Sechaba Mokhethi and Billy Ntaote
Allegations that members of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) kidnapped, murdered and dumped three civilians in Mohale Dam earlier this year glaringly highlights how the LDF became a law unto itself under former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s administration.
It is a legacy that continues to haunt Lesotho. Despite the fall of Mosisili’s government in June this year and his replacement by veteran politician Tom Thabane, the military’s chronic proneness to violence was again headline news last month when army head Lieutenant-General Khoantle Motsomotso was shot dead.
It was the second murder of an army chief in two years. The Southern African Development Community is now preparing to send in a 1 000-strong contingent of military, intelligence and civilian experts to help implement the recommendations of an earlier SADC commission of inquiry.
In the latest development, eight soldiers appeared in the Maseru Magistrate’s Court this week in connection with the murder of Lekhoele Noko, Molise Pakela and Khothatso Makibinyane.
The trio had been detained for their alleged involvement in the murder of a soldier and a street vendor at the Maseru border post in May this year, towards the end of Mosisili’s reign.
They are thought to have been tortured and killed in cold-blooded retribution, and thrown over the guard-rails of a bridge over the 145m deep dam.
Mohale is the second largest dam in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a joint undertaking of Lesotho and South Africa. It is connected to the Katse Dam by a tunnel and guarded 24 hours a day by LDF soldiers.
The eight accused were remanded in custody until October 18. South African Police Service divers and members of the Lesotho Special Operations Unit undertook a search for bodies of the murdered civilians this week, without success.
What is striking is that the LDF kept mum about the alleged involvement of its officers in the disappearance of the three men when their family members brought a habeas corpus application to the courts.
In another development highlighting the climate of impunity during the Mosisili era, detective police constable Ratsebe who was investigating the matter that led to the arrest of the trio was also abducted by unknown gunmen and later released on the outskirts of Maseru.
The investigator said he suspected his captors were soldiers. as they told him that police officers were bringing soldiers into disrepute, an apparent reference to the Maseru border post shooting.
The LDF’s public affairs officer, Brigadier Ntlele Ntoi, finally broke the military’s silence on the issue in a statement that the alleged murders had not been sanctioned by the LDF.
He said the army command has not known of the incident and emphasised that it is cooperating with the police investigations.
But the statement came months after the families of the dead men began a quest to establish their whereabouts.
The LDF’s growing reluctance to account to the elected leaders was highlighted in June 2016, when Mosisili told parliament that the government had decided to “engage” then-army commander Lieutenant-General Tlali Kamoli “on a mutually agreeable solution” regarding his future in the LDF.
This was contrary to a recommendation by the SADC commission of inquiry, which had been appointed after the murder of the previous LDF boss, Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao in June 2015.
The commission bluntly called for the sacking of Kamoli on grounds that he was a polarising figure who fuelled Lesotho’s instability.
Mosisili was speaking against the background of intensifying pressure from the opposition, development partners and the US to release Kamoli from his command to make way for the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.
The ten-member commission, led by retired Botswana judge Justice Mphaphi Phumaphe, had called for all soldiers suspected of attempted murder, murder and treason to be suspended and prosecuted for their crimes.
Mosisili dithered until it was made clear to him that Lesotho could lose 40 000 jobs guaranteed by the country’s duty-free access to US markets under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. In December, Kamoli finally stepped down.
But other commission recommendations were not implemented. In particular, soldiers who had fled persecution remained exiled in South Africa, while others were in detention over mutiny charges allegedly concocted against them by the army command under Kamoli’s leadership.
When it came to hiring of recruits in the security agencies, the Mosisili administration wove a web that entrenched partisan politics in the security agencies by selectively awarding certain officers with multiple promotions and hiring recruits aligned with the parties that made up his ruling coalition.
During his election campaign, Thabane appeared to be steeling himself to take the beast by the horns, and promised to root out the rogue elements in the LDF.
However, it is unsettling that even under his new administration, signs of the culture of impunity continue to surface within the army.
A case in point is the prolonged detention of Captain Boiketsiso Fonane by the military police in the Mokoanyane Military Barracks in connection with the murder of army commander Motšomotšo.
In an affidavit tabled in the High Court, Fonane complained that he has been held for three weeks – even though the police earlier released him without charge.
No one has yet appeared in court in connection with Motsomotso’s murder, but the rumours doing the rounds in Lesotho again suggest that the LDF’s constant involvement in violence is by no means a low-level phenomenon.
A brigadier and a colonel, whose names are known to the MNNCIJ, are said to have shot Motsomotso, and then to have been shot dead by his bodyguards.