Lesotho: Rule by force, intimidation and fear

SHARE   |   Wednesday, 06 July 2016   |   By Prof Motlatsi Thabane
Prof Motlatsi Thabane Prof Motlatsi Thabane

The two major reasons I agreed to speak here, today, are personal. My favourite aunt—wife of my uncle who came immediately after my father—never ceased to remind us that she was morali oa Matete, and called each one of us ngoan’a Seepheephe. In her little ways, and as it had always been in Basotho culture, it was she, a woman from outside Makhoakhoa, who cultivated in me a sense of the Thabane family, a sense of being Lekhoakhoa, and a sense of being a member of a larger society. More than anybody else, it was by her that I was socialised to identify positively with Makhoakhoa’s three self-deprecations: that we like food; that we are inarticulate; and that we are stingy, with food, in particular. Among Makhoakhoa, when a woman is named ’M’a-Lechesa, it means she is named after paternal grandmother of Lethole, morena oa Makhoakhoa. Like ’M’a-Lechesa Mahao, Thabanes of Makhoakhoa are direct descendants of Lethole, morena oa Makhoakhoa. I can say, through my aunt, morali oa Matete, and by marrying ’M’a-Lechesa, Maaparankoe hase feela Mosotho oa heso, empa ebile ke ngoan’eso.

Beyond this, I think, I can also say Nqosa is my friend. And, as those who are his friends know, being Nqosa’s friend makes you ngoan’a ’m’é ’M’a-Nqosa and a friend of Nqosa’s family, brothers and sisters. I spent the period between finishing high school and going to University—that is, from December, 1977 to July, 1978—as a Temporary Clerical Assistant at the headquarters of the Ministry of Agriculture. There was an emaciated, but always smartly-dressed, fellow who worked at the nearby offices of the National Treasury. Because of the proximity of our workplaces, the small civil service, and the size of Maseru, forty years ago, he was one of the people that I saw most mornings, when we all reported to work, and most afternoons, when we all knocked off. By means I cannot now remember, I came to know he was some fellow who had forgone to go to University in 1977 in order to work and raise school fees for his siblings. As human beings, we tend to admire this selflessness in others; and we tend to admire those in who values such as these inhere.
We started University education together, in Spring of 1978. In years that followed, I found that we subscribed to similar understandings and interpretations of the basis of human action, human relationships, and human interactions, and that we subscribed to similar understandings and interpretations of human reaction to their social and natural environments. We differed a little in that, people who subscribed to these interpretations on campus were in two groups: the less public, on the one hand; and the noisier, rowdier, more outspoken and more public, on the other. You can guess which one of us belonged to which group. This subscription to similar tenets of the human experience turned us into comrades and friends. When Maaparankoe came to University, in the 1980s, I think, as he had done in 1977, Nqosa looked after Maaparankoe in ways that must have meant he forewent some of the indulgences that newly-working and single people wish to enjoy. Knowing people in ways I have described above cannot, but, have the effect of binding you to them one way, or another, and make you feel their suffering to an extent that is inevitably limited.  It is these personal relations, and these personal experiences, that made me feel that I had to participate, however inarticulately, when people who I have known in these ways wanted to meet and remember a person they loved, and to turn his tragic death into a source of debate and inspiration in the search for answers to end economic inequality and political intimidation in this country.     

 Hearing of the Murder of Maaparankoe
On the late afternoon of 25 June, 2015, I was already at home, after work, when I received a cellular ’phone call from Dr Makoala Marake, asking if I could rush to Mahlabatheng where, he said, soldiers had killed Maaparankoe. If you live on the outskirts of Maseru, like me, the immediate place that comes to mind, when somebody mentions Mahlabatheng, is near a public transport-stop, also known as Ha Makhotsa. Off, I went. On arrival, I found no sign of anything of the kind described by Makoala having taken place there. It occurred to me that Makoala might have been meaning Mahlabatheng, on the way to Roma, at the junction to Mokema. Off, I went. Again, I found no sign of any incident there. I went into the village and asked villagers. None had even so much as heard a gunshot. Only later, did I learn of the exact spot where other soldiers had killed Maaparankoe.

Some of my Last Encounters with Maaparankoe
On, at least, two occasions, I met Maaparankoe at Johannesburg International Airport on his return from some assignment, or other, to which he had been sent by Lesotho government, African Union, or Southern African Development Community. On all those occasions, we talked at length about political situations in Lesotho, or the region. One of those occasions was after events of July, 2007, when fear was widespread in Lesotho because, not for the first or last time, politicians had unleashed elements in the army to terrorise other army personnel and intimidate society at large. To my question how perpetrators could be identified and arrested, he told me that perpetrators were known, and that people who attacked Prime Minister’s residence were also know, and that the Prime Minster and his colleagues also knew who had sent those who attacked his official residence, that Winter. What I found most remarkable about Maaparankoe, in these conversations, was his level-headedness. He displayed a character and intellectual abilities of a lawyer, a professional soldier and a diplomat. Running through all this was another character of his which I knew from his student days: the patriotism that he had been schooled into in left-wing student politics at the National University of Lesotho.
He definitely represented some hope to many of us who have struggled with the idea of Lesotho governments maintaining an army. As we all know, there are, at least two questions that make this idea a subject of debate. First, given Lesotho’s meagre resources, should the country be spending so much on an army when there are such difficulties funding education and health, in both of which the country has fallen significantly behind? Secondly, over the years, politicians in Lesotho have used the army as an instrument of entrenching themselves in power and intimidating those who speak against bad governance and corruption. The question, then, becomes: should this nation continue to support an institution whose existence, in Lesotho’s context, can serve no other purpose than that of a politicians’ tool against society?  Maaparankoe was a man with who you could hold debates on these questions, and count on perspectives that would put the public interest ahead of narrow political interests of individual politicians. There aren’t many such soldiers in the leadership of Lesotho’s army today. When, on 25 June, 2015, I learnt that he had been murdered, I knew that he had been killed by those who knew he was a better human being, he was a better diplomat, and he was a better army-leader. In an obituary for Ntate Ntsukunyane Mphanya, recently, I asked those who understand these things to explain, to us, why it is that the crooked and mean among us rule us, while the best among us are relegated to the margins, and even killed, as in the case of Maaparankoe and others.        

Lesotho in June, 2015
After parliamentary elections of February, 2012, a coalition government, consisting of three political parties, was formed. We are not quite sure what the agreement between the parties said, or what the understanding between the parties was. What became clear to us, the public, was that the Prime Minister seemed to conduct himself in accordance with powers that the Constitution gave him, while a section of his coalition partners felt he was undermining the agreement. Among actions which the PM took was to make appointments, and to sack Ministers. As we know, most of these decisions were ignored. It is important to remember that, the section of the PM’s partners who were unhappy with his actions never accused him of acting unconstitutionally in these appointments and sackings. Alongside the Prime Minister’s appointments and dismissals in cabinet and the public service, crimes of corruption began to be investigated, and those found to be involved brought to the courts to law, to be prosecuted. These are the circumstances that led to the collapse, in 2014, of the coalition government, formed only twenty-four months earlier: it would seem that, those who were due to face the music in the courts of law mobilised elements in the army to their aid. This is, at least, part of the explanation for events of late August, 2014.

In brief, individuals who were suspected of economic crimes did not want to face the music in the courts of law; and those duly sacked from some ministerial position, or other, successfully refused to leave. In addition to mobilising elements in the army to their aid, they also re-established contact with erstwhile enemies, with some of whom they shared, in common, the fact that they faced corruption charges in the courts of law. The result of these efforts was that, groups and individuals who cordially hated one another, were able to find one another in a sordid bid to avoid answering for criminality of which they were suspected. The little that I became aware of regarding Maaparankoe’s position in these goings-on, was that, he advocated professionalism of the army. That is to say, the army should stick to its constitutional role as protector of the nation against its foreign enemies; and the army should stick to its constitutional role as protector of national sovereignty. None of these—the nation, national sovereignty—were under any threat. To the party-politicised elements in the army, however, constitutionalism itself was the enemy because it did not serve interests of individuals and groups who had secured the aid of these elements. To party-politicised elements in the army, and to politicians they supported, advocating constitutionalism was tantamount to taking sides with the enemy, and those, like Maaparankoe, who advocated constitutional rule were also enemies of these individuals and groups.

In May, 2015, a coalition government was established under the leadership of individuals some whom had corruption charges pending in the courts of law. By that time, the man who was to become our foreign Minister had already threatened Basotho with a bloodbath. His words, quoted in an appositely-titled article, “DC sends a chilling warning”, which appeared in Lesotho Times of September 11, 2014, have become etched in the memories of most of us: ...if [Thabane] succeeds in his current bid to replace Lieutenant General Kennedy Tlali Kamoli with Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao, then[,] cry the beloved country. The atrocities and bloodbath that will befall this country will completely dwarf those of 1970.” [Lesotho Times, 11 September, 2014]

Having followed exchanges that took place regarding leadership of the military after May, 2015 and the assassination of Maaparankoe a month later, we must, all, have formed some opinions, or other, about his murder. Like everybody else, his murder generated all manner of emotions, thoughts, questions and puzzles in me. Through various experiences, including the Judge Phumaphi Commission of Inquiry, grand political theorising, or social-psycho analysis, some of you may have found some form of resolution, or other, to their emotions, thoughts and questions. Political theorising might have yielded insights into how the murder of Maaparankoe fitted in current politics in Lesotho, that is to say, how his murder was a political strategy used to achieve some aim. Social-psycho analysis might have shown how, and to which sector of society, murder of others is a source of pleasure; how we, society, have reacted to Maaparankoe’s murder; and it might explain the manner of the reaction of his killers. It would not be difficult for social psycho-analysts to find cruel regimes to whose psychology we may be able to compare the psychology behind the brutality of our regime. However, political scientists must continue to find it difficult to fit our political elites’ conduct of politics within most known existing political science theorisation. If they are able to do so, it must be only in very broad outline, and to the barest minimum extent. I have not yet found resolutions to some of the things that puzzle me. I would like to share two of these.

Firstly, against the background of the fact that individuals and groups who had opposed the previous coalition government, including prophets of bloodbath, had formed a coalition government of their own, and installed the man they wanted at the head of the military, the question, then, must be: Why kill a man who, to all intents and purposes, posed no threat to anyone? They may have determined that he was a better soldier, a better diplomat, a better patriot, and a better human being, but he was no threat to anyone. They may have regarded him as an enemy because he sided with their other enemy—that is, constitutionalism—but he posed no threat to anyone. Why kill him? I do not believe that he would have resisted any duly executed removal from the army. His removal from the army could have been done without killing him.

Secondly, in 1993, this country adopted a constitution that re-established liberal democracy as a political dispensation by which Basotho were to be ruled. Unlike economic liberalism—which can be truly brutal—on paper, political liberalism is largely humane and allows for rights, freedoms, and establishes checks-and-balances and processes precisely to assist those in power to maintain social order as fairly as possible, and without violating rights of citizens. The question, then, is: When you hold political power, and you know a man is guilty of some misdemeanour, why not subject him to due-process through checks-and-balances established precisely to assist you?
These are the two things that continue to puzzle some of us.

Force and Intimidation in Lesotho’s Post-Independence Politics
It has always been easy, in the study of Lesotho politics, to establish that the country’s political elite suffer from a combination of, at least, two things: first, inability to appreciate human rights, the value of human life, and the place of the freedom to criticise not only in human well-being but also in development; and, second, a very naked pursuit of self-interests at-all-costs, including use of force. This has created politicians in whose view the rule-of-law, constitutionalism, compliance with local and international human rights regimes are a bloody nuisance. Lesotho politicians regard these standards as stumbling blocks which, where possible, should be dispensed with. This was the case, in 1970, when a BNP government unleashed a reign of terror on society. It remains the case today, when a congress-dominated coalition unleashes thugs to intimidate and silence society, and sets one section of the army against another.

In 1970, Chief Leabua Jonathan suspended the liberal constitution on the basis of which Basotho were granted independence. He said that, that constitution was not suited to socio-political conditions in Lesotho. In fact, what he was saying was that, Lesotho politicians found it difficult to comply with the standards of liberal democracy. King Sobhuza did, and said, the same things in Swaziland, three years later, in 1973. In the place of the liberal independence constitution, chief Jonathan presided over intimidation, silencing and assassinations of opponents, arbitrary dismissals of public servants who were, or who were thought to be, supporters of opposition parties. Few people who were alive in the late 1970s/early 1980s can forget how, by those dates, Mercedes Benz vehicles with tinted windows, bearing yellow ‘DPRK’ registration numbers, and driven by men wearing dark sunglasses, could be seen in Maseru suburbs sowing fear of the regime. This is what had replaced liberal democracy in Lesotho.
Today, those who rule us might not have said liberal democracy is unsuited to Lesotho, and there might not be Mercedes Benz cars bearing ‘DPRK’ registration numbers sowing fear in Maseru suburbs, but it is clear that our politicians find it difficult to comply with standards of liberal democracy. It is very difficult, today, to describe governance in Lesotho as ‘democratic’. We may have a government that was an outcome of free and fair elections, but political conduct and the exercise of power on society, since May, 2015, has a distinctly nasty, military side to it. As in the case of Maaparankoe and others who have suffered his fate, sometimes the price we pay for this is the ultimate one. A period as dark as we live under, today, and in which there is so much fear, is completely out of tune with democratic governance in which the rule of law reigns. It is more scary, today, because those who preside over murder and intimidation lay claims to having been democratically-elected.       

A reading of Lesotho History suggests that there has always been a tendency, among Lesotho’s political elite, to want to rule society by force. As negotiations for Lesotho’s independence got underway, it became clear that all political leaders—traditional and modern—regarded control of the security forces as being very central to exercising of power in Lesotho. It was almost as if the people to who the British were about to grant independence were wild savages whom Basotho politicians—to whom governmental power was about to be handed-over—could only rule by force. Those who have read B. M. Khaketla’s Lesotho 1970 will remember how he relates an incident, during independence negotiations in London, where control of the police became a sticking point. On the one hand, BNP politicians, poised to form the first government of independent Lesotho, in October, 1966, wanted control of the police vested in Prime Minister’s hands. On the other hand, BCP and MFP politicians wanted control of the police in Paramount Chief’s hands. However, at issue was not the matter of ensuring politicians did not abuse their power over of state’s force apparatus; instead, it seemed to be accepted by all sides that whoever seized control of state’s security sector was entitled to use it against opponents and against society. In his biography of Chief Leabua Jonathan, Desmond Sixishe alleges that, when the British seemed determined to grant Lesotho independence under BNP rule, against opposition of BCP and the Paramount Chief, Mokhehle threatened force, and old the British: ‘Give him independence, but give him an army too’.    

Closer to where we are, today, in 2003, the police killed a protesting worker at Ha Thetsane textile factory estate. When workers and society expressed their anger at police conduct, a government Minister asked the question to the effect: Was it an expectation of society and workers that a government bullet should (miss and) be wasted? As we saw, less than two years ago, this primitive belief in force as a means to rule society continues to lie at the heart of, at least, elements who make-up the current coalition. Thus, it did not come as a shock to some of us to see the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the current coalition quoted in the press as having declared that an army general was central to Lesotho’s democracy: “General Kamoli is quite literally and without exaggeration, the last thread by which Lesotho’s democracy is hanging. Mark our words.”


Further, many still remember words of the current Minister of Local Government on the occasion of appointment of Mr Kamoli at the helm of the army: “Do not disappoint us.” Lesotho political elites’ belief in force to rule society can be seen in two other instances. Firstly, it can be seen in the fact that clauses of the Constitution are couched in ways that enable crooked elements in the army to base their interference in politics on the Constitution. Secondly, it can be seen in the fact that, the military enjoy membership of political institutions that are charged with responsibility to make important political decisions in the country. I point to these examples of Lesotho politicians’ preference of force, intimidation, murder, silencing of criticism to suggest that, control and use of military force have dominated Lesotho politicians’ perceptions of how Basotho should be ruled. Control and use of force, not persuasion and winning society onto one’s argument.

Contrary to claims to liberal democracy, in Lesotho, force and use of force enjoy a very privileged place in the country’s political elites’ understanding and practice of statecraft. It is quite scary that, despite democracy, it is those who have had public institutions of force on their side who succeed to rule, or to disrupt the rule by those who do not have support of public institutions of force.  The present and previous Lesotho governments’ dependence on force to rule has caused immense damage to Basotho society. In situations where opponents, and those considered opponents, of individual and groups in a ruling regime are intimidated, silenced, and killed, in the short term, society lives in fear and individual Basotho become unable to realise their full freedoms in their economic, social and political lives. In the long term, use of force to rule society stunts and kills all meaningful political consciousness, and turns majority of society into political zombies who are programmed to vote at election time, and who have little problem with being forgotten until the next elections.
When the British colonised Lesotho, in the late 1860s, they admiringly described Basotho as a politicised society whose country was a “nerve centre” of African politics in the region “...and an interchange of ideas on important political questions...” among Africans of the region. Under colonial rule, the colonial regime did not silence its critics and opponents—or those it considered to be its opponents—and it did not kill protestors. Some four decades after Basotho were colonised, in the 1918 and 1925, the famous Motswana author, journalist, and politician, Sol Plaatjie, visited Lesotho and remarked at how freely, under colonial rule, Basotho were able to express themselves in their criticism of colonial rule. [Diamond Fields Advertiser, 1925]


It has to be accepted that, the debates and exchange of ideas that the British and Sol Plaatjie referred took place largely among elite groups and individuals among Basotho. However, this freedom was widespread in society, and people who were adults in the 1960s remember Basotho as a generally highly enlightened and politicised society who debated issues without any fear. Two things seem to have happened after independence. First, through the power that they have monopolised since independence, the elite, who arrogated themselves alone the right to enjoy the freedom to express opinions, began to do so in pursuit of narrow self-interest, and not in the general public interest, as had been the case before. Second, they employed force and all manner of measures to deny the rest of society the freedom express themselves freely.

I would argue that, alongside force, measures that Lesotho’s political elite have used to silence society have included post-colonial neglect of education; education would have enabled Basotho to acquire more knowledge on the basis of which to become part of the “nerve centre”; and I would argue that, had education not been neglected, Basotho would be more knowledgeable about this system of rule under which they are governed, thereby making them better able to participate in it. I would also argue that, Lesotho political elite’s exclusion of the rest of society from education and debates on how they are ruled has stunted not only the ability to do so but has also greatly contributed to our inability to integrate, into modern life, our indigenous institutions and linguistic abilities. Alongside his admiration of freedom to criticise that the colonial government allowed Basotho, Plaatjie admired the language which Basotho used in their criticism of the colonial government. He praised to Basotho’s  “...picturesque rhetoric and almost cryptic allegories with which [they] embellished their speeches.” [Diamond Fields Advertiser, 1925]

Ruling Basotho by force, intimidation and silencing them has killed these abilities. These days, at his pitsos and other public forums, the Prime Minister presents his versions of Sesotho language and culture as the last word. He does this knowing that our educational system has been neglected and starved of resources to a point where it has been rendered incapable of helping us appreciate and acquire more knowledge of our language and culture; and he does this knowing that the ruling elites have, over the years, closed-off political and other avenues through which we can practise our language and other indigenous knowledge freely. Intimidation and silencing of society has emaciated, and continues to emaciate, society not only in political ways but also in cultural ways. Thus, over the years, since independence, politicians have displayed elemental intolerance to Basotho’s legacy of political consciousness, and engaged in all manner of attempts to kill it. As they must have realised, every now-and-then they can pat themselves on the back and celebrate that they have succeeded, but, also, every now-and-then they realise that they have not succeeded, and that there are more people to intimidate and kill.   


One consequence of politicians’ silencing of society is that, it reveals true characteristics of the regime and the individuals of which it is made-up. Those who remove and silence opponents from the political stage remain alone and achieve their goal of monopolising the stage. Once they have achieved this, in reality or in their imagination, the resulting arrogance, god-given inability, or unwillingness, to think, pettiness, cruelty, callousness, all come to the fore. When a citizen is killed by agents of the state, it is callousness to say:  Who is he, after all? How is he different from others who have been killed before him? When a citizen, who happens to be a well-known academic and intellectual, locally and internationally—when such a citizen has been attacked by political thugs at night, it is callousness and the height of arrogance and pettiness for a Minister who is responsible for investigating the attack, to say: Who is so-and-so? It is a sign of inability, or unwillingness, to think, for a Prime Minister of a country to say: Self-misrule is better than colonial rule.

If Dr Mokhehle and other Basotho nationalist leaders told the British so, as it is claimed, Basotho are not the British, and they should not be subjected to misrule and, then, be told that it is better than colonial rule. I would also like to suggest that, in some ways, what lay behind Maaparankoe’s murder does not require any lofty political theorising: it was an act of human cruelty founded on the hatred of those who thought they were alone, and who thought they had sown enough fear to silence those who still have a sense of what is wrong and what is right. I am not a brave person and I have refused to listen to, or read about, the details of how Maaparankoe was murdered. I heard one sentence, in the days immediately after he was killed, and I found the brutality an extraordinary and blood-curdling cruelty.  
As we know, sometimes regimes think they have silenced everyone, and that they have a monopoly of the political stage. Then, they begin to conduct themselves in petty, cruel, thoughtless fashion, unaware that, as they do so, their true character is being laid bare to society. Earlier, I suggested that Maaparankoe’s patriotism, his view of the world, and sense of service to the public—earlier I suggested that these, his attributes, were moulded of stuff from his experiences of left-wing politics on NUL campus. It has to be said that, some groups and individuals from that political left have now joined those who intimidate society with a view to sow fear and silence society. This ‘former’ left who have joined the campaign to intimidate, have done so also on the belief that forces of Lesotho’s political right have achieved monopoly of the political stage by silencing opposition to right-wing politics. This ‘former’ left have also begun to act like those who think they are alone, and that nobody is watching.


Liberal constitutions, such as ours was intended to be, put force out of society’s daily view. They prescribe freely-expressed opposition, and they prescribe free expression of counter argument to argument of those in power. This is so not only because counterargument against power makes the argument of those in power look good, and it is so not only because freely-expressed criticism against power is a right, but it is also so because, as philosophers tell us, progress emerges out of interaction between argument and counterargument, out of interaction between position and counter-position. The right to this progress is as fundamental as the right to participate freely in arguments, debates, and other process that bring it about. I would like to end these brief remarks with two questions which seem very key to me. First: Is liberal democracy impossible in Lesotho? If so, is it shameful to admit, as perhaps, Chief Jonathan did, that we are unsuited to liberal democracy and search for an alternative? Perhaps these quick resorts to the use of force to rule Basotho, singing praises to misrule, threats of bloodbath—perhaps these are symptoms of a bigger problem that needs to be identified and addressed. 

Second: Is there anything in our political parties’ structures, and is there anything in our national political system, that favours seizure of power by the most politically undesirable characters? As said earlier, I found this question very relevant, a couple of months ago, when I was trying to understand Ntate Mphanya’s experience of attempts to exclude him from ministerial appointment, in 1993. Why are our most decent politicians unable to make it in their political parties and in national politics? In my view, finding answers to these and similar questions, and acting on the basis of such answers, would be a most fitting way to ensure that Maaparankoe’s murder was not in vain.


A social historian at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) Motlatsi Thabane was speaking at the Inaugural Lt General Maaparankoe Mahao Memorial Lecture. The lecture was delivered at Avani Maseru during a gala dinner which also witnessed the launch of Lt General Maaparankoe Mahao Peace and Justice Fundation on 2nd July 2016.