But to her this was just another setback in the quest for justice.
“They were central to this crime and now they are gone”. The struggle continues.

Shakeman Mugari

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