On Tuesday morning, the commander of the Lesotho Defence Force was shot dead, allegedly by one of his own officers.
Although the exact sequence of events is unclear, the Lesotho Times is reporting that Lieutenant-General Khoantle Motsomotso was in his office at the main barracks in Maseru when two senior officers —Lieutenant Colonel Tefo Hashatsi and Lieutenant Colonel Bulane Sechele — forced their way in.
In an ensuing gun fight, Motsomotso, Hashatsi and Sechele were all killed.
Although tragic, no one is especially surprised that the army’s internal tensions have exploded into violence again. Motsomotso was not the first Basotho army boss to be assassinated by his own soldiers.
In 2015, former commander Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao was killed by soldiers. Not coincidentally, it was Motsomotso who authorised the operation that led to Mahao’s death and Sechele who carried it out.
Sechele insisted that Mahao was killed for trying to resist arrest, but a Southern African Development Community (SADC) report into the incident reached a different conclusion, saying that excessive force was used by Sechele and his men.
The report also observed: “It is worth noting that this apparent disregard of civilian rule by the military in Lesotho has a long history. The military in Lesotho has, over the years, been dogged by controversy and has a history of seizing power as evidenced by the 1986 military coup, conflicts of 1994 and 1998 and the political and security unrest of 2007.”
The military’s sizeable and usually malign influence on Basotho politics is probably at the heart of the Motsomotso’s death, too.
Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, elected in June, has pledged repeatedly to reduce the power of the military. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian just prior to the vote, he even contemplated eliminating the military entirely.
“When we win, we will gradually look at examples in the world where there are armed people who are not a classical army,” he said.
SADC has also recommended a wholesale overhaul of the army, which Thabane has promised to implement. This would leave the military severely weakened, and may even lead to criminal prosecution of soldiers — such as Sechele.
Mafa Sejanamane, professor of politics at the University of Lesotho, said Thabane is planning to implement these reforms in the next few weeks rather than months, and had persuaded Motsomotso to support him. “Motsomotso is not regarded as a particularly strong person, but he has been relatively fine since the elections because he has not resisted the government,” said Sejanamane.
This may explain why Motsomotso was targeted by his fellow officers.
“These soldiers knew their fate was sealed,” said Sejanamane. “They cannot take over the government, but they can kill and assassinate. This essentially is what seems to be happening. If you look at the people who were involved in this fracas this morning [Tuesday], which resulted in the commander being killed, it is exactly the same people who were instrumental in the chaos of 2014.”
Charles Fogelman, an expert on Lesotho at the University of Illinois, argues that the most recent incident highlights again why substantial security reforms are so necessary.
“The continued rash of political assassinations in Lesotho indicates that elections are insufficient to solve Lesotho’s issues. Security forces are routinely replaced by other political appointees, who are seen as more friendly to the incumbent government,” he said.
“When government changes, [being a] high-ranking security forces member becomes the most dangerous job in the country. Further reforms are needed to divorce the security forces from elected officials.”