Coup or no Coup? Lesotho’s Endless Search for Political Stability

Exiled Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane has called for southern African states to deploy military force to restore his rule. This proposal asks for a similar response to that given by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1998 when foreign troops were sent into Lesotho to overturn a military coup and restore the rule of law. The capital, Maseru, was left in ruins.

Lesotho's army denies orchestrating a coup
Lesotho’s army denies orchestrating a coup

Thabane fled Lesotho at the weekend claiming that his position had been usurped by his Deputy, Mothetjoa Metsing, supported by the army. Whilst accurate details about this latest ‘coup’ are difficult to ascertain, it would not be the first time that military forces have destabilised the political equilibrium in this relatively-young nation, which only achieved independence in 1966.

In fact, this weekend’s events are almost a reversal of circumstances to a once infamous military crisis in Lesotho, that precipitated by South Africa in 1982.

As the African National Congress (ANC) increased the intensity of its armed campaign against the white-minority government in South Africa, many of its fighters were constantly on the run from the pervasive security police. Lesotho became a popular destination for these insurgents, something that unsurprisingly rankled with the National Party (NP). (Whitaker, 1983)

Whereas at this present moment refugees are attempting to escape further violence in Lesotho by fleeing to South Africa, in the early 1980s it was ANC activists that sought sanctuary within the mountainous kingdom of the South African interior.

Lesotho's mountainous terrain made it a popular refuge for ANC exiles
Lesotho’s mountainous terrain made it a popular refuge for ANC exiles

In December 1982, South African forces attacked Maseru in a bid to root out ANC cells in exile. Indeed, such was the chagrin of the NP at its inability to prevent the regrouping of what it deemed ‘terrorists’ in a foreign country, that it even gave its tacit support to the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA). (Martin & Johnson, 1984)

The LLA had begun life as the Basutoland Congress Party, a left-wing pan-Africanist political party. With military ties to South Africa’s violent Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the LLA began a guerrilla insurgency against Leabua Jonathan‘s Basotho National Party in the late 1970s.

That the right-wing, white supremacist NP would support the LLA during its bomb attacks on Maseru in early 1983 (Whitaker, 1983) shows the extent to which it was willing to go to overcome its greatest enemy. Despite the show of force, however, most of the ANC fighters, used to a lifetime of covertness, escaped the net.

Jonathan was finally ousted in a 1986 military coup, supported by a South African-imposed blockade of Lesotho's borders
Jonathan was finally ousted in a 1986 military coup, supported by a South African-imposed blockade of Lesotho’s borders

Today, as has been common in recent history, Lesotho faces challenges from both within and outside its mountainous borders. Its tenuous status as a poor, rural, landlocked kingdom inhibits its potential for development and encourages political agitation. As with many African countries whose independence is fairly recent, it is riven by the factional strife that has existed since the tribal feuding of the 19th century.

It is unsurprising then, on this occasion, that the SADC has no intention of getting involved. Thabane’s request has been rejected and Lesotho is left to fend for itself once again.


Martin, D. & Johnson, P. ‘Africa: The Old and the Unexpected’, Foreign Affairs (1984)

Whitaker, J.S. ‘Africa Beset’, Foreign Affairs (1983)


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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