Compared with the many other conflicts around the world today, Lesotho’s may seem minor. But the country’s political instability doesn't only affect Lesotho's 2 million inhabitants. South Africa has invested heavily in Lesotho’s Highlands Water Project, a five-dam, $5-billion system that provides 780 million cubic meters of water a year to South Africa, and turmoil in Lesotho could interfere with the supply of water to major South African cities like Pretoria and Johannesburg.
The nation is also just two years removed from one of its only violence-free elections. As Michael J. Jordan recently wrote in the Christian Science Monitor, the 2012 campaign also produced “what some call the first and only coalition government in all of Africa.” Many hoped that the smooth transfer of power would serve as a new standard for democratic transition—in Lesotho and the region more broadly. “If you have an electorate here that participates very peacefully, but there’s another setback, that would be a great betrayal,” a South African law professor said at the time. “It would show that the leaders are not as mature as the followers.” Lesotho has now suffered that setback.
So what exactly is going on in Lesotho? What's clear so far is that there was a major confrontation over the weekend between the nation’s military, which supports Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, and the police force, which is loyal to Thabane. The fighting began on Saturday when soldiers raided several police stations and killed one officer, ostensibly in an effort to confiscate weapons, including assault rifles, that the police were allegedly distributing to young Thabane-allied political activists. The military also reportedly surrounded Thabane’s home.
The origins of the conflict stretch back to 2012, when a shaky three-way alliance of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), the All Basotho Convention (ABC), and the Basotho National Party (BNP) took power. The coalition gradually broke down, however, and in March lawmakers called for a vote of no-confidence against the prime minister, a member of the ABC. Thabane responded, in June, by suspending parliament and preventing the vote from taking place—a decision supported by Lesotho’s King Letsie III, who, like the queen of England, occupies a ceremonial position in the country. Metsing, the leader of the LCD, urged people to take to the streets on Monday, September 1 to protest Thabane’s moves.
As the demonstrations approached, the military claimed that police officers were planning to arm the Under The Tree Army—a radical youth group preparing to take action against the anti-Thabane protesters—and stormed police stations to, as they put it, ensure that the rallies remained peaceful. The raids were led by Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli, whom Thabane had tried to remove from office (Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who had been groomed to replace Kamoli, survived an assassination attempt on Saturday).