Tom Thabane was jeered by assembled supporters of his own party last week, in what political analysts see as a sign that his days as the Lesotho’s Prime Minister may be numbered.
The rowdiness that marked the All Basotho Convention (ABC) navel-gazing “sabbatical conference” in the far southern district of Quthing gave a new twist to the leadership battle in the party ahead of its elective conference in early 2019.
Analysts say the voting for a new leadership could fracture the current four-party coalition government that Thabane leads.
At the heart of delegate’s anger was the ABC national executive committee’s dramatic six-month suspension of outspoken ABC chairperson Motlohi Maliehe a day before the conference. Earlier the same week, Thabane sacked Maliehe as his tourism and environment minister.
Maliehe’s offence was publicly to attack Thabane’s leadership, accusing him of allowing his much younger, ambitious wife, Maesaiah Thabane, to meddle in the affairs of state.
There are also growing concerns in the ABC and government that Thabane’s age – he is 79 – is starting to affect his performance. He is seen as being increasingly forgetful and reliant on his wife and ABC secretary general Samonyane Ntsekele, who stands next to him as his prompt whenever he delivers public speeches.
Controversy also surrounds Thabane’s relationship with Chinese-born entrepreneur Yan (“John”) Xie, whom he appointed last year as “head of special projects and Prime Minister’s special envoy and adviser on China/Asia trade networks”, shortly after he took power.
Xie, a naturalised Mosotho, is seen as angling to monopolise Lesotho’s wool and mohair industry. His response to this allegation is not known, as he never spoken out on this issue.
During the conference Thabane himself admitted there were serious problems in the ABC. He was quoted by Lesotho’s Sunday Express as saying he hoped the party would grow so that it won enough seats to govern on its own, while adding that “this would not be possible if the challenges facing the party are not immediately addressed”.
Said political activist and commentator Ramahooana Matlosa: “The coalition government is already divided; they cannot speak with one voice. When things like this [heckling at the conference] happen in the major coalition member, it exposes and weakens the government itself.”
ABC stalwart Montoeli Masoetsa told amaBhungane that the ABC violated its own constitution by suspending Maliehe without taking him through a disciplinary hearing and not allowing the conference to rule on his appeal against the suspension.
“It’s being run by people who are pushing their interests instead of the party’s, indicating that the ABC has an incompetent leader. The same person is the leader of the coalition government and prime minister. If there is instability in the ABC, there is obviously instability in government,” Masoetsa said.
The conference should have been used to determine whether ABC was sinking or sailing, he said, “but was clouded by disorderly behaviour, even by the NEC itself”. The party was heading for a split if the NEC failed to call another pow-wow to iron out issues before the elective conference next year.
Political scientist Fako Likoti pointed out that Maliehe was one of the founders of the ABC, alongside Thabane. “Their battle for power cannot be underestimated; it may lead to a serious split. It’s clear the ABC’s supporters are not happy with Ntate Thabane and that is worrying for the government.”
With 51 seats in Lesotho’s 120-member parliament, the ABC is the major coalition partner in what is popularly known as “the four-by-four” government. But it needs the Alliance of Democrats (AD – 11 seats), the Basotho National Party (BNP – five seats) and Reformed Congress of Lesotho (one seat) to give it an overall majority.
One year after the June 23 2017 snap election that installed Thabane, there are emerging tensions between his partners that he no longer seems able to contain. In particular, the AD’s Monyane Moleleki, the deputy prime minister, is said to be unhappy with Thabane’s alleged interference in his portfolio and antagonistic towards the smaller BNP.
This was highlighted recently when Moleleki publicly raised the issue of the killing of opposition activists under a BNP government in the 1970s.
Coalition governments have a shaky track record in Lesotho: the first two, from 2012 to 2015, collapsed midway through their terms because of internal dissension.
The most recent failure was the government of Thabane’s arch-rival, Pakalitha Mosisili, whose seven-party coalition, cobbled together after the February 2015 snap election, was dethroned in a no-confidence vote in parliament last year.
Mosisili’s problem was twofold. His party, the Democratic Congress, had fewer seats than the combined parliamentary representation of his coalition partners, making his government inherently unstable.
The particular spark for the vote of confidence, however, was the growing violence and lawlessness of the Lesotho Defence Force under General Tlali Kamoli, with whom Mosisili had a close alliance.
Thabane came in on a wave of popular support from voters sick and tired of the army’s excesses – but this has been swiftly eroded.
Maliehe may be suspended, but he remains in parliament as the popular MP for the large northern constituency of Botha-Bothe.
Lesotho’s constituency system means that he can only be removed by voters. And he is no longer subject to the collective discipline of the Cabinet. Thabane has departed from The Godfather’s famous advice: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
Maliehe has vowed to fight Thabane until the latter loses the party leadership.
In an interview with amaBhungane, he said that the ABC conference signalled the growing intolerance of ABC supporters towards the Premier.
“Ntate Thabane has lost his grip on leadership – the ABC supporters have seen that and they are not happy with him. The conference was a sign that he is losing the battle,” Maliehe said.
“He almost walked out because delegates interrupted him with points of order about the executive’s decision to let the conference be chaired by my deputy (Kemiso Mosenene) instead of me. The supporters were also not happy that I was unfairly suspended.”
He said he had heard that Thabane “is making desperate moves to court Mosisili and [Mothetjoa] Metsing [deputy prime minister under Mosisili] to arrange for a new coalition government. I don’t have details, but I hear the leaders met at State House over the weekend.”
However, he had also heard that both Metsing and Mosisili were opposed to any union. Metsing’s spokesperson Teboho Sekata, denied any meeting, pointing out that Metsing was still in exile in South Africa after the fall of Mosisili’s government last year.
Maliehe confirmed that he had failed to show up at the disciplinary hearing three days before the conference, but said he would have explained his absence if he had been allowed to.
“It makes no sense that after I failed to appear, the panel recommended there and then that I should be suspended; and then, without notice, the NEC reaches a decision the next day to suspend me; and the secretary general writes the suspension letter the day after that.
“Things were done in a rush because there was a motive behind it,” Maliehe charged. “What Thabane and the current NEC want is to remove me altogether from the leadership structures before next year’s elective conference.
“They have their own candidate in mind, the current acting deputy leader [Public Works and Transport Minister Prince Maliehe],” he said.
Maliehe said he had appealed against his suspension, which he said “can only be validated if endorsed by a conference”.
Other than Thabane himself, Maliehe remains the only ABC executive member of the 18 parliamentarians who crossed the floor and joined the party when it was formed on October 13 2006.
Commentators remark that one of Thabane’s weaknesses is that he cannot tolerate criticism or other strong personalities in the top echelons of the ABC, which he tends to regard as his private property.
They believe the ABC could have doubled its parliamentary strength and won the 2017 election outright, if he had not marginalised numerous ABC heavyweights over the years.
Likoti, Mosisili’s adviser when he was prime minister, said party heavy-hitters such as Lehlohonolo Tšehlana and Tlali Khasu had moved off to form their own parties.
Seabata Motsamai, of the Lesotho Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, said that many party members backed Maliehe but were fearful of crossing Thabane. This further destabilised the party, because it meant that opposition to the leader could not openly expressed and continued to fester.
“These suppressed voices they cannot come out now and stand their ground, so the instability is not going to end. It may even affect the government.,” Motsamai said.
Thabane is accused in some quarters of “losing his leadership grip” because of growing senility.
A senior ABC man who knows the Premier well said: “He forgets things. He forgets even the people closest people to him; sometimes he hardly recognises them. He hardly makes sound decisions independently, and to make a logical speech he has to be guided.”
Thabane has also often been accused of allowing the first lady, Maesaiah to meddle in the affairs of the government.
In particular, she is accused of engineering the dismissal of former health minister Nyapane Kaya and former public works minister Lehlohonolo Moramotse. Both the ministers were sent home after a cabinet reshuffle in February, shortly after the premier had announced he intended to fire corrupt officials in government.
There is no evidence that either minister was involved in corruption. Rumour has it that they were fired because they refused to award tenders to friends of the first lady.
Matlosa told amaBhungane the First Lady had been fingered in many controversies relating to government, “including Chinese state capture. She is seen as being behind many deals given to Chinese companies by the government of Lesotho.”
Maesaiah’s spokesperson, Silas Monyatsi, has repeatedly dismissed these allegations.
One sign of Maesaiah’s influence is that she often takes calls from journalists seeking interviews with her husband.
AmaBhungane’s attempts to obtain comment from Thabane and secretary-general Ntsekele this week were unsuccessful.
*Lekhetho Ntsukunyane is undergoing an investigative journalism fellowship at the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism
The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB supporter to help it do more.