Mysterious murder casts dark shadows over the Mountain Kingdom

We don’t know who murdered Lipolelo Thabane, the estranged wife of incoming Prime Minister Thomas Thabane. We don’t know why she was murdered.
What we do know is that her death plunges Lesotho into yet another period of dangerous political instability.

Mrs Thabane (58) was shot dead on Wednesday afternoon. She was driving with a friend in Ha Masana village, where she lives, just 35 kilometres from the capital Maseru. Detectives are investigating the incident.

On Friday, her husband – they were going through a bitter divorce, and Mr Thabane’s new wife campaigns by his side – is due to be sworn in as Lesotho’s next Prime Minister, having obtained the most seats in parliament in last month’s general election. His election was opposed by key members of Lesotho’s political establishment and security services, and analysts have publicly voiced fears over a potential military coup.

Was Mrs Thabane’s murder the first salvo? “This is definitely not a coincidence,” said a source within Thabane’s All Basotho Convention. “I just hope the old man [Mr Thabane] will have the courage to stand up tomorrow and go through with this thing [the inauguration].

Professor Mafa Sejanamane, a political science lecturer at the National University of Lesotho, echoes this fear. “I don’t have any extra information, but I don’t think it is a coincidence,” he said. “The country is depressing, really depressing. The mood has been dampened.”

Mafa suggests that if the murder is indeed politically-motivated, it might be the last role of the dice for those likely to lose their jobs or even face criminal prosecution under Thabane’s new administration. “We have people who are so desperate, they don’t know what to do,” he said.

The untimely deaths of high-profile figures are always shrouded in mystery and conspiracy: think back to Mozambican President Samora Machel’s fatal aeroplane “accident”; or the car crash that killed Susan Tsvangirai, wife of Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan. So we may never know if Mrs Thabane’s murder was in fact an assassination, and questions around what happened are likely to swirl through Basotho politics for years to come.

But even the suspicion of foul play is enough to endanger Lesotho’s fragile political transition, reinforcing concerns about whether the country’s military leaders will accept a Thabane-led government.

The stakes are high. Thabane has made no secret of his dislike for the military. His first term as prime minister lasted just two years before it was brought prematurely short by an attempted military coup. He believes that comprehensive military reform is necessary to safeguard Lesotho’s future, even if that means abolishing the military entirely.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian just days before the election, Thabane said: “A lot of the instability has come from the army taking one side or other in the political arena. And my own administration was scuttled by the army…When we win, we will gradually look at examples in the world where there are armed people who are not a classical army, so that jobs would be kept and nobody will suffer and new recruits will undergo a less classical military training.”

Although the situation remains tense and unpredictable, Thabane has one major advantage over his rivals. South Africa, the regional superpower, has said in no uncertain terms that it will not tolerate a coup “in our backyard”, and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is due in Maseru on Thursday to witness Thabane’s inauguration. He will be accompanied by a South African security team who will ensure things run “smoothly”, said a spokesperson for Ramaphosa. 

After the all-too-temporary high of a peaceful, free and fair election, Mrs Thabane’s murder means that the Mountain Kingdom is once again facing an uncertain political future. What happens over the next 24 hours – whether we see Thabane inaugurated without fuss, or whether see further violence – will tell us just how uncertain that future is. 

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