THE Southern African Development Community (SADC) has whittled down the numbers of troops meant to assist Lesotho address its security challenges from the initial 1 200 to 258 due to budget constraints.
The standby force, which is expected in Lesotho on 20 November 2017, will now cost the region around M4 million, instead of the M95.3 million initially envisaged.
This was revealed yesterday by Defence and National Security Minister, Sentje Lebona, who also stated that the troops would be deployed in Lesotho for four months "barring any unforeseen circumstances".
The marked reduction in the standby force's numbers was effected by security chiefs from the 16-member bloc during a two-day meeting at the regional bloc's headquarters in Gaborone, Botswana that ended on Thursday. The SADC troops were initially scheduled to arrive last Wednesday.
"We are expecting a contingency force of 258 from countries like Namibia, Angola and Zambia to arrive in the country on 20 November as per the decisions of the defence chiefs who met in Botswana to deliberate on the Lesotho situation last week," Mr Lebona said, adding that the defence chiefs also factored in the relative calm in the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) since Lieutenant-General Khoantle Motšomotšo's 5 September 2017 assassination.
"The regional defence chiefs decided to cut the contingency force to a smaller number of 258 due to budget constraints and a realisation that the (security) situation in the country had changed for the better. I don't have exact numbers, but I know the new budget is slightly over M4 million."
The minister also indicated that SADC could increase the standby force's tenure if the security situation in Lesotho became volatile.
"The extension of the force's tenure is up to SADC. You will remember that at the time the decision to deploy the over 1 000 troops was made, the situation on the ground was different from what is happening now," he said.
SADC Executive Secretary, Stergomena Tax, told South African online publication Daily Maverick that South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Tanzania would contribute troops to the force which will comprise soldiers as well as police, intelligence and civilian elements.
SADC had initially agreed to the deployment of a 1 200-strong regional standby force comprising of 1 099 troops, 30 civilians, 34 police officers, one pathologist, four scuba divers and a police mobile unit.
The force's mandate is to assist the LDF in managing the security crisis in the country in the aftermath of the assassination of Lt-Gen Motšomotšo by his subordinates Brigadier Bulane Sechele and Colonel Tefo Hashatsi.
Brig Sechele and Col Hashatsi had reportedly accused Lt-Gen Motšomotšo of failing to stop the prosecution of LDF members implicated in various crimes before shooting the LDF chief dead.
Brig Sechele and Col Hashatsi were eventually killed in a hail of bullets from Lt-Gen Motšomotšo's bodyguards as they left the office complex.
Lt-Col Sechele and Lt-Col Hashatsi were also implicated in the killing of former army commander Lt-Gen Maaparankoe Mahao on 25 June 2015.
The standby force is also expected to help in the implementation of security sector reforms recommended by the regional body.
Among the recommendations of a 10-member commission of inquiry into the causes of Lesotho's perennial instability is the suspension of LDF officers implicated in cases of murder, attempted murder and treason while investigations into the allegations proceed in line with international best practice.
The inquiry, led by Botswana judge Mpaphi Phumaphi carried out its investigations between 31 August and 23 October 2015.
It also recommended the government to investigate the killing of Lt-Gen Mahao and prosecute those found to be responsible.
The Prime Minister Thomas Thabane-led four-party government has not waited for SADC boots to get on the ground to arrest members of security agencies implicated in various unresolved crimes.
Already, former LDF commander, Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli, has been charged for murder and a slew of attempted murder charges. A warrant of arrest was also issued for former police commissioner, Molahlehi Letsoepa, for embezzlement during his tenure at the law enforcement agency.
The government is working towards extraditing Mr Letsoepa, who is exiled in South Africa, to assist with investigations in a murder case.