A ‘love-hate’ bond with army

A ‘love-hate’ bond with army

MASERU – AS a young boy, Sello Maphalla witnessed the brutal harassment of a priest, and from then on, his desire to become a soldier ended.
His admiration for men in uniform turned into fear – one that still hounds him.
“From that day I became very afraid of soldiers. I no longer wanted to be a soldier,” says the man who later became a military commander.
“I was afraid, very afraid.”

Now a well-known All Basotho Convention (ABC) politician, the 59-year-old says he has now dedicated his life to ensuring that military excesses end in Lesotho.
For Maphalla, the much touted security reform is the answer to Lesotho’s decades-old problem of political instability amid military interference in civilian governance issues.
The military, says Maphalla, has always been at the centre of every political storm that has hit the country since independence from Britain in 1966.

“Rogue politicians use the army not to protect the country and its citizens against both the foreign and internal harm but to destabilise the country and persecute its citizens,” Maphalla tells thepost in an interview.
Merit, rather than political patronage should count regarding the promotion of military officers, he says.

“They must be promoted on merit not just because they are aligned to a ruling party or a certain faction within the party,” he says.
He is an admirer of the promotion models used by countries such as New Zealand, Tanzania and Botswana where candidates for senior army positions go through tough interviews.

“Having passed that interview, passed that scrutiny, nobody will doubt you,” he says. “You earn some respect. They will automatically respect you.”
Maphalla was only 10-years-old in 1970 when, in full view of primary school pupils, soldiers dragged the priest from the church premises.

He was then attending the Dutch Reformed Church Primary School.
The now defunct school was closed following the military raid.
The experience left a life-long impression of the military on Maphalla.

“We were at school one day when all of a sudden we saw military trucks arriving and many soldiers alighted from them running to take positions,” he says, narrating the incident.
“In no time the soldiers had surrounded the school and the church building and I saw them dragging the priest. I don’t know where they were taking him to,” he says.
This was after the then Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan had declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and refused to step down after losing elections to Ntsu Mokhehle’s Basutoland Congress Party (BCP).

The BCP leadership and sympathisers were persecuted until 1986 when Jonathan’s own army toppled him, paving the way for elections in 1993.
The politicisation of the military has been the hallmark of the country’s defence forces “from the beginning” because the then ruling Basotho National Party (BNP) hired soldiers based on membership of the party, says Maphalla.

“For one to be hired as a soldier they had to produce a party membership card,” he says.
The army became a menace to the people after they turned against the BNP and voted for the BCP in 1970 and Jonathan turned to soldiers to crush his rivals.
After the BNP was toppled and replaced by a military junta, recruitment continued to favour families of the elites.

When democracy was reinstated in 1993, Mokhehle continued on the path of politicisation of the military under the disguise of “neutralising the BNP-infested army”, especially after the Lesotho Defence Forces backed King Letsie III’s dissolution of Parliament unconstitutionally a year later.

Maphalla describes this trend as “a thing that makes Lesotho’s army highly politicised and susceptible to abuse by rogue politicians”.
He claims that the army today is divided according to factions of ruling parties, making it a fertile ground for political party factionalism activities.
Politics runs in Maphalla’s blood.

His father was a well-known BCP member in Hlotse. After his mother died when he was only three years old in 1963, Maphalla was raised by his maternal grandfather who was also a staunch BCP member.
Maphalla says throughout his childhood he was well aware of the atrocities committed by soldiers against BCP members because he used to read newspapers to his illiterate grandfather.
“He enjoyed my reading to him and I felt proud of that,” he says, adding: “That paved my political road to where I am now.”
At the time he was living atop Berea Plateau, his mother’s maternal home.

After his father remarried, he took Maphalla and siblings back to Hlotse to attend the Dutch Reformed Church School, where the cleric was harassed by the soldiers.
Maphalla remembers dodging class to attend a political rally addressed by Mokhehle in Hlotse.
Influenced by the newspapers he was accustomed to and his zeal to be a BCP man, Maphalla stole his stepmother’s BCP scarf and attended the rally.
Despite his young age he grew up a politician at heart.

He says after graduating from secondary school he enrolled at Peka High School, a famous breeding ground for BCP members.
“I felt that I would be a real man by going to that school,” he recalls.

He however spent only three days at the school because he ran away from its then notorious treatment of newcomers.
“I took my luggage in a trunk and went to Cana High School in Berea,” he says, adding that he grew up under the influence of the BCP.
His history teacher at Leribe secondary school was Ralechate ’Mokose, a staunch BCP member who stirred his students’ political consciousness through history lessons.
When Maphalla registered with Cana High School, his interest in politics continued under the tutelage of two Zimbabwean refugees who taught him history and geography – the late Zimbabwean diplomat Stephen Chiketa and Kudzai Chimombe, who is still in the country.

“They coached us and through them I understood the dynamics of African politics,” he says.
But what fascinated Maphalla most was the mass exodus of young men from Peka High School in 1976 to go to Botswana to join the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), the BCP military wing that was declared a terrorist organisation by the United Nations.

Maphalla says at first he did not want to join the armed struggle because he did not want to be a soldier after his experience as a young boy.
He wanted to be a pilot, especially after the Jonathan regime introduced civil aviation in the country.
However, he was not aware that to enroll for the training after completing Form E, one had to produce a BNP membership card.
Maphalla says he will never forget the day he went for an interview in Maseru for civil aviation training, having studied and rehearsed his presentation only to be told that a document was missing from the ones he had submitted.

“I learnt later that I had not enclosed the BNP membership card,” he says.
Maphalla says his effort to get one through a local chief failed.
Maphalla joined De Beers at Letšeng-la-Terai for two years and then slipped away unbeknown to his parents and his pregnant wife to join the LLA in exile.
“I realised that we needed to bring change by force of arms.”

It was in 1982 when Maphalla joined the LLA and rose through the ranks to become a captain after training in several countries across the continent.
He feels uncomfortable talking about some of the missions he undertook as a military man.

“Such things I will not talk about. They have to remain a secret,” says the former platoon commander.
Maphalla says he was trained in Qwaqwa for basics before he was taken to other countries for further training.

Qwaqwa was where Mokhehle had camped while in exile.
When they returned back to Lesotho in 1989 as the country got closer to a fresh parliamentary election, Maphalla and hundreds other BCP soldiers were hopeful that they would be incorporated into the national force.

“Unfortunately the national army was not comfortable with us and therefore we could not be part of it,” he says.
He says the Lesotho army distrusted LLA cadres, especially after what had just happened in Uganda in 1985 when President Tito Okello was toppled in a military coup instigated by combatants who had been integrated into the national army.

“Remember that these were soldiers recruited through the BNP membership cards and incorporating BCP guerrillas into them surely made them uncomfortable,” he says.
So, when the BCP won all constituencies in 1993, their hopes were high that finally they would be part of the Lesotho army but the national army could not budge.
The BCP, through the Deputy Prime Minister Selometsi Baholo, arranged that they should be deployed around the country on civilian duties.
Maphalla was given a job as a customs officer.

A year later, soldiers assassinated Baholo and in 1995 Maphalla was elected the Hlotse MP in a by-election to replace Baholo.
Sooner than later, Maphalla realised that injustice, corruption and nepotism were maladies that were deep-rooted across the political divide.
He blames the constitution that does not address issues of governance.

“The army serves the nation under the guidance of the constitution and not a ruling politician through his conscience or lack thereof,” he says.
He says the powers of the Prime Minister must be curtailed so that he is fully answerable to parliament “because the people are the bosses through the parliament they elected and nothing else”.
Maphalla says the current situation where the executive is calling the shots renders parliament ineffective.

Talking about the status quo in his All Basotho Convention, Maphalla says “democracy is not democracy because it squeezes out the voice of the masses”.
After the controversial February elective conference, Maphalla took sides with the faction supporting the new national executive committee “because I stand with the people”.
“Our leadership failed democracy,” he says.

Caswell Tlali

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