A Game of Thrones: The relevance battle for Lesotho’s military

A worker hangs posters displaying newspaper headlines in Lesotho's capital, Maseru, on August 31, 2014. Prime Minister Thomas Thabane has accused the military of staging a coup in the mountain kingdom. Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko

Prof Changamire

The people of Lesotho are facing tremendous odds and do not seem to have the future in their own hands. While there has been progress in some respect, many are still living in abject poverty and lead a somewhat difficulty existence marked by immobility and the monopolising behaviour of the elites in power, sustained by often surrealistic and ruthless methods of intimidation.

The Southern African country, fully ensconced by South Africa, has experienced a relative decline in the well-being and social advancement of its people.  In addition, Lesotho stands out as the only country in Southern Africa to have gone through military rule from 1986 to 1993, of which the country had recovered from a despotic 16-year one party rule from 1970 to 1986 under the Basotho National Party.

The repercussions of these different forms of governance have somewhat mapped a trajectory of domination and enabled an over representation of the military in the political discourse of the kingdom. The corollary question in light of the above becomes, does Lesotho really need a military?

The Lesotho Defence Force is constitutionally mandated to protect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Lesotho and uphold the Constitution of Kingdom. A duty they have dismally failed to execute as the LDF watched haplessly as the apartheid South African military invaded Maseru on December 9, 1982, killing ANC cadres and locals in the process.

The findings of the Leon Commission also indict the Lesotho military. The outcome still rings true today. The LDF is notorious for interfering in the political process, and behaves more like an armed political party than a professional defence force it is supposed to be.

With regard to the role of the Lesotho Defence Force in the preservation and maintenance of law and order, the Commission found that a large number of soldiers not only failed lamentably to preserve law and order but contributed to the state of anarchy, which prevailed at the relevant time

(Leon Commission 2001: 5)

A proclamation was issued by the military under the Lesotho Order 1 and 4 of 1986, the former served as Lesotho’s  de facto constitutional framework and gave the King ceremonial  legislative and executive powers, however the real power lay within the 6 member military council, whose advice the King was not allowed to refuse. The latter Order however banned all political parties.

After the watershed election of 1993, paved way for a return to civilian rule. The Ministry of Defence was created and tasked to overhaul the Lesotho Defence Force into an apolitical, accountable, affordable and professional defence force.

The continual involvement of the Lesotho military reversed whatever strides the Ministry of Defence had made, when in 1998, the Botswana and South African  Defence Forces under the auspices  of SADC intervened to break the political impasse which had the hand of the military all over it.

The SADC intervention force proceeded and succeeded in confining the LDF to the barracks. It is worthwhile to mention that SADC recovered a huge stockpile of illegal weapons and the Lesotho military had no inventory of its arms stockpile.

After the SADC intervention that many interpreted as an embarrassment to the LDF, the army was downsized and retrained by South Africa and India; this has however not deterred the military from its quasi-political agenda. In 2014 the Lesotho Prime Minister dissolved parliament over fears of a coup d’état, via a vote of no confidence which was sanctioned by King Letsie III. This was however unconstitutional.

A few weeks later on 30 August, a barrage of gunfire was heard in Maseru, radio stations both public and private were taken off air and telephones were jammed. The military had surrounded key government buildings and exchanged fire with the police.

This lead to the Prime Minister fleeing to South Africa. A year later, an army chief was assassinated, and the military was involved as they were too in the assassination of another army chief in 2017.

Why is it that a military that is embroiled in state affairs is so ineffectual? Lesotho faces no immediate external threat, and even if that were the case the aggressor would have to pass through South Africa and in so doing most likely violet the territorial integrity of SA.

If any country were to invade Lesotho, it would be SA. In 1985, terrorists held pilgrims hostage during the visit of Pope John Paul II and the Lesotho army had no expertise to free the hostages until the SANDF came to their rescue.

For a country that “imports” foreign troops for civil disasters like floods et al, it makes no sense to continue funding the defence force.

The military has served no functional purposes but to afflict misery and aggravate the suffering of Basotho. The country should systematically and gradually demilitarise and channel the defence budget into health and education, rather than keep a mafia in military fatigues at the expense of the taxpayer.