Despite SADC resolutions and appeals, up to 40 Lesotho opposition leaders, MPs and members have refused to return from exile in South Africa, where they fled after military unrest in mid-2015.One of them is Lesotho’s immediate former prime minister, Tom Thabane who tells Mmegi Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI that an unconditional return to Lesotho for him, would mean a violent death
“I am not afraid of anyone in Lesotho except for Kamoli who wants me dead. No one else wants me dead except him. People don’t understand how serious it is.
“I don’t want to die. I want to die in a hospital from illness maybe, not from his gun shots.”
Thabane is speaking by phone from an undisclosed location in South Africa, where he fled to in June 2015 after military unrest that climaxed in the assassination of the former defence commander, Maaparankoe Mahao.
Mahao’s successor, Tlali Kamoli was fingered by a SADC Commission chaired by retired local judge, Mpaphi Phumaphi, as the source of the unrest in Lesotho during that period. Phumaphi had recommended Kamoli’s removal as defence chief, a decision which SADC heads of state insisted upon during an extraordinary summit held on Lesotho in January 2016 in Gaborone. At that meeting, Kamoli’s removal and Lesotho prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili’s refusal to comply, nearly resulted in the mountain kingdom’s expulsion from SADC – a situation saved at the last minute by President Ian Khama as SADC chair.
A follow-up meeting of SADC heads in July gave up on pushing for Kamoli’s departure.
“They (Lesotho) stated that they did not agree with that and as SADC, there are limits to how far we can go,” Foreign Affairs minister, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi said of the Kamoli decision.
“There are matters that are sovereign, where countries’ laws protect them, such as those types of appointments.” For Thabane, the stalemate is crushing. The respected statesman and career senior minister, survived an assassination attempt at his home in June 2007. A curfew was imposed in the aftermath of the attempt, but Thabane criticised it as being harshly enforced. More than a year into exile, Thabane has no similar magnanimous feelings about his prospects should he return unconditionally to Lesotho.
“If Kamoli is removed today, next week, I will be in Lesotho. His removal and the appointment of a new commander, who is not involved in shenanigans of power, will see me back. His successor must not be someone who also wants power for himself. We don’t want soldiers looking for power.” Thabane’s troubles with Kamoli can be traced back to August 29, 2014 when power struggles within the military led Thabane to firing Kamoli who was then army chief. Thabane replaced Kamoli with Mahao. 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, Kamoli and police chief, Khothatso Tsooana out of the country on a ‘leave of absence’ while bringing elections forward to February 2015. Mosisili, a University of Botswana trained veteran politician, won the February 2015 poll and after his installation in March, Mosisili quickly reappointed Kamoli as military commander and terminated Mahao, arguing that the latter’s appointment by Thabane had been improperly done.
A few months later, Mahao would be assassinated near his home and in front of his children, while Thabane and others would flee, citing the unwillingness of Mosisili’s government to probe the death and other security issues. “In the first place, we did not run away from fellow politicians. We could not have fled the country in fear of Mosisili. “In fact, I endorsed his election and formally handed over power to him after his party defeated mine, in terms of coalitions. “I endorsed that formally in a ceremony attended by SADC dignitaries.
“During my term, I fired Kamoli and he was very bitter, threatening all sorts of things.” In the months since his departure, Thabane has settled into agrarian small town South Africa, consisting largely of cattle and sheep
“The people here are very friendly, both black and white in this little town. The police patrols go past my house to make sure I’m safe. “They (the police) also regularly call to see if everything is OK.” The former prime minister’s situation is curious, as he is technically an illegal immigrant. “I’m just staying here, that’s all. I’m telling you the truth. I reported to authorities that I was here and the local authorities know I’m here.” While ordinary South Africans have made Thabane feel welcome, SADC’s indecision around Lesotho’s troubles are particularly hard to swallow for the former prime minister.
According to Thabane, he had asked SADC to either remove Kamoli or provide protection allowing him to return to Lesotho. The protection, he said, would stay with him until Kamoli’s exit was finalised. That has not happened, and SADC documents suggest the proposal was never discussed at head of state level. Even with its dithering, SADC still resolved in January that all exiled Lesotho politicians return by August 31. That deadline sailed by without movement from neither the exiled politicians nor authorities in Maseru, who were required to demonstrate that a conducive atmosphere existed.
At its last summit a fortnight ago in Swaziland, SADC leaders repeated the call for exiles’ return as a prerequisite for political and security reforms. This time, they did not provide a deadline and were noticeably feeble in their call. “Summit reiterated the urgent need for the return from exile of the opposition leaders that will pave the way for an inclusive participation in the on-going reforms,” the leaders’ communiqué read. Thabane is disappointed with SADC’s lack of action. “My being here is a shocking weakness in SADC. SADC is not doing enough to enable me and everyone else to go back home.
“If they provided protection for me today, I would be home on Monday.
“They say the decision on Kamoli is sovereign. That was a faulty decision because it was Hitler’s sovereign decision to kill people in Germany. “SADC accepting that, is unacceptable. The world has never accepted dictators who kill people.”
SADC’s specially appointed Lesotho facilitator, Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African Deputy President, visited Thabane in exile shortly before the recent Swaziland summit. Ramaphosa reportedly said the region was working on clearing the way for a return from exile. Thabane, instead, feels the region has forgotten about Basotho leaders in exile. Either they have been forgotten or no one cares, he says. “My only crime is that I led a democratically formed party and it lost in elections. “What have I done that is so wrong that I have to be made a sacrificial lamb by the region? I have played my role faithfully.
“I would like SADC leadership to remember. Mention my name to Mogae, to Masire and they will remember our times in Maseru.
“I am about the same age as Mogae and we worked together. I’m not young. I’m over 70-years and I cannot be sitting here getting older. I have to go home and play with my grandchildren.” Even as despair sets in, Thabane still has fire in his voice when he talks about “returning Lesotho to democracy”. “I will go home and campaign for the next election, that’s for sure. That’s what I pray for that the Lord would give me good health and hope to perform that duty for my people; to democratise my country.”