Fog over the Mohokare River Valley

Murder in the Mountain Kingdom: The Political Trial of Thomas Thabane

In 2017, the former wife of Lesotho’s Prime Minister was found murdered. Three years later, Prime Minister Thabane has found himself implicated in the case at an especially fragile time for both the nation and the wider region. In this piece, John Scott examines how Thabane’s trial is interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and the destabilising impact it is having on one of the world’s poorest nations.

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On the evening of 14th June, 2017, a fifty-eight-year-old woman named Lipolelo was driving home with a friend through the town of Masana, just outside Maseru, the capital of Lesotho. It would have been cold and dark on the roads, as the small, mountainous Kingdom approached the hemisphere’s winter solstice. Landlocked entirely by South Africa, Lesotho is one of the highest sovereign states on Earth, and at that time of year, snow is common even in the valleys. According to police records released several days later, an unknown assailant flagged down Lipolelo’s vehicle, produced a gun, and shot both her and her companion before leaving the scene apparently unnoticed. Lipolelo died at the scene. Two days later, the woman’s estranged husband, an already prominent politician named Thomas Thabane, was inaugurated as Prime Minister of Lesotho.

Nearly three years on, Thabane now faces allegations that he was personally involved in his former spouse’s murder that night on the road in 2017 – implications aided by court documents that appear to link his mobile phone records to the alleged assailant. Thabane’s current wife, Maesaiah, has already been formally charged with complicity in the killing, and now the prime minister himself has instigated constitutional proceedings to secure, in his mind, complete immunity from criminal justice. Citing a medical emergency, he failed to appear in court in February to face charges, and his representatives prolonged the process further by escalating the question of his potential immunity to the High Court.

Nevertheless, the events have tried the patience of an already fractious legislature, and members of the country’s National Assembly, from both sides of the main political divide, have since disarmed the prime minister of the ability to call early elections on his terms. Opposition parties have strongly criticised Thabane’s integrity from the start, meanwhile members of his own All Basotho Convention party now see him as a leader incapable of winning public support, let alone carrying a cohesive political agenda whilst mired in these affairs. As a result, he now faces almost certain deposition through a vote of no confidence if he continues to renege.

The tensions reached their first climax on 18th April when Thabane deployed the armed forces to the streets of Maseru, citing threats from seditious elements within the establishment who sought to overthrow him. This immediately prompted South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to despatch a team of envoys to the Kingdom to diplomatically intervene. The gravity of the situation was demonstrated by the fact the delegation was led by ex-Cabinet minister Jeff Radebe, one of the most prolific and experienced political forces in post-apartheid South Africa. Ramaphosa’s evident concern for the stability of Lesotho mirrored a previous effort last year by South Africa to assist the Kingdom’s economy. A series of negotiations in 2019 culminated in Lesotho forming a promising statutory authority to press ahead with much-needed economic reforms which, without the current impasse, may have provided a much needed boost to the national economy.

And yet, Thabane has again stood defiant. Even though Radabe’s team reportedly mediated an agreement whereby Lesotho’s Senate would provide an unprecedented legal route for Thabane to retire without dissolving parliament, he soon afterwards told reporters he in fact has no intention to bow to international pressure to resign, and that the decision would be his alone. The prime minister is approaching his eighty-first birthday – some thirty years beyond his own people’s average life expectancy – and he evidently sees no reason to yield his power too easily.

The trial of Thomas Thabane, at least in the political sense if not a judicial one, is remarkable for many reasons. He may soon prove to be the first sitting prime minister of Lesotho to be charged with murder. In a country that is no stranger to military coups over the decades, he may also in fact prove to be the first prime minister to voluntarily resign. But beyond the personal implications for him and his family, he also happens to be a prime minister presiding over one of the very few countries on Earth not to officially confirm any cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The pandemic may on the surface seem unconnected, but could yet have acute political relevance to the embattled premier’s future. Indeed, as with countries across the globe – Brazil, Italy, Tanzania, Australia to name but a few – this new microscopic threat possesses real political potency for the future of the nation.

Like many countries the world over, the Government of Lesotho has now extended a pragmatic COVID-19 lockdown for another two weeks. On the one hand, an apparent lack of infections in the country could be spun as testament to prescient and decisive leadership in the opening phases of the global outbreak. On the other hand, even a cursory look at the reality in Lesotho would reveal that a lack of confirmed cases is not down to decisive leadership, but in fact simply down to a lack of testing capability. This is the case in much of the region, including in nations that border the continent’s worst affected country so far and Lesotho’s only neighbour, South Africa. Moreover, nurses in Lesotho have held strikes in recent weeks because of a lack of personal protective equipment or access to sick pay – concerns that would hardly be relevant to health professionals who had genuine reason to believe their hospitals were free of the virus.

While the health system’s chronic lack of resources in Lesotho is certainly not Thomas Thabane’s doing – the country has been one of the very poorest nations in the world since its independence from the UK in 1966 – the shape of public health in the coming months will be central the the embattled premier’s legacy. He himself served his first political post as Health Secretary for Leabua Jonathan, the second Prime Minister of Lesotho, in the 1980s, and later adopted the portfolio of Foreign Minister at the time of King Letsie III’s declaration that HIV/AIDS in the country constituted a natural disaster. Should international assistance in the form of COVID-19 testing paint a much more tragic picture of coronavirus in Lesotho than has so far been the case, then the legitimate question will doubtless be asked: why did the prime minister adopt such an obstructionist approach as Sub Saharan Africa entered its darkest phase of the global pandemic, particularly in the face of international mediation? To be potentially convicted of the murder of one person may be damaging enough; but to be potentially labelled as the leader who diverted government attention and resources while citizens suffered in obscurity would be ruinous.

Credible coverage within Lesotho places Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro as Thabane’s most likely successor. He will have not a moment to celebrate, but immediately face a set of monumental tasks. These loom not just in terms of the reputation of his party, but also in terms of unprecedented economic recession, and a pandemic that will underline the existing prevalence of HIV.

Amid all of this, for the time being, justice remains evasive for Lipolelo Thabane. It may be some time before a verdict is delivered around the prime minister and his wife, but regardless of any trial’s outcome, Lesotho’s political storm is far from over.

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John Scott is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. John has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic and organised crime analysis for Intelligence Fusion, and now works in political risk for a leading intelligence firm in London.

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Photo: Fog over the Mohokare River Valley in Lesotho, Paramente Phamotse, Wikimedia Commons Image