Lesotho: Military rule (1986-1993)

Updated March 2007

The Military Council which seized power January 1986 was deeply divided between monarchists, closely related to King Moshoeshoe II, who wished to re-establish chiefly rule and pragmatists who rejected such a programme as unworkable (Lesotho Government Undated, Institute of Security Studies 2003). Though the new regime enjoyed the support of royalists and traditional leaders as well as conservatives in the Basotho National Party (BNP), the relationship between the government and South Africa alienated the population at large (Institute of Security Studies 2003). The nature of the relationship was vividly illustrated by the expulsion of the ANC just five days after the coup and the subsequent lifting of the blockade of Lesotho by South Africa; South Africa also undertook to end support for the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005; Institute of Security Studies 2003). Public opinion favoured a return to democracy and the opposition parties, led by the BCP, demanded the restoration of the independence Constitution, but the Military Council instead suspended all "formal political activity" in March (Saunders 2002, 523; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005).

The ruthless clamp down on the radical wing of the BNP, and the death of Chief Jonathan in 1987, removed some immediate pressure from the regime from the right (Institute of Security Studies 2003). However pressure from the left increased, for in April 1988 the main opposition parties united to appeal to the Organisation of African Unity for an end to military rule; in May BCP leader Ntsu Mokhehle returned from exile and the factions of the BCP were reunited under his leadership while the Lesotho Liberation Army was disbanded by 1990 (Saunders 2002, 524; Institute of Security Studies 2003). The dependence of the regime on South Africa was displayed to the world once more with the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Kingdom in September 1988 (Institute of Security Studies 2003). While opposition to the government gained momentum, internal conflicts culminated in a power struggle within the Military Council in February 1990. Maj Gen Lekhanya responded to the crisis by removing executive and legislative powers from the King and purging the royalist faction from the government, thus adding royalists and traditionalists to the growing list of the government's opponents (Institute of Security Studies 2003, Saunders 2002, 524).

The government attempted to bolster its position by announcing a return to democracy at the end of February 1990 (Wikipedia 2007; Institute of Security Studies 2003). In March the King went into exile, but Lekhanya pressed ahead and in May established a National Constitutional Assembly which met in June (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2007; Institute of Security Studies 2003; Saunders 2002, 524). To enhance the legitimacy of the process the King was invited to return in October but this move miscarried as, taking on the role of defender of democracy, he refused unless the 1966 Constitution was restored and elections were held under international supervision (Saunders 2002, 524; Institute of Security Studies 2003). The government responded by deposing Moshoeshoe II on the 6 November and instead installed his son, King Letsie III, as constitutional monarch (Wikipedia 2007; Institute of Security Studies 2003). Meanwhile Lekhanya found himself further isolated as the South African government, moving towards democracy in South Africa itself, ended its support for his government (Institute of Security Studies 2003). Matters came to a head when corruption scandals and a pay dispute in the military led to a coup by junior officers under the leadership of Colonel Elias Phitsoane Ramaema in April 1991 and Lekhanya was permitted to go into exile in South Africa (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005).

The new military government was internationally isolated and under intense pressure to return to constitutional rule, while corruption and incompetence was endemic at all levels of government (Institute of Security Studies 2003). The army was deeply divided on how to maintain its interests while continuing the move towards democracy so that Ramaema had to walk a tight rope to avoid being overthrown himself; the draft constitution reflected the difficulties of his situation for it failed to clearly define the future relationship between the military and the elected civil government and included provisions aimed at protecting soldiers from prosecution from acts of brutality and corruption during their term of office (Institute of Security Studies 2003). Nevertheless towards the end of 1991 parties were permitted to engage in political activities and elections under Commonwealth supervision were scheduled for early 1992 but had to be postponed to November 1992 allow for proper delimitation, preparation of voters' registers and adequate logistical arrangements (Institute of Security Studies 2003). In July 1991 the National Constitutional Assembly unveiled the new Constitution which, though closely modeled on that of 1966, implemented a Council of State to advise the King on matters such as states of emergency, to prevent the recurrence of the coup that Jonathan had staged in 1970 (Lodge et al 2002, 93-94). The final constitution failed to secure the subordination of the military to the National Assembly, creating instead a supervisory Defence Commission dominated by the military with a high degree of autonomy (Institute of Security Studies 2003).

Moshoeshoe II returned later that month as a private citizen to a hero's welcome, which enabled him to continue his verbal attacks on the government (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005). Because of technical difficulties in delimiting constituencies the election were postponed once more to March 1993, fuelling public suspicion of the military's intentions (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Lodge et al 2002, 94). Nevertheless political campaigning began in earnest. The BCP, dominated by the Intelligentsia and professionals, campaigned as the party of the commoners against aristocratic privilege and in favour of the King's exclusion from active politics, dwelling continually on their exclusion from power after their victory in 1970 (Institute of Security Studies 2003). Close cooperation between BCP leader and Ntsu Mokhehle and deputy leader Molapo Qhobela, enabled the party to maintain unity and vigorously expand its structures throughout the country (Institute of Security Studies 2003). The BNP on the other hand was riven by discord between those led by Evaristus Sekhonyana who has collaborated with the military rulers and those led by Chief Peete Nkoebe Peete who had opposed the military, resulting in a bruising public contest for leadership of the party which was eventually won by Sekhonyana and led to the founding of the National Progressive Part by Peete (Institute of Security Studies 2003). This, combined with the albatrosses of the 1970 coup and responsibility for the misdoings of the subsequent governments around their neck, discredited the party in the eyes of much of the electorate (Institute of Security Studies 2003).

Not surprisingly, under the circumstances, the outcome of the National Assembly election in late March 1993 was a landslide for the BCP (see Legislative election results 1993) which secured three-quarters of the vote and all of the seats in the National Assembly. Despite concerns that the military might execute another coup, and protests from the BNP which had won no seats though it had secured over a fifth of the vote, on 1 April Letsie III was sworn in as head of state and Mokhehle as Prime Minister; the King had attempted to abdicate in favour of his father in the middle of the election campaign almost precipitating another constitutional crisis, but was persuaded to leave the matter to the incoming government (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Lodge et al 2002, 94). The claims of vote rigging by the BNP were dismissed by international observers who, while admitting that the process had not been flawless, found no evidence of systematic fraud and ruled that the irregularities were insufficient to influence the final outcome (Institute of Security Studies 2003; Saunders 2002, 524). The BCP's offer of two seats in the Senate was rejected by the BNP, but opposition members were included in the cabinet (Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005; Saunders 2002, 524).


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