Lesotho is a disappointing country for democrats. Southern Africa is dubiously blessed in having two of Africa’s three monarchies – and the only two in the African Union, since the third one, Morocco, stormed out in a huff many years ago.

That invites comparison. Swaziland is almost a theme park of traditional, absolute African monarchy, even if it has a fairly recent constitution that ostensibly upholds the usual freedoms.

From South Africa, you can pop over the border and see this sort of monarchy at work, including young women dancing for King Mswati III’s delight, a harem of beautiful queens, a royal guard of warriors – and, of course, a duly-suppressed political opposition. The latter is really just another way of keeping modernity at bay, so it’s quite consistent with the park theme.

The coronation of King Mswati III of Swaziland in 1986. Image: AOP
The coronation of King Mswati III of Swaziland in 1986. Image: AOP

A few hours’ drive away, Lesotho is ostensibly quite the opposite. This is a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary democracy. Its electoral system is more advanced than most. It contains elements of both the first-past-the post constituency system and the proportional representation system.

It would be a perfect system for South Africa, because it makes MPs accountable to the specific constituents who voted them in, and not just the party bosses. The Lesotho system is the outcome of major unrest in the country in 1998. This was sparked by the fact that the opposition won about 40% of the popular vote, but only got one seat in what was then a purely first-past-the-post constituency electoral system.

That provoked complaints of electoral fraud, sustained protests and triggered a mutiny, which only South Africa’s military intervention prevented from violently toppling the government. So Lesotho introduced proportional representation to ensure opposition parties got a real say. The next elections, in 2002, were widely hailed as an example to the region. And subsequent polls were also generally approved. So far, so good. The modern, sophisticated constitutional monarchy was humming. Yet now it all seems to be going badly wrong.

The proportional representation system is causing instability. No party is winning a simple majority. And so in 2012 then Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s junior coalition party, Mothetjoa Metsing’s Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LDC) party, switched allegiance to Tom Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC), which brought Thabane’s coalition into power. Then, last year, Metsing again switched back to Mosisili in mid-stream. That threatened to bring down his government via a vote of no confidence, so Thabane suspended Parliament in an attempt to rescue the coalition.

This sparked a crisis as army chief Tlali Kamoli – loyal to Metsing – mounted a coup attempt, which forced Thabane to flee the country. South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa brokered a political accord, which brought forward elections from 2017 to this past April. With Metsing now on his side, Mosisili was able to assemble a majority coalition and return to the prime ministry.

Tlali Kamohi (left) with Khothatso Ts'ooana.                                                Image: Kananelo Boloetse
Tlali Kamohi (left) with Khothatso Ts’ooana. Image: Kananelo Boloetse

Now everyone is waiting for the chronic malcontent, Metsing, to fall out again with Mosisili and set the pendulum swinging again. But the even bigger cause of instability is the army. Kamoli’s coup attempt was the latest in a long series of coups and mutinies, or attempts at such, since independence.

Alongside the political accord last year, Ramaphosa brokered a security accord under which Kamoli, former army chief Maaparankoe Mahao and police chief Khothatso Tsooana – who was loyal to Thabane – were removed from their posts to depoliticise the security agencies and help stabilise the country. Analysts in Lesotho say the country’s politicians agreed – verbally though, not in writing in the security accord – that none of the three politicised security chiefs should be returned to their posts.

But Mosisili immediately reappointed Kamoli as army chief after the elections. And Kamoli began what looks like a reign of terror against Thabane loyalists, including the arbitrary arrests and assaults of soldiers, and the recent murder of Thabane ally and ABC funder, Thabiso Tsosane. All of this raises the question of who is really in charge in Lesotho.

Dimpho Motsamai, a researcher and Southern Africa expert at the Institute for Security Studies says, ‘Lesotho’s civil-military relations are now characterised by a resurgence of heavy military influence over its politics. There is a strong alliance between Metsing and Kamoli, which Metsing himself has inferred. Under Kamoli, the LDF is the eighth party in the governing coalition.’

Or perhaps the first, one might say. Internal analysts say that Mosisili is growing increasingly uncomfortable with Kamoli’s recklessness, but Metsing insists on keeping him in place. And Mosisili is beholden to Metsing, lest he switch sides again. Yet those analysts wonder if Metsing is controlling Kamoli, or whether it is vice-versa. ‘Mosisili and Metsing have created a monster whom they cannot control,’ one said.

On Thursday, Kamoli’s soldiers murdered his predecessor and rival, Maaparankoe Mahao, gunning him down near his home outside the capital Maseru. The ostensible reason for this was that Mahao was plotting to overthrow Mosisili’s government by force and was shot while resisting arrest. Few are buying that argument. This was clearly a premeditated assassination.

Mamphanya Mahao, after her husband, Maakarankoe Mahao, was murdered. Image: Times Live
Mamphanya Mahao, after her husband, Maakarankoe Mahao, was murdered. Image: Times Live

This week, President Jacob Zuma, as chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) security organ, dispatched Ramaphosa back to try to clear up the mess again. He announced afterwards that South Africa would send pathologists and Namibia and Zimbabwe would send investigators to probe Mahao’s death.

And Mosisili would participate in a SADC summit in Pretoria this Friday to try to find solutions to the crisis. It’s clear that Kamoli should never have been returned to his post as army chief and the opposition parties demanded of Ramaphosa that he be removed now. Whether even South Africa and SADC would be able to demobilise the renegade general, though, is not certain.

Kamoli evidently has blood on his hands and might not want to give up his post for fear of facing the consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, in the other kingdom there has never been a coup. And security chiefs are not killing each other. Furthermore, Swaziland’s Supreme Court has just won some rare plaudits from local and international commentators.

The judiciary there overturned the conviction and two-year prison sentences handed down by High Court judge Mpendulo Simelane last year to journalist Bheki Makhubu and human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko for contempt of court. They had sharply criticised Judge President Michael Ramodibedi for abuse of his office to conduct a vendetta against a lowly civil servant, bypassing due process. The Southern Africa Litigation Centre hailed the Supreme Court’s ruling as ‘a victory for freedom of speech and the independence of the judiciary.’

It’s true that the judgement only came after King Mswati had fired and indicted Ramodibedi, and also indicted Simelane for defrauding the revenue service. Motsamai says the release of Makhubu and Maseko ‘is an admission of defeat regarding the nonsensical running of the judiciary under Ramodibedi. It is also strategic. It conveys a message to international critics that the government is not that bad. Meanwhile several political prisoners remain incarcerated, with many Swazis exiled for promoting democracy.’

Even so, at least for now, the modern constitutional monarchy is making the absolute, tribal monarchy look good. That’s how bad it’s got in Lesotho. That surely has to change.

This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies and is republished here with their permission