There wasn’t a coup in Lesotho, but will there be?



Lesotho Parliament. (OER Africa, shared with Creative Commons License)

Late last week there were media reports that Lesotho’s coalition government was under threat. These were generated by followed a statement released by the South African government’s international relations office on Thursday that read, in part:

The South African Government notes with concern the unfolding political and security situation in the Kingdom of Lesotho…The South African Government has further noted with grave concern the unusual movements of the Lesotho Defence Force Units in the capital, Maseru. The South African Government wishes to reaffirm and reiterate the African Union’s position on the unconstitutional change of governments on the continent and in this regard the South African Government and SADC will not tolerate any unconstitutional change of government in the region and Continent.

Why does South Africa care about Lesotho’s internal politics? Lesotho is a small country, both in area (11,720 square miles – smaller than the state of Maryland) and population (1.9 million). The small nation is fully enclosed by its powerful neighbor, South Africa.


Figure: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage

South Africa’s recent statement was a reminder of its 1998 military intervention (alongside Botswana) in Lesotho. Lesotho international relations scholar Fako Likoti’s in-depth case study argued South Africa’s 1998 intervention was motivated to secure strategic water resources. The major piece of evidence for Likoti’s argument was the first step taken by the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) in the 1998 intervention: securing the Katse Dam, a joint Lesotho/South African Highlands Water Project that stores and transfers “2.2 billion cubic metres of water for the South African industrial heartland.” It was only after the dam was secured that SANDF proceeded to stop unrest and restore stability to Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. Whatever South Africa’s motivations for releasing its statement last week, there are at least three reasons why it was believable that a coup was imminent in Lesotho late last week.

  1. Lesotho has a history of coups and political instability. The technical count for successful coups in Lesotho is three, having occurred in 1986, 1991 and 1994. The first two coups were initiated by the military, and the 1994 coup was committed by Lesotho’s King (Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy), who dismissed a newly elected government following opposition parties’ claims that the election was rigged. A mutiny in the Lesotho Defence Force main army barracks following the 1998 elections was followed just days later with the aforementioned military intervention by South Africa and Botswana.
  2. Based on a number of relevant data points, Lesotho has high risk for a coupJay Ulfelder, a political scientist whose analysis focuses on political instability, predicted Lesotho to have a relatively high risk for a coup attempt in 2014, ranking it in the top 25 in the world for 2014.


    Data and Figure: Jay Ulfelder/Dart-Throwing Chimp Blog (shared with permission)
  3. The first two reasons why a coup was probable last week are latent characteristics of Lesotho’s political situation. They would have needed some spark to start the fire. That spark was the perceived unraveling of a fragile political coalition in Lesotho’s parliament. Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, leader of the All Basotho Congress party, was accused by his coalition partners of acting “unilaterally without consulting other partners.” An obvious example was PM Thabane’s recent suspension (a.k.a. prorogation) of Parliament for nine months. A junior coalition member, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) party, had threatened to pull out of government and seek to form a new governing coalition that would exclude the current PM. Prorogation of Parliament allowed PM Thabane to avoid a vote of no confidence.

Still, there are also reasons why I’m not worried there will be a coup in Lesotho.

  1. Despite Lesotho’s history with coups, a major change in Lesotho’s political institutions just over a decade ago led to increased public support for and satisfaction with democracy. Political scientists Wonbin Cho and Michael Bratton showed that Lesotho’s shift from a majoritarian to a mixed electoral system in 2002 led not just to greater inclusion of smaller, opposition parties in government, but also to higher levels of mass satisfaction with democracy and public trust in political institutions.
  2. The most recent nationally representative survey data from Lesotho shows continued support for democracy. In the 2012 Afrobarometer survey in Lesotho, 70 percent of respondents didn’t approve of a one-party state — and perhaps more importantly 83 percent disapproved of military governments.


    Responses to: “There are many ways to govern a country. Would you disapprove or approve of the following alternatives: The army comes in to govern the country?” Data: Afrobarometer Lesotho 2012; Figure: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage, generated using Afrobarometer Online Analysis
  3. Lesotho’s military has been shifting from a destabilizing factor to a depoliticized and professional force, according to the work of political economist Khabele Matlosa.

Almost immediately after the South African statement was released, there were reports that Lesotho’s parties agreed to remain in their “shaky coalition government.” Although the three coalition parties were expected to review and submit their coalition agreement to the 15-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) today, no media agencies have reported developments.

Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.
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