Lesotho: torture and assassination

Lesotho army and police involvement in politics threatens to prevent the government from undertaking necessary constitutional, security, judicial and public-sector reforms

Lesotho political party All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader and candidate Tom Thabane (C) casts his ballot at a polling station on 3 June, 2017 in Maseru, during a general election. It was the third general election since 2012. Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP

Lesotho’s peace and stability has long been threatened by “political leaders’ desire to cling to political power”, according to a 2002 report by the South African-based Institute of Justice and Reconciliation. The country became independent in 1966 and experienced its first coup in 1970. Politicians have used different strategies to preserve or consolidate their power base, including creating Koeyoko, or “secret political elimination machinery”, says Major- General Metsing Lekhanya (retired), former chair of the Military Council (MC). Koeyoko’s first victim was Odilon Mofo Seheri, a former personal secretary to King Moshoeshoe II, who announced a plan to form a political party to challenge Joseph Leabua Jonathan, the country’s first prime minister. In June 1981, Seheri was abducted after attending a meeting at a Maseru hotel, where he was suspected of having plotted a coup against Leabua.

His bones and ashes were later found in the remote area of Bushman’s Pass. His wife was only able to identify a ring, keys and a belt. No one was prosecuted for the murder. On 4 September, 1982, the home of Ben Masilo, a critic of the government was attacked. Masilo escaped unharmed, but his five-year-old grandson was shot and killed in the attack. Three days later, on 7 September, Edgar Motuba, the outspoken editor of the anti-government publication Leselinyana la Lesotho was abducted with two visitors by a group of men who claimed to be members of the police. Their bodies were discovered the next day; the authorities did not disclose how they had died. Koeyoko had eliminated three victims in one year and it was evident that dissenting views would not be tolerated. Although the police were implicated, no arrests were made, raising suspicions that the killings were ordered from above.

In 1986, after ruling unopposed for 20 years, Jonathan lost power in a coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Sekhobe Letsie, who installed Lekhanya, with the MC, in power. Immediately after assuming power, the military barred political opposition. On 23 December, 1998, Lekhanya shot and killed a 21-year-old student, George Ramone, who was later reported to be having a relationship with the major general’s girlfriend. After a failed attempt to get a bodyguard to claim responsibility for the shooting, a rigged inquest absolved Lekhanya, despite attempts by the MC to use the incident to get rid of him. In the late 1980s Letsie was involved in the kidnapping and murder of two former ministers deposed in the coup, Vincent Makhele and Desmond Sixishe and their wives, Montsi Makhele and Manapo Sixishe at Bushman’s Pass in the early 1990s. The former ministers were known to have left-wing sympathies and had declared allegiance to Leabua.

Both were also thought to have strong relations with Libya, Cuba and North Korea and were suspected of enjoying armed support from these countries. The murders remained hidden until Ramone’s murder exposed ruptures within the MC. Cleared at the rigged inquest, Lekhanya moved swiftly to arrest Letsie and dismiss three of his allies on the MC. Letsie went on to be convicted of murder, and served 15 years in prison. The murders of Ramone and the two former ministers and their wives involved systematic attempts to protect the murderers and the resultant culture of unaccountability laid the foundation for the present, ongoing politicisation of Lesotho’s army, which has its own murderous track record. Prior to the 2012 elections, the then prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, appointed Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli as the commander of Lesotho’s defence force (LDF).

The appointment was controversial, with critics pointing out that Mosisili would have been aware that an election was looming, and that the appointment would be the prerogative of the new government. Mosisili lost the election to Thomas Thabane, who became prime minister of the country’s first coalition government. Two years after taking power, Thabane indicated that Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao would take over the LDF from Kamoli, who refused to step down. In January 2014, bombs exploded at the home of Thabane’s wife and that of the then police commissioner, Khothatso Tšooana. Kamoli reportedly refused to hand over eight LDF members later implicated in the bombings and on 30 August, 2014, the LDF staged a pre-dawn coup. Thabane, Mahao, and Tšooana fled to South Africa, only to return under the protection of the South African police.

Due to ensuing political instability, the first coalition government did not complete its five-year tenure, and snap elections were held in March 2015. Mosisili was returned to office on the back of a coalition of seven political parties. Back in office, Mosisili addressed a military parade, thanking the military, particularly Kamoli, for ensuring his return to power; a startling statement given that, in fact, Basotho voters had elected him. It was after this that 23 LDF officers were arrested, charged with plotting a mutiny with Mahao. The officers, who were reportedly tortured and denied medical and legal access while in custody, were later acquitted at a court martial. One of Mosisili’s first political actions after taking power was to dismiss Mahao as commander of the LDF, demoting him to the rank of brigadier, and reappointing Kamoli on the grounds that his dismissal by Thabane had been illegal.

On 25 June, 2015, Mahao was assassinated by members of the LDF, which claimed he had been shot resisting arrest. However, a nephew who was with him at the time said his uncle was shot while attempting to surrender. Some LDF elements were also intolerant of the media. On the night of 9 July, 2016, a group of LDF members shot Lloyd Mutungamiri, editor of the Lesotho Times newspaper, four times in the face while seated in his car. The soldiers, who were arrested and charged with attempted murder, are still awaiting trial. The attack on Mutungamiri followed a front page story alleging that the government had paid Kamoli a R40 million golden handshake to step down. The paper was also accused of supporting opposition parties. In 2017, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) correspondent Nthakoana Ngatane had to flee Lesotho after receiving threats of rape and death.

The LDF also has a history of ruthless treatment of ordinary civilians. On 10 May, 2014, a couple, Lisebo Tang and her fiancé, Ts’epo Jane, who had parked their car next to Kamoli’s home were sprayed with more than 100 bullets after they were mistaken for people intending to harm him. Tang died on the spot while Jane was badly injured. There were subsequent allegations that the Tang family had been intimidated to stay silent about the incident and given R10,000 for funeral expenses. The LDF members allegedly responsible for the shooting were later charged with murder and attempted murder. In another incident, on 19 July, 2016, Dr Makoae Mojalefa Taoana, who had reportedly treated jailed mutineers, died of injuries sustained after his car was engulfed by fire in the capital, Maseru. And in May 2017, a group of LDF officers killed three people they suspected of shooting a fellow LDF member and a vendor and threw their bodies into the Mohale Dam.

Ten LDF suspects were later arrested. In June 2017, Lesotho held a snap election after Mosisili lost a motion of no confidence. Thabane became prime minister for the second time on the back of a third coalition government. Khoantle Motšomotšo was appointed LDF commander after Kamoli resigned on 1 December, 2016. He cooperated with Thabane’s government in bringing to book a number of LDF members involved in extralegal activities. But this was to prove fatal, because the LDF ranks included Kamoli allies, and Motšomotšo was assassinated by two officers, Brigadier Bulani Sechele and Lieutenant Colonel Tefo Hashatsi on 5 September, 2017. Both officers were fatally shot while trying to flee. The triggers for Motšomotšo’s assassination included allegations that he had sold out army colleagues to the police, had accepted the LDF’s subjugation to civilian authority, and released several officers who had faced criminal prosecution.

In June 2017, Lipolelo Thabane, Thabane’s estranged wife, was gunned down and killed by two assailants, two days before her husband’s inauguration. She had just won a lawsuit which had sought first lady benefits for herself. Foreign Affairs Minister Lesego Makgothi later said the investigation into the murder “had stalled”, although he assured the nation that the case remained a police priority. After Mahao’s assassination, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) appointed South Africa’s then deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to mediate attempts to stabilise Lesotho and established a commission of inquiry led by Justice Mphapi Phumaphi of Botswana, to investigate the allegations of a 2014-15 mutiny, Mahao’s murder and the legality of Kamoli and Mahao’s respective removal and appointment. The SADC commission finished its work on 21 October, 2015, two months earlier than planned, due to the uncooperative attitudes of both the government and LDF.

The SADC report exonerated Mahao of resisting arrest and being part of a munity. The 23 LDF members were also exonerated, with Justice Phumaphi declaring the alleged mutiny a “fabrication”. But the commission recommended that Kamoli be relieved of his LDF command, that all soldiers suspected of murder, high treason and other serious crimes shielded by the LDF command be suspended while investigations continued, and that all soldiers charged with mutiny be given amnesties. By using Koeyoko tactics, the LDF and the Lesotho police force are failing in their duty to be apolitical and accountable to a civilian authority as required by the country’s Constitution. Their involvement in politics threatens to prevent the government from undertaking the constitutional, security, judicial and public-sector reforms recommended by the SADC report.

Mokete Pherudi is the head of the Early Warning Unit at CISSA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has participated in a number of election observation missions in southern Africa and beyond. He has also served as a technocrat in the SADC regional mediation and facilitation processes in countries such as Lesotho, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. Pherudi recently published a book titled Governance and Democracy in Lesotho: Challenges faced by SADC intervention, 2007-2015.