Reports emerged on Saturday 30 August about what at first appeared to be an attempted coup d’état in Lesotho, but media reporting soon lapsed into confusion and conflicting accounts.
Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) were calling the developments a coup – but nobody else was.
All other political parties in Lesotho, both in the opposition and in the ruling coalition, denied a coup attempt.
According to residents and reports from the ground, the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) did not ‘surround government buildings’ in Maseru, but did surround two police stations – including police headquarters where weapons were seized. The military claimed that these weapons were to be handed to civilians taking part in a planned (but banned) march on 1 September.
The LDF consistently denied any coup attempt. Indeed, on Monday, 1 September, the LDF issued a statement that the civilian government remained in charge. The feud and disputes between the police and military in Lesotho have significantly less to do with divided loyalties than with police attempts to bring to justice to several members of the military (including two majors and a brigadier) accused of murder and robbery. The military has been at pains to co-operate.
This standoff has been simmering since April this year with police making various unsuccessful attempts to secure the release from the military of soldiers accused of a series of murders and robberies in January 2014. In addition, troops moved in on Thabane’s residence apparently to secure weapons. While the actions of the military were certainly unusual and out of order, it still did not make the actions a coup.
It seemed early on that Thabane was playing fast and loose with the truth about a series of events in Maseru on 30 August. He fled to South Africa crying ‘coup’ and insisting he had been removed from power by the military. The prime minister was already under fire, so to speak, for granting of diplomatic passports to the notorious Gupta family who are close friends of South African President Jacob Zuma.
Thabane provoked an unnecessary storm among his coalition partners by issuing these diplomatic passports, with the problem being that the decision was taken without any consultation with his partners. He defended his decision to issue the passports and rejected demands to withdraw them, arguing that he had appointed the Gupta clan to market Lesotho in countries where they have “influence” and to secure investments for the country.
Fitch Ratings commented on Monday, 1 September that it expected the political standoff in Lesotho would be resolved quickly. Given Lesotho’s history of military involvement in politics, analysts at Fitch did not jump to push the downgrade button on the landlocked country’s “BB-” rating. The rating agency warned that if the crisis was not resolved quickly it could have short-term negative rating implications as it would affect the country’s macroeconomic stability. However, this is not Fitch’s base case scenario.
Thabane returned home on Wednesday, 3 September, to face the prospect of losing his job by a democratic vote of no confidence in Parliament. A statement by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) troika on defence and security indicated that leaders of the coalition government has committed to working together “to restore political normalcy, stability, law and order, peace and security” in the kingdom.
All parties are now back in Lesotho and the commitments made under the SADC statement were needed to be implemented – as only then will there be a (very good) chance of peace and stability returning to Lesotho. The prime minister said in a radio broadcast on Thursday, 4 September that he plans to reconvene Parliament by 19 September.
Thabane cannot survive a no-confidence vote in Parliament after this debacle, which is why he asked King Letsie III to suspend it in the first place. It can be argued that the prime minister desperately wanted a coup – hence his crying wolf – as that would allow him to muster diplomatic and possibly even military interventions to restore him to power.
Reversing the prorogation of Parliament (as Thabane has pledged) will restore law and order to the landlocked country. Meanwhile, the only real risk in Lesotho is to Thabane’s political career. However, his flight to and ranting in South Africa did not go down well in Lesotho.
From a financial markets perspective, Lesotho does not have a stock exchange, although authorities are hard at work at establishing a bourse. The local currency (the loti) is pegged on parity to the South African rand, but developments in the mountain kingdom have no real impact on the South Africa currency. Sovereign Treasury bills are issued at least once a month, with the last two auctions held on 23 July and 20 August.