‘More power to the King’

‘More power to the King’

MASERU – As the nation is still coming to terms with the death of three senior military officers in what represents yet another episode in Lesotho’s political upheaval, questions have arisen on the control of the army. One man who has been involved in the country’s politics for decades says the killings are a reflection of failure to resolve the issue of military control.

For veteran politician Pelele Letsoela, the answer lies in giving the king legal powers over the military. He talked to thepost on the history of military instability and what he views as solutions to this menace. “I wonder if we will have the wisdom and courage to fulfil our promises of decades regarding the control of the army and the police,” said Letsoela.

Letsoela, the deputy leader of the Basotho Democratic National Party (BDNP), said “there will be no peace” unless the original manifesto of his erstwhile party, the Basotho National Party (BNP) is implemented.

Letsoela accused “every sitting government” of abusing the national security apparatus for political ends. He should know. Letsoela has been part of Lesotho’s political landscape since 1962 when he joined active politics as a BNP youth at the tender age of 14.

When the BNP government was toppled by the army in 1986, Letsoela was the principal administrative secretary in the office of the prime minister.
He also served in several senior positions in the military government until 1989 when he was fired as the ministry of finance deputy principal secretary.

Letsoela said in the run up to independence and the first democratic election in 1965, the BNP under the late Chief Leabua Jonathan pledged to make the king commander-in-chief of the armed forces. “That would have ensured that the police and later the army, because it was established later, would not be in the hands of politicians,” he said.

“Unfortunately the BNP, of which I was a member, did not implement what it had been touting for. We never made the king the commander-in-chief,” he said. Letsoela believes reforming the security sector is urgent because “it is obvious that our army, the police and the security intelligence agency are divided according to political parties, both the ruling and those in the opposition”.

Instability is worse than during the BNP rule because “in those years the prime minister was in control as the security forces were fully behind him”.
“During the BNP rule the security forces were not divided as they are now,” he said. “It is true that perhaps there were some who were discontent with some of the things in the government but the situation was not as bad as it is now,” he said, tracing the history of instability.

Letsoela said the political instability led to the opposition Basotho Congress Party (BCP) rising up against the police with the intention of disarming and taking over government by force in 1974?  The police’s response was mass arrests of the opposition leadership. Others skipped the country.
According to Letsoela, the divisions within the army, which still continue to this day, started in the early 1980s when the BNP youth league “got out of hand” and caused discontent in the army.

In those years, some rogue elements within the society – not in the army – had armed the youth to an extent that the defence forces felt there was a threat of a parallel force. At the same time the BCP had established an armed force which was described as a terrorist group by the United Nations.
The armed wing of the BCP, the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA) was created outside the borders and created a serious security threat in the country.
Also, since the Lesotho government had opened its doors to African National Congress refugees — some of whom were members of its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe — the South African apartheid regime became a more serious security threat to Lesotho.

Letsoela said it was at this time when the army felt the need to deal with the armed ruling party youths, at the same time facing both BCP fighters and South African forces, hence took the drastic measure of toppling the Jonathan government in 1986.
He says some in the army remained loyal to the toppled government while others committed themselves to the new administration.

In the face of the divisions in the army, the issue of giving the king the power over the army was raised again but it was not implemented.
The military junta was in control. When democracy was reintroduced in 1993, the incoming BCP government “antagonised the army because they saw it as belonging to the BNP”.

After some serious security chaos by the army, the BCP government tried to exert influence on the army and the police.
Nothing was said about giving the king some power in the interest of restoring security stability, Letsoela says.
“This has not worked until today because these politicians, all those who ruled, managed to have influence only on the top officers and not on the middle rank soldiers,” he says.

Letsoela says “the BCP government inherited this mentality of owning the army from its predecessors”.
“This is the situation we are in now,” he says. “Unfortunately for the politicians, their influence is not deep,” he says.
He says in 1998, the year that saw three towns burnt to ashes because of both political and security instability, the then government sought loyalty from the top officers while they ignored middle rank soldiers.

“There are those who will agree to be captured by politicians while others, especially those in lower ranks, will not,” he says.
“That is when serious divisions in the army arise.” Letsoela says after the 1998 chaos, an Interim Political Authority (IPA) was set up to pave way for fresh elections but nothing was said about the army despite the fact that this was the elephant in the room.

“The government rejected political negotiations because it was banking on the loyalty of senior army officers. There were no fights in the beginning. There were no political interactions and the situation worsened until it became violent,” he says.
Letsoela proposes more power for the king to ensure sustainable stability.

“We must give him that mandate by law. The king must not wait for advice from the prime minister. He must have legal powers to call us to sit around the table and talk,” he says. Letsoela says the king should also be the commander-in-chief of the army and the police, “by law and not by mere utterances of us politicians in our rallies”.

“When he is the commander-in-chief, he will have powers to approve or disapprove operations of the army or the police,” he says.
“The king is politically neutral and there is no substantial fear that he will misuse these national security tools against members of a certain political party in favour of another.”

Letsoela says the law must be clear as to how the king will exercise his power over the security institutions so that he too can account to his people.
“This will create a situation where no operation by the army or the police will be sanctioned by anybody except the king,” he says, adding the king should be responsible for appointments of commanders of the army, police and the National Security Service. Currently, security bosses are appointed by the king at the advice of the prime minister.

In short, the prime minister decides who is appointed the LDF commander, commissioner of police, director general of the NSS, and the director of the Correctional Services.  “This was an issue that was raised during the pre-independence politicking but once we got independence no government wanted to discuss it anymore,” he said.

Prior to the security chaos that had the army killing its boss Maaparankoe Mahao in 2015, parliament took a study tour to New Zealand on how the coalition government can be best run. “That is where we noticed that army commanders can be selected transparently without any party politics influence,” he said.

Letsoela said in New Zealand, candidates applying for the position of the commander are shortlisted in a transparent but tough interview process.
The prime minister chooses from three names submitted to him by experts.
“In New Zealand, the commander earns the position. It is not given to him through favouritism. He does not become a commander at the mercy of politicians,” he said.

“New Zealand is one of the most stable countries in the world,” he says.
Born in 1948 in Ha-Letsoela, Lipelaneng in the Berea district, Letsoela has been a career politician.
He is the hereditary chief of the village.

He said his dream was to either lead a political party or to be in parliament since he was a small boy.
“I have achieved both,” he says. Except, of course, that despite his long political career reforming the military has been an elusive feat.

Caswell Tlali

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