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

JOHANNESBURG - The assassination this week of Lesotho's army chief has raised fears domestically and abroad about instability in the tiny southern African kingdom, and put into focus the relationship between political leaders and the military.

Lieutenant General Khoantle Motsomotso was killed after armed individuals burst into his office at a military barracks and shot him. The assailants — officers who were the lead suspects in the 2015 killing of the previous chief — were killed in a subsequent shootout.

The Southern African Development Community was quick to condemn the incident as an "indescribable and inexcusable barbaric and heinous act," and sent in a team to investigate.

Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro told VOA that he and other ministers visited the crime scene. Majoro says he's not sure the incident was an attempted coup, but rather an effort by the officers to punish the general for refusing to shield them from an investigation into the 2015 killing of his predecessor.

Majoro disputed reports that the SADC had deployed peacekeepers to Lesotho, saying he was only aware of an investigative team.

Lesotho map

"We are not thinking that there was an intention to have a coup, particularly on Tuesday," he told VOA. "We are not ruling out that some members of the LDF [Lesotho Defense Force] have met with others to conspire about such ideas as coups, but I don't necessarily think that on Tuesday that was the execution of such conspiracies.

"This is subject to confirmation by intelligence in the future. But for now, I think, Lesotho is calm."

Slow process of reform

The incident also highlights a central promise made by Lesotho's new government, which was elected in June: to immediately reform the security services.

The military has long been tightly entwined with Lesotho's political woes and, in 1986, the army led a coup to push out a long-serving government. In this century, Lesotho's military has been involved in a number of political actions, including the putsch that pushed then-prime minister Tom Thabane into exile in 2014 after just two years in power. Thabane became opposition leader and was re-elected into government in June.

Majoro agrees that security sector reforms are an urgent priority for the new government, but says they were never going to be quick.

"The difficulties with the army cannot be fixed, and could not have been fixed, all at once," he said. "You should appreciate that, within the Lesotho Defense Force, there was a cabal of soldiers we considered quite dangerous, soldiers that have committed crimes that would not have just easily rolled off and allowed themselves to face criminal prosecution. So there was always a need for caution. This process was always going to take a bit of time."

Clash foretold?

Others disagree. The vice chancellor of the National University of Lesotho, Professor Nqosa Mahao, says regional mediators and the government should have seen such a clash coming and acted sooner.

"They should have done that a long time ago," he said of the mediators' recent efforts to help the government implement reforms. "SADC has been very tardy in terms of handling this over the past one-and-a-half years. Government itself does not appear to me to have been conscious enough that they could sooner or later be dealing with a rebellion led by a small group of officers in the army."

Mahao is the brother of Lieutenant-General Maaparankoe Mahao — the defense forces head who was killed in 2015, allegedly by the same men who killed Motsomotso. In these troubling times, Nqosa Mahao says, his family feels a surprising emotion.

"We feel saddened by their deaths," he told VOA. "Because our healing was going to come from a court process where they would be able to answer why they did what they did onto my brother, but also, did it in the brutal fashion that they did."