The long-awaited and hotly disputed investigation by retired local judge, Mpaphi Phumaphi into the death of former Lesotho army chief, Maaparankoe Mahao, was released this week. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports on the shots that were heard around the region
On the afternoon of Thursday, June 25, 2015, former Lesotho Defence Force commander, Maaparankoe Mahao was driving a light van near his farm in Ha Lekete, near Maseru. He was in the company of two young nephews.
Three double cab vehicles, two bearing military plates and one without any plates at all, roared into view and promptly blocked him. They quickly barricaded Mahao’s van, with one in front, one behind and another on the right hand side, the driver’s side.
At least 11 soldiers, some wearing black uniforms, hopped out of their vehicles within 85 centimetres of the former commander.
Multiple rounds of AK gunfire erupted and then there was silence.
Mahao was officially declared dead at 4:15 pm at Makoanyane Military Hospital. The mountain kingdom was shaken. The SADC region was astounded.
Mpaphi Phumaphi, a senior judge with 13 years’ experience in the Botswana judiciary, last year spent two months in the mountain kingdom hearing evidence from at least 70 witnesses ranging from soldiers and police to faith leaders and NGOs.
A month after the events at Mokema, SADC appointed Phumaphi and 10 other experts into a Commission of Inquiry to probe Mahao’s death and allegations by the military leaders in that country that he and others were planning a mutiny.
Phumaphi’s retirement had been cut short and the judge famous for his decisive 2006 vote in favour of Basarwa over government, found himself facing one of the most complex, challenging and even life-threatening cases of a career he thought he had left.
According to the report released this week, Phumaphi and his fellow commissioners faced all manner of challenges in Lesotho, from resistance by government and military figures, to a legal challenge by an implicated soldier who sought to dissolve the enquiry.
After initially touching down in Maseru on July 20, 2015, Phumaphi and other commissioners only interviewed their first public witness on August 31 due to regulatory tardiness. The Lesotho government, which officially asked SADC for the investigation, spent a week looking for a suitable venue for the hearings.
About a month before Phumaphi’s arrival in Lesotho, Mahao’s life had been cut short in a hail of bullets near his farm, with pathologists later finding that he was shot multiple times in the chest and arms.
The then 47-year-old former Lesotho Special Forces chief had been aware of his fall from political and military grace in the months preceding his death. Power struggles within the military had led to the then Lesotho prime minister, Tom Thabane firing the then army chief, Tlali Kamodi and replacing him with Mahao in August 29, 2014.
Phumaphi’s report found that Thabane’s axing of Kamodi was due to evidence of the military chief’s complicity in civilian killings, torture, bombings through the harbouring of soldiers suspected of the acts.
The military in Lesotho has a history of disregarding civilian rule, with a coup in 1986, conflicts in 1994 and 1998 as well political and security unrest in 2007.
Lesotho has been ruled by coalitions with military linkages for years, where sections of the army’s leadership are loyal to certain leaders and are prepared to respond with violence to measures they are unhappy about.
On August 30, 2014, military unrest broke out from a section of the Lesotho army, forcing first, Thabane and later Mahao, to flee the country to South Africa.
SADC intervened, sending Mahao, Kamodi and police chief, Khothatso Tsooana out of the country on a ‘leave of absence’ while bringing elections forward to February 2015.
Pakalitha Mosisili, a University of Botswana trained veteran politician who survived a kidnapping by Lesotho soldiers in the 1994 unrest, won the February 2015 vote. The fresh mandate was Mosisili’s second term in power after a 1998-2012 stay as prime minister, during which time he also served as Minister of Defence.
After his installation in March, Mosisili quickly reappointed Kamodi as military commander and terminated Mahao, arguing that the latter’s appointment by Thabane had been improperly done.
Earlier that month, according to witnesses before Phumaphi’s commission, reports emerged of a mutiny plot involving Mahao and soldiers loyal to him. The plot was alleged to target and kill several military leaders.
On May 13, an operation was kicked off to arrest the alleged mutiny plotters and plans were also put in place to arrest Mahao.
Phumaphi’s commission could not verify the allegations of a mutiny plot or any evidence that Mahao was involved in
On May 22, Mahao was removed officially and demoted back to Brigadier from Lieutenant General.
The moment he spotted the three double cab trucks as he drove on that Thursday afternoon, it is not in doubt that Mahao knew his life had reached a violent end.
According to Phumaphi’s report, prior to his death, there had been a number of threats against Mahao’s life. In the months before, Mahao’s family reported suspicious figures outside their house and unknown vehicles parking outside their house.
Mahao himself had a sense of foreboding and trained his wife and family on the measures they should take in case they were attacked.
Phumaphi heard how in August 30, 2014, the night after his appointment as military commander, Mahao and his family narrowly escaped a full-on attack at his house.
Mahao’s wife of 17 years – Mamphanya – told the commission that on that day, at about 4am , she noticed her husband was not in bed and immediately began performing the drills he had taught her. Gunshots erupted for 30 minutes, killing their dog and later, Mahao returned explaining that he had been hiding in an outside toilet.
His life, the commission heard, was saved by police he had asked to protect his life.
The police defending Mahao’s house that night, testified that they had engaged in a shoot out with soldiers. Phumaphi and his commissioners visited Mahao’s residence last year, finding bullet holes on the outside walls, garage, the outside toilet and on the van that Mahao would later take a drive in on a Thursday afternoon.
On June 25, 2015 black uniformed soldiers in three double cab trucks went off ostensibly to arrest Mahao. Within minutes the former army chief was dead, slumped out of his van, his forehead having hit the road and his feet still in the van.
His assailants say he fired on them with his pistol, forcing them to use maximum force.
The pathologist says the sequence of shots clearly broke Mahao’s arm and disabled him and he did not fire back. Eyewitnesses said he put up his hands in surrender and died with them on the steering wheel before slumping out of the van.
His assailants say Mahao was conscious enough to walk to the vehicle that took him to Makoanyane Military Hospital, where one nurse there testified that he walked in alive being supported by another soldier. The evidence, however, shows he died in his van, was dragged with his legs, face against the ground, to one of the vehicles that transported him to Makoanyane Military Hospital, 24 kilometres away. Another hospital, St Josephs, was only 14.5 kilometres away.
Staff at the military hospital quickly washed his bullet-ridden clothes, removing valuable evidence such as the amount of blood loss, while soldiers also did not make available for inspection the vehicle used to transport Mahao to the hospital.
By estimating the blood loss on his clothes or in the vehicle used to transport him, pathologists could have verified when and where he died.
The University of Lesotho law graduate was dead, his bullet-riddle body on a slab in a hospital, full of shrapnel and surrounded by conspiracy.
His three children, Mphanya, 17, Lehloenya, 13, and Setlokoane, 7, are left fatherless.
His wife, Mamphanya, is a widow who regularly attends SADC summits hoping for answers.
Phumaphi’s commission found that the operation to arrest Mahao was ordered by the Defence Minister, Tšeliso Mokhosi, that the former commander did not resist arrest, that soldiers had previously vowed to kill him, that threats had been made on his life and that unnecessarily excessive force was used.
Outside of Phumaphi’s probe, the official police investigation into Mahao’s death has ended.
The Lesotho army has refused to turn over evidence, including weapons and Mahao’s phones which were taken from him at his death.
Phumaphi and his commission have recommended the removal of Kamodi and all officers implicated in various murders and assaults, continuation of the investigations into Mahao’s death and amnesty to cover all those accused of plotting a mutiny.
Whether Mosisili, who had to be persuaded by President Ian Khama to accept Phumaphi’s report, will actually implement the recommendations, is another matter.
The region, weary of continually putting out fires in Lesotho, could once again face the tough decision of suspending the mountain kingdom and in the process, leaving Basotho at the mercy of compromised military and political intrigues.