Field wide open for high-stake Lesotho elections

Large voter turnout predicted despite despondency over 'self-serving' politicians

Lesotho residents always come out in numbers for polls in high expectation.
Lesotho residents always come out in numbers for polls in high expectation.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

Maseru – The Kingdom of Lesotho heads into a high-stakes election this morning amid a biting economic meltdown and a spike in violent crimes.

The crowded political field and the absence of credible polls make it impossible to predict who will prevail. Indications, however, point to another coalition government of two or more large political parties.

Smaller parties might also be kingmakers. Political rallies, especially those of the five largest parties, have drawn huge crowds. The entrance of new political players seems to have energised the youth, who have borne the brunt of rampant unemployment and poverty, to vote for the first time.

The palpable euphoria over the past three months could point to a high voter turnout. Although the campaign messages have been thin on proposed solutions to Lesotho’s plethora of problems, Basotho seem clear about why they are voting.

“It’s time to give a chance to someone new to rule this country,” says Thabo Lephoto, a qualified teacher who has been a street vendor for the past three years.

“We are tired of politicians who care for their families while the nation starves,” says Boitumelo Molise, a university graduate who sells food from the boot of her car.

Hunger stalks more than half the population of 2-million people. Corruption and patchy service delivery have soured the public mood against the incumbent government which has admitted to being too broke to pay suppliers. The textile sector, the biggest private sector employer, has been losing jobs since the Covid-19 pandemic started.

Roads are poked with potholes and many bridges swept away by heavy rains are yet to be repaired. Nepotism and cadre deployment have denied job opportunities to qualified people, created an inept government and ballooned the public service wage bill.

The government’s finances are a mess because of poor tax revenues and grand sleaze by civil servants. Public officials accused of fraud and corruption are either rarely prosecuted or those who find themselves in the courts get off with soft sentences.

Other problems are more recent but equally pernicious and troubling to Basotho. The smuggling of illegal guns from SA has earned Lesotho a dubious reputation of having the third highest murder rate in the world.

Incidents of armed robberies have surged in recent months to overwhelm a police force already operating on a shoestring due to the government’s financial crisis. Most of the violent crimes have been blamed on Famo gangs that are also wreaking havoc in SA through illegal mining and murders.

The kingpins and foot soldiers in zama zama operations are mostly Basotho who illegally commute through the porous borders between Lesotho and SA. Although the SA government appears to have taken a hard line against the gangs, political parties in Lesotho seem to have embraced them.

The leaders of the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) and the Democratic Congress (DC) have opened their doors to the gangs during the campaign. Nkaku Kabi, the ABC leader, held several rallies with Sarele "Lehlanya" Sello, the boss of a faction of the notorious Terene ea Mokata gang wanted in SA for the murder of 16 people at a Soweto tavern in July.

At one rally Kabi and Sello handed out blankets and R100 notes to supporters. The DC has openly courted another Famo gang,  Terene ea Chakela, whose leader Mathibeli Mokhothu is the deputy prime minister. Mokhothu has described the gangsters as a peaceful group whose reputation is being tarnished by rogue elements.

The alliances between political parties and Famo gangs are motivated by money and votes. The gangs’ military-like organisational prowess means they can rally their members to bring both money and votes to political parties. It is a reality backed by numbers.

There are about 150,000 gang members in Lesotho, making them a significant and coveted constituency for politicians. Therefore, whichever party has Famo gangs on its side has a front foot in an election race. In return for their support, the Famo gangs get protection from the politicians.

Moeketsi Majoro, the prime minister, has previously called out politicians who shield violent gangsters from arrest and prosecution. Majoro, who is not contesting after falling out with his ABC, also alleged that some police officers were gang members. This could explain why prosecutions of gang members accused of violent murders are rare.

Those arrested are easily bailed out and cross into SA to continue their crime spree. When SA becomes too hot, they illegally cross back to Lesotho. This election also has much at stake for Basotho as it has for the SA government.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and SADC have worked hard to pressure Lesotho to institute reforms to stop the political instability that has bedevilled the country for decades. Their recent push failed last month due to a combination of squabbles among the political players and a court challenge that nullified the constitutional amendments that would have paved the way for the reforms.

Ramaphosa and SADC are therefore hoping the next government will complete the reform project. Lesotho’s current political landscape is dominated by the old, the new and the "newish".

The old are the ABC and the DC which have been in an uneasy coalition that many believe dismally failed to turn Lesotho’s economic fortunes. That bloc also includes some small parties that have traditionally picked a handful of seats and earned ministerial positions in previous coalitions.

Although still a strong political force, ABC seems to be on a slide because of factional fights. The legal troubles of its former leader, Thomas Thabane, and his now wife, have eroded some of its support. Both have been accused of the murder of Thabane’s wife in 2017.

The charges have been withdrawn due to a lack of witnesses, but they are not entirely off the hook.  

The DC had a well-funded campaign but attempts by some political opponents to get some of its candidates disqualified from contesting the election don’t bode well for the party’s chances.

The "newish" is the Basotho Action Party (BAP) which is led by a former Wits University professor who broke away from the ABC after a bruising leadership battle. Until six months ago, the BAP was seen as the party to watch in this election after it gained a significant number of supporters from the fractious ABC. The potential mover and shaker in this election appear to be the recently formed Revolution for Prosperity (RFP) which is led by Sam Matekane, Lesotho’s equivalent of Patrice Motsepe.

Dubbed the rich people’s party, the RFP has some of the most prominent businesspeople as its candidate. It has attracted former senior civil servants like the central bank governor, chief justice and government secretary. The party has used its deep pockets to run a sleek and at times opulent campaign. But the backlash from the established political parties has been furious. Opponents have been quick to undermine Matekane’s credibility as an astute businessman, pointing out that he is a beneficiary of government tenders and patronage.

Hoolo 'Nyane, a Mosotho who is a constitutional law professor at the University of Limpopo, says the election is a referendum on the status quo.

“The overflow of people into the RFP despite its lack of clear programme is an indication that content has long ceased to be a factor in Lesotho's politics,” ’Nyane says.

“The hope for our people is a change of personalities. There is glaring disgruntlement with DC and ABC.” Some political parties have raised alarm about mistakes in the voters’ roll they fear would disenfranchise many voters and damage the poll’s credibility.

The parties say voters’ details have either been duplicated or are missing crucial details like registration numbers and dates of birth. Some are apprehensive that the names of hundreds of dead people that remain on the roll could be used to rig the election.

One political party has alleged a sinister plan to import South Africans across the porous borders to vote in Lesotho. But the electoral commission has allayed those worries, insisting that whatever mistakes are on the roll will be resolved on polling day. Still, doubts about the roll’s integrity and accuracy linger.

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