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SADC, Lesotho Leaders to Discuss Political Crisis

  • VOA News

A worker hangs posters displaying newspaper headlines in Lesotho's capital, Maseru, Aug. 31, 2014.

A worker hangs posters displaying newspaper headlines in Lesotho's capital, Maseru, Aug. 31, 2014.

The prime minister of the southern African kingdom of Lesotho, who fled what he called an attempted coup, is in South Africa to discuss recent unrest in his country.

Thomas Thabane accused Lesotho's Deputy Prime Minster Mothetjoa Metsing, who is now in charge of the country, of orchestrating the unrest.

Regional ministers of the Southern African Development Community were to meet Sunday with Thabane and Metsing to resolve the political stalemate that led to the alleged coup over the weekend, SADC executive secretary Stergomena Lawrence Tax said.

FILE - Lesotho's Prime Minister Thomas Thabane attends a European Union-Africa summit in Brussels, Apr. 2, 2014.

FILE - Lesotho's Prime Minister Thomas Thabane attends a European Union-Africa summit in Brussels, Apr. 2, 2014.

Tax said calm appears to have returned to Lesotho after gunshots were heard when military police surrounded government buildings and Thabane's official resident during an alleged coup attempt Saturday in the capital, Maseru.

“We have intervened by encouraging the leaders to resolve their differences in a democratic manner. We are encouraging them to ensure that everything goes back to normal and that is happening. The situation has normalized now,” Tax said.

Alleged coup attempt

Thabane, who fled with his family to neighboring South Africa after receiving intelligence that he was the target of a military assassination attempt, described the unrest as a coup attempt.

However, military spokesman Major Ntlele Ntoi said the military was trying to secure the country before a mass anti-government demonstration scheduled for Monday.

"What happened this morning was that the command of the Lesotho Defense Force was acting after receiving several intelligence reports that amongst the police service, there are some elements who are actually planning to arm some of the political, party political youth fanatics who were on the verge of wrecking havoc," Ntoi said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has called for respect for the constitutional order and democratic rule.

In a statement Sunday, Ban welcomed efforts by the SADC, the Commonwealth and other partners in Lesotho to support the restoration of trust among members of the government.

The United States called for a "peaceful dialogue" and respect for the democratic process in the kingdom.

'Want my neck'

In a phone interview with VOA, Thabane said the situation involved "total indiscipline" in the army. He said soldiers were "running around the streets, threatening people" and "quite openly stating that they want my neck."

Thabane accused a former top military commander of leading the unrest. He said he would return to his country as soon as he knew he "was not going to get killed."

Military officials in Lesotho, a country of about 2 million people, have denied plotting a coup.

Thabane told VOA the attempt to overthrow his administration stemmed from his fight to root out corruption in Lesotho. He urged the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to help restore order.

A South African government spokesman, Clayson Monyela, said no one is claiming leadership in Lesotho. However, he said the military's actions have the markings of a putsch.

"Although no one has claimed to have taken over government through the use of force, by all accounts the activities of the Lesotho defense force thus far bear the hallmarks of a coup d'etat," he said.

A rocky recent history

The mountainous kingdom, surrounded by South Africa, has repeatedly been beset by political instability since gaining independence in 1966. Until then it had been a British protectorate known as Basutoland.

A peaceful election in 2012 produced a three-party coalition government that many observers hoped would bring lasting stability — but the fragile government reportedly collapsed several months ago.

In June, South Africa had issued a stern warning to Lesotho after the prime minister suspended parliament in what appeared to be an attempt to dodge a no-confidence vote.

Instability is inherent in Lesotho’s political system, said Tom Wheeler, a former South African diplomat who is now an independent analyst.

"Well, I suppose the problem is it’s a democracy," Wheeler said, noting that coalition partners and the opposition disagreed "with what the prime minister is doing, and therefore have pulled the plug on the coalition. And I think that’s the cause of the instability.

"This man who’s the prime minister is a democratically elected person from a not-majority party, and that sort of instability is built into the system."

Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy with a king whose powers are largely ceremonial.

South Africa’s role

Wheeler said South Africans should not be overly concerned about upheaval in the enclave, despite their history of armed intervention in Lesotho's previous political crises.

"It’s not going be a big issue," he said, recalling that in 1998, Mangosuthu Buthelezi — a tribal leader who’d held senior positions in the African National Congress — was South Africa’s acting president while Nelson Mandela was abroad.

He sent an SADC force to Lesotho to try to prevent a coup. The troops “were repulsed by the Lesotho army. It was a great embarrassment to South Africa,” Wheeler said.

"So I think we would stand back and say, ‘Get on with it, boys, it’s not our problem,’ and not be worried about it."

VOA's English to Africa service contributed to this report. Anita Powell contributed reporting from Johannesburg.

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