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.
Mahao, PS in big fight
PRIME Minister Sam Matekane this week summoned the Basotho Action Party (BAP) executive committee in a bid to defuse simmering tensions within the party.
This comes amid fears that Professor Nqosa Mahao’s fallout with his principal secretary at the Ministry of Energy, Tankiso Phapano, could threaten the unity in the BAP and the government’s stability.
thepost can reveal that Mahao has hinted that he would resign if Matekane doesn’t fire or reassign Phapano.
But there are strong indications that Mahao doesn’t enjoy the backing of his executive committee and MPs in his fight with Phapano.
Inside sources this week told thepost that some members of the BAP’s executive committee and MPs are openly siding with Phapano and have been secretly lobbying Matekane to reshuffle Mahao from the Ministry of Energy to Sports.
A source said Mahao is aware of these manoeuvres, including a clandestine meeting in Maputsoe, and has said he would rather resign than be the subject of a humiliating reshuffle instigated by people he leads.
The source of the bad blood between Mahao and Phapano is not clear but it is understood that they have disagreed over tenders and the ministry’s direction.
The source said Matekane was first briefed of the running battles at the ministry some three weeks ago just as matters were coming to a head.
It is the second briefing which revealed a complete breakdown in the relationship that triggered Matekane’s meeting with the BAP’s executive committee and MPs on Monday.
Three people who were in that meeting said Matekane told the BAP officials to deal with the crisis before it affected the ministry and threatened the coalition government’s stability.
The BAP’s executive committee, including MPs and Mahao, then had a marathon meeting to discuss ways to make peace between Mahao and Phapano.
A source who was in that meeting said “it was clear to Mahao that the majority of the committee and the MPs were on Phapano’s side”.
“Mahao quickly realised that he did not have the backing of the majority and took a conciliatory approach. It was clear that the committee would rather have him resign than get Phapano removed from the ministry,” the source said.
“In the past Mahao had flatly refused to reconcile with Phapano because of seniority. But this time he appeared to be open to a meeting to discuss reconciliation.”
Both Mahao and Phapano told thepost last night that their relationship was still cordial. ‘“We are still in good books with Phapano until further notice,” Mahao said.
“However, we cannot predict the future.”
Mahao denied ever discussing Phapano’s dismissal or transfer with Matekane.
Phapano also insisted that he was working well with Mahao.
“We are still on good terms,” Phapano said, adding that the allegation that they were fighting was “baseless”.
The fallout between Mahao and Phapano has been quick and spectacular.
The two had been almost inseparable months before Mahao agreed to join the coalition government.
Phapano would use his car to drive Mahao around. They would attend party meetings together. Some party insiders saw Phapano as Mahao’s right-hand man and adviser.
Mahao allegedly strongly pushed for Phapano to be appointed as his principal secretary when he became energy minister.
But sources said Mahao started having second thoughts days after recommending Phapano and tried to get his appointment reversed but it was too late.
A source says within weeks Mahao was telling cabinet colleagues that Phapano had captured the ministry and he was unable to function as the minister.
“He started pushing to oust Phapano within days because they were already clashing. It’s been war from the first days,” said the source.
How chicken import ban hit vendors
MALESHOANE Pakela used to work at small backyard chicken farms where she was paid with chicken heads, necks, legs, and offals that she would roast and sell to factory workers at the Thetsane Industrial Area.
Her job was to clean and pack chicken.
The profit wasn’t much but just enough for the 37-year-old widow to feed and keep her four children in school.
“It also covered her monthly rental of M150 for a room in Ha-Tsolo Sekoting.
Her life was however shattered last October when the government imposed a ban on chicken imports from South Africa following an outbreak of bird flu.
Without day-old chicks the farms quickly shut down, cutting Pakela’s supply of heads, necks, legs, and offals.
Within a few days, her family was starving.
Pakela had been struggling even for months before the ban. The closure of the factories and retrenchments of thousands of workers has severely hit her sales. She was behind on her rent and could barely feed her children.
The partial lifting of the chicken ban has not helped Pakela because her former employers still cannot import day-old chicks or live birds.
Pakela and a family were kicked out of their rented room in November when their arrears were about M1 000.
She has found another room nearby.
A ‘Good Samaritan’ has allowed her to use a room for free until she can afford the rent. But Pakela says she still feels obliged to pay something because she understands that things are hard for everyone.
“Here the rent is still M150 but the landlord accepts every amount that I give her,” Pakela says.
There are days when her children go to bed hungry.
“I have told them (children) that if I have nothing they should accept (the status).”
She now survives on handouts from neighbours and other well-wishers. Pakela’s poverty is apparent.
Barefoot and holding her small child in a seshoeshoe dress, Pakela says her two children usually go to school without eating.
The other child has dropped out of school because she doesn’t have shoes.
’Mako Lepolesa, 44, who has been running a chesanyama (meat grill) at the Maseru West Industrial Estate since 2018. The father of three says his clients are mainly taxi drivers and factory workers.
Chicken was her main product until last October when the ban was imposed. It wasn’t long before his business started wobbling.
“I thought it would be just a short-lived problem (chicken import ban) but it passed on this year,” he says, adding that it might take months for his business to recover.
Moshe Ramashamole, 42, who also owns a chesanyama in the Maseru West Industrial Estate, tried to remain in business by sourcing chicken from local farmers.
It was a stopgap measure that however lasted a few weeks because the farmers also ran out of stock. He resorted to bad chicken but they were double the price of a full chicken before the ban.
Yet Ramashamole thought he could make it work by increasing the price of his plate from M35 to M55. The customers however resisted the new price and Ramashamole had to take the losses.
The poultry ban did not affect street vendors like Pakela alone.
Former Minister of Communications, Khotso Letsatsi, is one of those poultry farmers struggling following the chicken ban.
He ventured into poultry in January last year. It was an audacious venture that included a M100 000 investment in a shelter and other equipment.
He started with a batch of 300 chicks and had reached 1 000 by the time the ban was imposed.
“The business was lucrative,” Letsatsi says.
“I had to employ two people permanently to assist me on a full-time basis,” he says.
When it was time to slaughter the chickens, Letsatsi says he had to employ seven casual labourers.
Since the ban was imposed he had released all his workers.
“I do not know where they are now. Maybe they are starving,” he says of the workers he released.
Letsatsi doesn’t know how he will revive his business.
The Director of Marketing in the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MAFS), Lekhooe Makhate, says the ban has been devastating to farmers and businesses.
“Some big businesses are going to declare less tax to the government because there was no business,” Makhate says.
He says Lesotho spends M2.1 billion on the importation of chicken and its products from South Africa every year.
But that amount usually soars to M4 billion depending on the market forces of demand and supply.
Makhate says the M2.1 billion goes to South Africa where the chicken and its products are imported.
At the height of the scarcity of chickens in the country, Makhate says people were supposed to make initiatives to travel to villages to search for chickens.
“There is not enough production of chickens in the country,” he says.
“Economically speaking we rely on South Africa. We have to be self-reliant.”
Letseng fends off threat to sue
LETŠENG Diamond says it is under no obligation to advertise jobs for Basotho to provide certain services “where it has the capacity to undertake the same services”.
Letšeng Diamond boss, Motooane Thinyane, was responding to a threat to sue by a little-known political party called Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES).
Matekane’s company, the Matekane Mining Investment Company (MMIC), had been providing blasting, haulage and drilling services at Letšeng mine since 2005.
The deal with the MMIC was terminated in December last year with the mining company saying it was improper because Matekane had now become a politician.
Letšeng Diamonds announced that it had reached an agreement with the MMIC to acquire its mining equipment at the mine and offered employment to its current employees in line with operational requirements.
“This will enable Letšeng to continue with its mining activities,” the company said in its statement.
This infuriated opposition parties that argued that the mine should have called interested Basotho companies to bid for the contract, saying it is provided for in the Minerals Act of 2005.
The leader of Yearn for Economic Sustainability (YES), Molefi Ntšonyana, wrote the mine last week threatening to sue for allegedly failing to follow section 11 of the Act.
Ntšonyana argued that the Act “does not grant the Letšeng Diamond 100 percent to mine with its good own equipment” but it should engage Basotho companies like it did with the MMIC.
Ntšonyana said Letšeng Diamond and the MMIC made the agreement to acquire the MMIC equipment so that the mine could continue with its mining activities “without any advertisement to seek qualified Basotho to provide such services”.
Ntšonyana said the agreement unilaterally denied Basotho a chance to tender for such services and ignored the fact that the government of Lesotho on behalf of Basotho own 30 percent in the Letšeng Diamond.
“It is advisable to reconsider your decision,” Ntšonyana said, adding that they would also write to the mining board requesting the resolution they made regarding this matter of insourcing mining activities.
He said the company should adhere to section 11 of the Mines and Minerals Act of 2005 and within 14 working days the matter should be reconsidered, “failing which we will have no choice but to drag the company to the courts of law”.
In his response, Thinyane said Ntšonyana must “revisit the section in question in full for its correct interpretation”.
“Letšeng Diamond is under no obligation to advertise to seek qualified Basotho to provide services where it is willing and has the capacity to undertake the same services,” Thinyane said.
He said the decision relating to the agreement referred to has been through the necessary governance structures and is therefore procedural.
Thinyane said Letšeng is a corporate citizen that is fully compliant with the laws of Lesotho.
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