Lesotho: Authoritarian rule, 1970-1991

Extracted from: "Lesotho" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 92-93.

The early years of independence gave the opposition parties the opportunity to reorganise and to capitalise on the BNP government's failures, such as to bring about a meaningful improvement to the quality of life in the kingdom. At the first post-independence election in January 1970 the disappointed voters gave the BCP a majority of 13 national assembly seats (see 1970 National Assembly election results for more detail). Without announcing the results the BNP government declared a state of emergency, annulled the election, suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament. The king was forced into exile in The Netherlands for the rest of that year, because he had expressed his disapproval of the government's actions, though he was allowed to return after once again promising not to interfere in Lesotho's politics.

In 1973 Jonathan established an appointed unicameral legislature, consisting of a comfortable majority of BNP members, the chiefs who had served in the former senate, and a number of BCP and MFP members who wanted to prevent a single-party system. Mokhehle's rejection of the coalition caused a split in the BCP, especially as Jonathan rewarded the leaders of the cooperative factions by taking them into the cabinet. However, 12 years later Jonathan did create a de facto single-party system after having arranged for a multiparty general election to take place. The opposition parties refused to nominate candidates as they had no access to the voters' rolls and consequently, in September 1985, all of the 60 BNP candidates were elected unopposed.

Meanwhile, in 1974, Mokhehle had fled into exile after having been accused of conspiring against the government. Mokhehle then led the "external" faction of the BCP, which set up an armed wing, the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), to wage war against the Jonathan government. The LLA maintained close links with the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA), the armed wing of South Africa's banned Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), which had been supported by Mokhehle since the PAC's formation in 1959. Gerard Ramoreboli who was a member of Jonathan's cabinet led The "internal" faction of the BCP.

By this time Jonathan had turned against the South African government which had aided his party since prior to the 1965 election. This turn-about was to pacify opposition supporters and, in a world that was becoming increasingly hostile to the apartheid regime, to promote Lesotho's image in order to be able to attract generous aid from abroad. Moreover, Jonathan declared his support for the ANC (long since banned in South Africa) which began to use Lesotho as a transit base. The SA government then allowed Mokhehle's LLA to use South African territory for insurgency operations in Lesotho. When Jonathan refused to enter into a non-aggression pact with South Africa in the early 1980s, the SA Defence Force launched raids on ANC targets in Lesotho, also killing citizens of Lesotho.

By the time of the abortive 1985 election, formidable forces were converging to topple the Jonathan government. The kingdom's inhabitants continued to suffer economic hardship and were as reliant on the South African economy as ever. Having already threatened Lesotho with an economic embargo, South Africa closed the borders with Lesotho on 1 January 1986, cutting off vital food and fuel supplies. This was followed by talks between the SA government and prominent Basotho, including opposition leaders and the heads of the armed forces in Lesotho. Having long been exasperated by the competition for resources with the paramilitary youth wing of the BNP, the army grabbed the opportunity to confront and disarm the youth league and in this process took over the government.

The king remained as head of state, now vested with legislative and executive powers, while Maj-Gen Metsing Lekhanya became head of a military government advising the king. Parliament was dissolved and restrictions were placed on party politics. Jonathan died in April 1987, shortly after being released from house arrest. Mokhehle was allowed to return to Lesotho for peace talks. The LLA was subsequently disbanded, while the BCP was being reunited under Mokhehle's leadership.

Following his involvement in a homicide case, Lekhanya clashed with the king and some of his colleagues who wanted to get rid of him. In March 1990 the military government took over the king's legislative and executive powers. Moshoeshoe II then went into exile in the United Kingdom and was deposed as king in November that year. His eldest son, assuming the name Letsie III, succeeded him as head of state, though Letsie was not formally inaugurated as king in terms of Basotho custom. Lekanya announced that there would be a return to democratic civilian rule and proceeded to set up a nominated constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. However, junior officers deposed him in April 1991.