Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane/Pretoria)

The tiny, landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho has been giving the region a chronic migraine, way out of proportion to its size, for a long time. And this week the Southern African Development Community (SADC) finally had enough and put its foot down.

It threatened to kick Lesotho out of the organisation unless Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s government accepted the report of a SADC inquiry into the killing of a former defence chief last year and implemented its recommendations.

After having resisted those demands, Mosisili then evidently buckled under the threat of expulsion, registering a rare diplomatic victory for SADC. For now, at least.

Lesotho has been in SADC’s naughty corner for over 18 months, as it staggers from one crisis to another sparked by the political tensions between Mosisili and his predecessor, Tom Thabane. That climaxed with an attempted coup against Thabane by rogue defence force commander General Tlali Kamoli – who was loyal to Mosisili rather than to his ostensible boss – in August 2014, after Thabane fired him.

SADC thought it had sorted out the problem when its mediator, South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, brokered early elections for the country which were won by a Mosisili-led coalition in February last year.

SADC threatened to suspend Lesotho unless Mosisili’s government accepted the Phumaphi report

But the turbulence continued as Kamoli, now restored as defence force chief, began to round up soldiers allegedly involved in a mutiny plot. In June last year, his soldiers went to arrest Brigadier Maaparankoe Mahao – the soldier who had replaced Kamoli as defence chief in August 2014, and supposedly implicated in the plot. Mahao was shot dead; either in resisting arrest (in the Mosisili’s government version), or in cold blood (according to Thabane’s camp).

SADC leaders appointed their own commission of inquiry, headed by Botswana judge Mpaphi Phumaphi, to investigate the death of Mahao, the alleged mutiny and related matters. Phumaphi soon complained that he wasn’t getting much cooperation from Mosisili’s government or his military officers in his inquiry.

Late last year the government refused to accept his completed report. It said the inquiry had been challenged in the Lesotho courts by one of the senior military officers, who had appeared before it and who alleged bias.

On Monday this week, the double troika of SADC (the troikas of SADC itself and its organ on politics, defence and security) met at summit level in Gaborone with Mosisili. The SADC leaders – representing Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana, Swaziland and Zimbabwe – issued an unusually strong list of demands to Mosisili. They said in their communiqué that they had endorsed Phumaphi’s report, that they had handed it to Mosisili and asked him to publish it by 1 February – and to implement its recommendations.

The Phumaphi report seems to imply that the military, not Mosisili, are really running Lesotho

The leaders also flatly rejected Mosisili’s claim that the matter was in effect sub judice because of the challenge to Phumaphi’s inquiry in the Lesotho High Court. SADC reminded him that it enjoys immunity from the courts of its member states and so ‘any court decision taken against the Commission of Inquiry is of no legal effect and will not bind SADC and its institutions.’

The leaders also criticised Mosisili’s government for failing to institute the constitutional, public sector and security sectors reforms – essentially designed to place Lesotho’s perpetually meddling military firmly under civilian political control – which SADC leaders had demanded last year. They urged Mosisili’s government to prepare a road map to implement these reforms and to present a progress report on that at the next ordinary SADC summit in August.

His government and other stakeholders were also urged to create an environment conducive to the safe return of Thabane and the other opposition leaders who fled the country around the time of Mahao’s death.

On Monday at the summit, Mosisili apparently defied SADC’s demands. And so the SADC leaders then decided Lesotho should be suspended; and in the meantime SADC would disengage from the country, South African President Jacob Zuma told the South African Broadcasting Corporation. SADC would also issue Phumaphi’s report so the Lesotho public would know what had happened, Zuma said.

These threats evidently had the desired effect. Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, the current chairperson of SADC’s organ on politics, defence and security, told Mozambican journalists on his return from Gaborone that he had received a call from Botswana President Ian Khama, the current SADC chairperson, telling him that Lesotho had done an about turn the next morning and would receive Phumaphi’s report after all.

Was Mosisili defiant of SADC because he is scared of defence chief Kamoli’s fearsome reputation?

This was SADC being unusually assertive with one of its members; significantly more so, for example, than in its dealings with Zimbabwe after the turbulence there around the 2008 elections. That may be because tiny Lesotho is easier to boss. But it may also be because it is disturbed by the role of the military in Lesotho’s political instability. The only SADC member which has been suspended so far was Madagascar in 2009, after a military coup.

It is significant that Phumaphi’s report recommends that Mosisili fires both Kamoli and Defence Minister Tšeliso Mokhosi. Leaked reports to the media also say that Phumaphi’s report rejects Mosisili’s government’s claim that a mutiny was being plotted against it. So it would seem the judge’s report goes to the heart of the problem that has been bedevilling Lesotho for decades – the meddling of soldiers in politics. That, of course, is the problem that SADC also wants to tackle through constitutional and others reforms.

But implementing Phumaphi’s report may not be so easy for Mosisili. As the report seems to imply – and certainly many local observers believe this to be true – it is the military, and particularly Kamoli, who are really running the country – and not Mosisili.

These observers believe the only way of understanding Mosisili’s defiance of SADC, at least until Tuesday, is that he is scared of Kamoli, who has a fearsome reputation in Lesotho for getting rid of those who oppose him by whatever means necessary.

We may not have heard the last from him.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant