Earlier this month, embattled Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane addressed a raucous crowd of supporters in the rural district of Mokhotlong, a rugged farming region where elevations reach 11,000 feet. On the eastern edge of Lesotho—the mountainous nation of two million enclosed on all sides by South Africa—thousands of yellow-clad supporters danced and brandished the shining-sun logo of Thabane’s All Basotho Convention (ABC) party. At the rally, Thabane pushed two main ideas: reducing extreme poverty—a message of particular interest to his rural base in Mokhotlong, where food shortages are common—and curtailing corruption in the upper levels of government. The trip was one of many in the final campaign push before the country’s upcoming special election, which was previously slated for 2017 and is now scheduled for February 28. The fast-tracked election intends to ease political unrest in Lesotho, following the attempted coup against Thabane in late 2014.

In August 2014, members of the Lesotho Defense Force (LDF)—the country’s army and air force, with reputed loyalties to Thabane’s fierce political rival, Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing—opened fire on pro-Thabane police officers, attacked police stations, and surrounded the prime minister’s residence. The gun battle in the capital city of Maseru left one police officer dead. Warned of a possible assassination attempt, Thabane fled to South Africa. Mediation efforts led by the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) eventually returned the prime minister to Lesotho in early September under the protection of South African police.

The current mood in Lesotho is one of uncertainty. On February 1, LDF soldiers opened fire on two of Thabane’s bodyguards outside the Royal Palace in Maseru, injuring the two men who had tipped off the prime minister ahead of the 2014 attempted coup. The attack also left one security guard dead in the crossfire. Yet despite current tensions in the country, the massive pro-Thabane rally in Mokhotlong appeared more carnival than political event. The lone road into town was at a standstill as a parade of overcapacity cars, minibuses, and taxis inched closer to hearing Thabane speak, while shepherds on horseback wove between repurposed heavy-freight flatbeds bearing hundreds of jubilant rally-goers. At the district pitso—the regional meeting grounds that held the rally—men and women danced, drank, and blew on vuvuzelas while riders processed through the celebration on horseback, standing balanced atop their saddles, then dismounting to perform equestrian wrangling tricks. Under a hot afternoon sun, one energetic supporter dressed in ABC yellow and wearing sheep horns glued to his plastic helmet swung his hips suggestively as he danced, ringing a large cowbell that hung from his belt.

Attendees at Thabane's rally in Mokhotlong earlier this February.
Will McGrath

At the rally, Thabane addressed issues of corruption and graft in the country, calling for an end to the nepotistic allocation of money in parliament. “Things were not transparent,” he told the crowd, taking a shot at former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili. “They worked according to how people were related to each other.”

Although his opponents accuse him of dictatorial tendencies and a refusal to negotiate, many of Thabane’s supporters see him as a crusading reformer. “People in parliament want Thabane out of the way because he is digging for corruption,” said Tselane Letsapo, one of the rally attendees. “He is digging—and they are afraid of what he will find.” 

In part, the current political rift stems from an investigation into whether Deputy Prime Minister Metsing received kickbacks in exchange for helping to award a major road construction project, an investigation that predates the attempted coup.  In June 2014, Lesotho’s anticorruption body accessed Metsing’s bank accounts against his wishes and asked him to explain several large deposits.  The deputy prime minister claims the ongoing investigation is a political witch-hunt led by Thabane, but reports have since surfaced that LDF soldiers sought to destroy documents related to Metsing’s corruption case during the attempted coup.

As he stood ringed by heavily armed SADC troops, Thabane ultimately called for unity in Lesotho’s fractious political system. “When you eat alone in the house,” he told his supporters, “people get jealous and might burn you inside. So we should invite the others inside and eat together.”  The line met with wild applause from the crowd. 

Although exuberance was the dominant mood at the rally, however, the rapidly approaching special election is a source of anxiety for many. “A dark cloud hangs over this country,” Thabane said in his speech, referring to the February shooting in Maseru.

Thabane rallies around his core constituency ahead of a contentious national election.
Will McGrath

Lesotho gained independence in 1966, and in its short national history the country has experienced the entire spectrum of putsch, coup, attempted coup, military takeover, constitutional suspension, state of emergency, and contested election. Although recent elections in 2002, 2007, and 2012 were generally seen by outside observers as peaceful and democratic, the memory of political and military upheaval is still fresh.

“Personally, I am feeling frightened,” Letsapo said after the rally. “We take these elections very emotionally. I don’t think there is going to be peace.” For his part, Thabane seemed to be feeling nothing of the sort. He left the rally to the din of bleating vuvuzelas and chants of “Lachaba!” (“The sun rises!”), a reference to ABC’s logo. The prime minister was headed back to Maseru to prepare for one final political rally before the elections. The 75-year-old premier has said that if he is reelected for another five-year term, it will be his last in office. In Mokhotlong, throngs of rowdy supporters flooded the streets of the tiny mountain town while vehicles jockeyed for position with cattle and donkeys. Observing the genial madness from above, herd boys perched atop high rocks lining the road, laughing and waving as crowds marched off toward the bars.

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  • WILL MCGRATH was awarded the 2014 Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction for his writing about Lesotho.
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