from TSOANELO MOKHAHLANE in Maseru, Lesotho
MASERU, (CAJ News) – ELECTIONS in Lesotho coincide with the country celebrating 56 years of independence this week.
But this poll could not have come at a worse time for the Southern Africa bloc, for years a model for peace and stability in the continent, but now riven by conflict.
Lesotho is among these countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional beset by turmoil, although Lesotho’s is sporadic.
Between 2012 and 2017, it held three elections that resulted in political instability. It has suffered a similar number of military coup d’état since independence from the United Kingdom in 1966. There was a non-military coup in 1994, the last, by King Letsie III.
There is, thus, concern each time Lesotho heads for elections.
Polls set for Friday are no exception, amid uncertainty over the future of much-needed reforms that the Constitutional Court declared null and void on the eve of the polls, as well as brutality by the security forces.
Basotho will elect 120 members of the National Assembly, with the Prime Minister to emerge from the winning party.
Over 60 political parties are to contest the polls, including the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) of Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro, and major rivals, the Democratic Congress (DC) and the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).
The now-abortive reforms had been widely supported, including by the European Union (EU), which has sent its first observer mission to the unpredictable country of more than 2 million people.
These reforms were hailed as a precursor to peace and stability, starting with the elections.
All seemed well when all major parties pledged to pass the Omnibus Constitutional Bill, by the end of June, to put in place legislation to dissolve Parliament 90 days before the elections.
Such legislation would include the Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2022 and the National Assembly Electoral Bill, which were not passed in time because of squabbles among the parties.
In any case, the Constitutional Court invalidated the reform bills after the Law Society of Lesotho challenged particularly the state of emergency declared in August.
“This is a blow to those who worked hard to see them passed,” wrote Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).
SADC is among those that worked hardest.
It has also intervened in political crises in Lesotho several times.
In 2014, political instability led to the military involvement, surrounding the residence of Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s residence, the police headquarters and shutting down radio stations, leading to Thabane fleeing to South Africa.
SADC quelled the crisis.
Thabane resigned in 2020 due to allegations of murdering his ex-wife. His government collapsed after coalition partners withdrew their support.
While SADC has previously intervened, its hands are full now with other crises emerging elsewhere.
The bloc is involved in a seemingly failing intervention amid the escalating Islamist insurgency in Mozambique.
SADC also has the worsening crisis in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) to deal with. There are also calls to intervene in Zimbabwe, long a problem child in the 16-member bloc.
At the last elections in Lesotho in 2017, only 46 percent of registered voters participated.
These polls were called more than three years ahead of schedule due to a vote-of-no-confidence against incumbent Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili.
Human rights groups have bemoaned the human rights violations, including torture, by security forces leading to elections.
Amnesty International said it has documented a number of these in 2022.
In one such case, human rights lawyer, Napo Mafaesa, was arrested by members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service on allegations of concealing a gun belonging to his client.
Police reportedly shackled Mafaesa’s legs and bound his hands before putting a deflated tyre pressed to his face causing him to struggle to breathe.
It is reported they repeatedly poured cold water on his face while assaulting him.
Mafaesa was freed and is suing the police for about US$28 000.
In May, 35 people were tortured by police officers and members of the Lesotho Defence Forces for protesting against power cuts in the central district of Thaba-Tseka. The victims, 19 men and 16 women, were beaten up and tortured.
They were charged with “disturbing the peace.”
Police authorities in Lesotho are facing a number of legal claims over crimes ranging from murder, cover-up and defeating the ends of justice, to assault, torture and death in police custody.
A law firm in Maseru is pursuing 58 cases of police brutality recorded since 2018.
“It is the duty of the police to protect the public, yet Lesotho’s track record of police brutality shows that the public have much to fear from their law enforcement officers,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
The activist demands that the incoming government ensures accountability for these human rights crimes beyond the electioneering period.
The Crisis Intelligence and Insight Group forecast demonstrations and clashes between supporters of rival political groupings after the vote, especially if any party challenged the results .
“Authorities may use force to disperse any protests that materialise,” it stated.
“Localized road travel disruptions are likely near any incidents of civil unrest or violence.”
The COVID-19, declining transfers from the Southern African Customs Union and the impact of the war in Ukraine have simultaneously hit Lesotho, whose economy the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects to grow by slightly over 3 percent.
Around 25 percent of the population is food insecure after recurrent drought.
– CAJ News