President Ketumile Masire of Botswana has been flown in to defuse the political crisis in Lesotho. His job, mandated by SADC, the Southern African Development Community, is to break a political stalemate over the allocation of seats in the government.
In the past few weeks tensions have mounted in the capital of Maseru with a week-long curfew and roadblocks set up after shooting attacks on the homes of a number of government ministers and their bodyguards as well as at the home of main opposition leader, Tom Thabane. But local analysts believe the curfew was intended to undermine a potential political threat from the opposition.
The army also announced it had foiled a coup attempt and a leading journalist was accused of subversion after he read out on a morning radio programme this week a letter from a group of soldiers threatening the government.
Last week SA's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Aziz Pahad said violence should not be used to try and destabilise Lesotho and that "decisive action" was needed from the SADC leaders appointed to help resolve the issue.
Earlier Lesotho's Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili also met with President Thabo Mbeki in Cape Town.
As we went to press results were still being awaited from the mediation talks but the crisis has caused concern in South Africa, which in 1998 sent in a military force to quell what it said was an incipient army coup. Then 16 Lesotho soldiers were killed at the Katse Dam while around 50 civilians were killed and a thousand injured. The capital was looted, and the intervention left a legacy of bitterness.
After years of constitutional engagement by SA Lesotho had a series of elections, one in 2002 going smoothly and the last held in February. But this brought with it accusations of gerrymandering.
Opposition political parties argue that the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) fixed the system in its favour when it went into an unregistered election alliance with the National Independent Party (NIP) against the wishes of the NIP leader, Anthony Manyeli.
They want Manyeli to submit his own list of parliamentary seats and say that the list given by his deputy and son-in-law Dominic Motikoe be scrapped and the people on the list be removed from parliament and substituted by those selected by Manyeli. They also contest a number of constituency seats where they say the result was cooked.
If the changes are made it could affect the political landscape in Lesotho; the ruling LCD will then have a very thin majority of 61 of the 120 parliamentary seats. Presently they command an over two-thirds majority, with 82 seats when added to the Motikoe group of 21.
The other opposition parties have formed an alliance in parliament and want the leader of the newly formed All Basotho Convention (ABC), Motsoahae Tom Thabane to be the official leader of opposition - but government refuses to recognise him as such, having announced Motikoe as the opposition leader though he does not command the requisite 25 percent of the parliamentary seats.
The government fears losing the NIP seats as these include the party's deputy secretary general. Other MPs from the government side, disgruntled with the way the ruling party has been conducting things, may cross over to the opposition and unseat the government.
Adding to the tension, at least six people have been abducted in the country and one is feared dead. The men are all bodyguards of opposition leader Thabane and they were abducted from Friday last week by men dressed in civilian clothes but wearing balaclava hats. One of them surfaced badly beaten at the Makoanyane military barracks' hospital in Maseru; his family has been denied access to him.
Fears are growing in Maseru about who will be abducted next and journalists, particularly those who have been covering stories unfavourable to the government, believe they may be on an abduction list.
Concern at arrest
Meanwhile the World Association of Press Councils (WAPC) has written to the government expressing its "deep concern" about the arrest and charges leveled against the radio journalist Thabo Thakalekoala, and says they have been brought as a method of intimidation by police to force him to divulge his sources.
Thakalekoala said he read the letter on his early morning talk show denigrating the prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, as the "the unwanted ruler of Lesotho" after death threats were made against him, "purportedly from [members of the] LNA [Lesotho National Army]".
"I did not feel right reading the letter, but I feared for my life," he said.
The letter, which included allegations of corruption amongst the political elite, coincided with the lifting of the week-long 6pm to 6am curfew.
State of emergency?
The political crisis comes in a worsening economic situation for most people in the country, which is suffering the llongest drought in 30 years. Despite an official growth rate of around 6 percent a senior UN official said last week the government should declare a state of emergency to help donors respond. Mokitinyane Nthimo, the assistant representative of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Lesotho said this would make it easier to get donors to mobilise resources.
Over 400,000 of the country's 1.9 million people will struggle to meet their basic food needs after July this year, as a result of extensive crop failures and exorbitant prices for maize, the staple food. Overall, the country's national cereal production forecast is estimated at about 72,000mt, representing a substantial shortfall of 42 percent compared to last year's harvest.
The price of 12.5kg bag of maize meal had doubled since last year, from US$3.50 in March 2006 to about $5.40 in March 2007. More than half the country's population lives on less than US$2 a day. A further increase in maize prices at local shops is expected in the coming months as commercial importers begin to buy grain from the South African market at high prices.
In the preliminary findings of a vulnerability assessment report, WFP estimated that a higher number of 550,000 people could be in need of food. The government will not be able to meet the shortfall but will rely heavily on commercial imports.
According to the Lesotho Meteorological Services (LMS), the drought has been prompted by climate change. "There has been an increased frequency of droughts and other hydro-meteorological disasters since the late 1970s, and the increase in these events can be linked to climate change," said a report by the LMS.
The lack of rainfall this year, and the driest February since 1968, was caused by El Nino conditions in the equatorial Pacific, which suppressed rains over the country and the rest of the subcontinent, LMS said.