All photos and text by Michael J. Jordan
High in the mountains of Southern Africa, there’s a quirky speck of a country you’ve barely heard of, if at all: Lesotho.
Unless you’re a fan of geography, and learned that our picturesque “Kingdom in the Sky” is perched higher above sea-level than any country in the world. Or you ski, and read that Lesotho boasts the only skiing in Africa. Or you work in global health, and know the Basotho here suffer from the world’s second-highest rate of HIV infection.
Or, if you care about democracy, you heard that an Aug. 30 “attempted coup” in Lesotho—which two years ago saw a peaceful handover of power, then formed one of Africa’s rare coalition governments—plunged the country into crisis. Now in its third week, it’s a full-blown diplomatic challenge for all of southern Africa.
There’s also enough palace intrigue to satisfy Hollywood: in the tripartite coalition, one leader allegedly conspires with the military commander to abduct and kill the other two—including Prime Minister Thomas Thabane—in a pre-dawn raid. They flee the country. The “renegade” commander reportedly then loots an armory with his loyalists, hunkers down in hiding—and a nervous nation frets about civil war.
So, when South African President Jacob Zuma flew into Lesotho last week, to mediate as not only the behemoth neighbor, but on behalf of the 15-member Southern African Development, I covered the talks for the French news agency, AFP.
Yet the photos published globally were generically diplomatic: Zuma shaking hands with Thabane. Since I was on the tarmac, shooting this mini-drama, I figure these photos help humanize the players, the people. In the process, the photos open a window onto a unique little country, its ongoing crisis—even onto Africa itself.
It was a Tuesday morning like many others, at Lesotho’s sleepy, no-frills airport, which is named after the first Basotho king, Moshoeshoe I. In the mid-19th century, he united the clans scattered across the Maluti Mountains and called them “Basotho”—the speakers of the Sotho language. Yet his nation is today divided once again, this time by a political polarization that may descend into inter-party fighting.
As for the “international” in the airport’s name, well, that’s putting it generously. While the airport once accommodated flights around southern Africa, it could just as easily be nicknamed “the Jo’burg Jitney”—the lone destination is to Johannesburg, the commercial hub of South Africa. Four times a day, every day.
This was no ordinary Tuesday morning, however. An icon of southern Africa, Jacob Zuma, would arrive to mediate in a mountain enclave that is fully encircled by South Africa – a geographic oddity, we hear, that is news to quite a few South Africans.
They’ve since learned much more about the Lesotho conflict. Not just due to concern for refugees—several dozen government and police officials did indeed scamper across the SA border in those first few days—but because the vast network of SA-funded dams here deliver most of the water that thirsty Joburg consumes.
The upper echelon of Basotho politicians were on hand, particularly the 22 government ministers who represent the ruling three-party coalition. Several are now living under heavy armed guard—protected also by South African police, provided by Zuma—while others have reportedly moved into other homes.
Zuma had so far resisted the coalition’s calls for military intervention, to capture the “renegade” military commander, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, whom they blamed for the Aug. 30 that also killed one police officer and injured nine others. Instead, Zuma pushes for the coalition to re-open Parliament, which Thabane suspended in June—when the opposition threatened a no-confidence vote to topple him.
Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, smiling, arrived with heavy security. Metsing, the second coalition partner, is accused by the third coalition leader, Thesele ‘Maseribane, of conspiring with Lt. Gen. Kamoli to go after him and Thabane.
The narrative in Maseru is that Metsing—who himself aspires to be Prime Minister—has been involved with dirty deals, with dubious tenders and fat bank accounts. Thabane, as part of his political platform, has pledged to root out corruption—which is widespread here. Thabane, then, has pushed for a corruption trial of Metsing.
Metsing, though, is seen as tight with the military commander, Lt. Gen. Tlali Kamoli, who was appointed by former Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, who ruled for 14 years, until the May 2012 elections. Mosisili is now the opposition leader, and is president of the largest single party in Parliament. (Last week, his Democratic Congress warned of “atrocities and bloodbath” if Kamoli is arrested for treason.)
Meanwhile, earlier this year, I read of a pair of grenade attacks: at the home of Thabane's girlfriend—and of the Lesotho police chief. Both acts were labeled as intimidation, connected to the corruption charges, in order to kill the investigations.
The finger was pointed at military operatives. Over time, Thabane accused Kamoli of trying to stymie investigations. He fired him on Aug. 29. On the morning of Aug. 30, Kamoli then led the raid on Thabane’s official residence.
On the morning of Zuma’s arrival, a delegation of military officers was also present—with eyes in the back of their heads. Neither of their commanders was present. Not the “renegade” Kamoli, who continues to resist his ouster, nearly three weeks later. Nor the man Thabane appointed, Maaparankwe Mahau, who himself escaped an Aug. 31 attempt on his life—a shooting attack that killed his dog.
Despite all that’s transpired between them—and Thabane’s feelings about what happened first to his girlfriend, then to him on Aug. 30—they had a few minutes to kill before Zuma’s flight, while standing beside each other in the hot morning sun, wishing they didn’t have to wear those suits. Thabane and Metsing could have just stared off in stony silence. Yet the PM decided to engage in small-talk with his DPM.
For me, this is part of the Basotho charm—and what makes this story so fascinating. It’s a tiny nation of just 1.8 million, proud clans that have survived centuries of feast and famine. That’s why the Basotho will ask fellow Basotho, when meeting them for the first time, in Sesotho: Where are you from? What is your father’s name?
To me, it feels like these government, military and police leaders all know each other, from way back, from here and there. The detective in me wonders if more or less all of them have dirt on each other—skeletons they want closeted forever. This contemporary Basotho drama, then, is also about shifting alliances within one big, mono-ethnic, mono-lingual family. In sub-Saharan Africa.
Some two hours late, President Zuma's plane arrived.
Though they'd been perspiring in the sun, the Basotho politicians stood at attention as Zuma's plane approached the red carpet.
It's show-time, as Zuma descends from the plane. Zuma, 72, and Thabane, 75, are often described as "old friends from the liberation struggle"—as Lesotho was often a haven for South Africans who resisted Apartheid.
Zuma greets Thabane as they are swarmed by each other's entourage. And my view is momentarily obscured.
"Listen, Tommy, I've got enough troubles back home. You're a fighter, like me. But give me this victory as a regional statesman. Re-open Parliament and move forward."
“I hear ya, Jake. But please, no Parliament before security. I thought they really wanted me dead. Besides, if I re-open Parliament, it’s political suicide. They’ll bring a vote of no-confidence. You wouldn’t fall on your own sword, would you?”
"Metsing, you rascal! I know you're desperate. Who among us hasn't been accused of corruption, now and then? But I'm not sure if you can survive this."
So, which side are you guys on? Did you flee? Or conspire?
Within minutes, Zuma is hurtling toward Lesotho's capitol for a full day of meetings.
"Eish! This is gonna be a LONG day..."
As of this writing, Sept. 17—nineteen days into the crisis—the way forward is murky. SADC leaders, led by Zuma and the indestructible Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, convened a special summit Monday to focus on Lesotho (and the Democratic Republic of Congo). What they mustered is to push for new elections in Lesotho—which may not even be constitutional, I’m told. And second, send another team of “observers,” to Lesotho—composed of South Africans and Zimbabweans.
These will join the secretive number of South African police and special forces inside the country—a question explored, fruitlessly, by my South African colleague in Cape Town. Will these new observers be empowered to intervene, and to use force?
And what about Lt. Gen. Kamoli, who’s now being spotted around Maseru, informing skeptics that he has not been hiding? The ousted commander refuses to be ousted. Kamoli is still the wild-card. And his circle of loyalists are reportedly well-armed.
Will the ordinary Basotho who keep telling me, We pray for peace, get their wish?
As for me, what a cool way to spend a morning in Africa.
Africa, Diplomacy, Lesotho, South Africa