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Growing Lesotho Political Violence Imperils Trade Deals

FILE - Army personnel are seen outside the military headquarters in Maseru, Lesotho.
FILE - Army personnel are seen outside the military headquarters in Maseru, Lesotho.

The man responsible for instigating an attempted coup against former Lesotho prime minister Thomas Thabane last August appears to have launched a wave of reprisals, prompting several political leaders to flee. Escalating political violence in Lesotho is threatening crucial trade deals at the center of the country's economy.

Following years of political wrangling and feuds between the police and army, Lesotho was plunged into turmoil in August when army commander Lt. General Tlali Kamoli led an attempted-coup against then prime minister Thomas Thabane.

Following the coup attempt a new seven-party coalition was elected in a snap election in February under Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, who reappointed Kamoli as commander of the Lesotho Defense Force.

He replaced Maaparankoe Mahao who was appointed army commander by Thabane last August and was shot dead on June 25 after several Lesotho Defense Force trucks stopped him. The army said that he resisted arrest during an operation to clamp down on mutiny. At least 50 soldiers are facing charges of mutiny for allegedly plotting to assassinate Kamoli.

In May, prominent businessman Thabiso Tsosane, a political contributor to former prime minister Thabane's All Basotho Convention party, was also shot dead. His death prompted Thabane to flee the country, saying he feared for his safety.
Thabane's supporters say the violence in recent months appears targeted at them and they blame Kamoli.

U.S. Ambassador to Lesotho Matthew Harrington condemned the move to reinstate Kamoli, whom he described as a “highly-polarizing figure” in a May statement.

At risk of losing AGOA's benefits

A U.S. diplomatic source in South Africa told VOA Lesotho risks losing benefits from the African Growth and Opportunity Act that provides duty-free access to U.S. markets. Since joining the deal, employment in the Lesotho textile industry has risen 75 percent to 35,000, and 100 percent of its exports are facilitated under act.

Speaking to VOA in February, Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing said the county’s industry would collapse without the trade deal.

"For us, without that, it will exacerbate the problems that we are having," said Metsing. "It may even be worse. Remember those firms are employing more than 30,000 people. It is doing so much to help us as a country. So any politician, anybody would be worried and that is why we will always engage the Americans on this matter..."

But the United States could rescind the deal if Lesotho’s political violence intensifies. The deal calls for AGOA partners to respect the rule of law and to protect human rights.

The deal was withdrawn from Swaziland last year when it failed to protect workers’ rights and freedom of expression. Thousands of jobs have been lost as factories struggle to stay open.

The politics of Lesotho continue to be intertwined with infighting between the country’s police force and army, says NKC African Economics' analyst Gary van Staden.

"I do not see a short-term solution," he said. "The economic impact will come if there is an issue between bilateral and unilateral donors to Lesotho and what is happening in the political environment at the moment, because any withholding of aid is going to be fairly catastrophic for Lesotho."

Prime Minister Mosisili has dismissed U.S. and European criticism on June 8 saying “the main principle guiding countries’ relations is that they should desist from interfering in each other’s internal or domestic affairs.”