Lesotho PM accused of using army to hang on to power

A new political crisis is brewing in Lesotho after beleaguered prime minister Thomas Thabane ordered the army onto the streets at the weekend.

Jeff Radebe, an envoy of President Cyril Ramaphosa, headed to Lesotho yesterday to calm the situation that could tip the country into chaos.

It's a potentially combustive state of affairs in a country whose history is blighted by instability, political assassinations, coups and fragile governments.

Tension gripped the country on Saturday morning when hundreds of heavily armed soldiers entered the streets in armoured vehicles.

They allegedly surrounded the police headquarters and blocked off main roads in the capital city, triggering rumours that a coup might be under way.

The army later retreated back to the barracks but the damage had already been done.

Hours earlier, Thabane had announced on radio that there were people using the courts, freedom of expression and the national Covid-19 lockdown to destabilise the country.

Although he insisted that the army was in the streets to protect peace and stability during the lockdown, critics quickly pointed out that he was using the military to scare opponents who have been pushing for his ousting for months.

Thabane, 80, has been under immense pressure from the opposition and some in his party to resign.

The public has soured on him amid allegations that he has allowed his wife, about 40 years his junior, to interfere in government affairs.

His attacks on the judiciary have made him unpopular. So have allegations of rampant corruption in his government. It has not helped matters that the economy has stuttered
under his watch.

He has said he will retire in July or earlier but his actions indicate that he has no plans to leave office. If anything, he seems to be bent on entrenching his power.

Three weeks ago he hastily prorogued the parliament that was about to trim his political power and pass a motion to
remove him from office.

That decision was the last straw for two of his three coalition partners already frustrated by his leadership.

The partners joined forces with Thabane's party to sue him to reopen parliament.

And on Friday the high court ruled that Thabane had no right to close the parliament. Thabane's decision to order the military into the streets is widely seen as retaliation for losing that case.

The reality, though, is that Thabane appears to have been painting himself into a corner for months. His opponents, within and outside his party, are smelling blood.

His wife is charged with the murder of his second wife in 2017. He too has been named as a suspect in the murder but has launched a political battle to block the charges. That has bought him some time on the legal front but his political troubles have only intensified.

Thabane has tried to fire the police commissioner in what some see as revenge for bringing the charges against him and his wife. Twice, the courts have blocked that move. His latest legal defeat came on Thursday when the court ruled that he cannot fire the political commissioner.

That was a day before another judge declared his decision to close parliament unconstitutional. In the meantime several MPs from his party, including government ministers, have formed a coalition with the opposition parties.

Some of his partners in government have turned on him for proroguing parliament without consultation.

Thabane has retaliated by firing two ministers who were his loyalists but have since joined the camp that wants him out.

Speculation is rife that Thabane is pushing for the arrest of the police commissioner and two other senior officers he accuses of bringing the charges against him and his wife.

Pressure is also mounting from civil organisations and church leaders.

The Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), a human rights lobby group, this week criticised Thabane for dragging the army into political squabbles.

The TRC said Thabane was manufacturing instability to justify unleashing the army on the streets.

Reminding Thabane that Lesotho remains a "democracy", the group said: "It is completely unacceptable to render the administration of justice as acts of destabilise his government, thereby warranting cohesive intervention."

It warned him that involving the army would always lead to violation of human rights.

The Council of Churches Lesotho has urged him to
respect the constitution.

The opposition is vociferous in clamouring for him to
reopen the parliament.

The turmoil could derail the country's efforts to fight the spread of Covid-19.

The country is scrounging for test kits and protective clothing at a time when the government is broke.

Although Lesotho doesn't have a confirmed case of Covid-19 yet, health experts say this could be because there is not much testing happening.

They say given the country's borders and that a lot of its people work in South Africa, it is only a matter of time before there is a case.

Yet even this ominous threat has not stopped politicians from scheming against each other. It appears the lockdown has given Thabane's nemesis ample cover to plot his demise.

Thabane is however not taking the blow lying down. He is keeping the parliament locked and seems to have turned to the army.

But observers say he is fast running out of options.

Hoolo Nyane, an associate professor of public law at the University of Limpopo, believes Thabane has lost control of "the government, party, the economy and everything".

"These are the last kicks of a dying horse. The courts have blocked him. He is against the wall," Nyane told Sowetan.

"He has failed to control and use the police. Now he has turned to the army but he will not succeed."

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