LESOTHO'S biggest opposition party, the Democratic Congress (DC) holds its elective conference next week. While all positions are up for grabs, the spotlight is on the contest for the leader's position pitting deputy secretary Tlohang Sekhamane against deputy leader Mathibeli Mokhothu.
Whoever wins will succeed long-standing leader and former prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, who is retiring.
Mr Mokhothu, who is also the leader of the opposition in parliament, was coy when approached by this publication for comment on his bid for the DC leadership.
He refused to discuss his expectations and vision for the DC should he succeed Dr Mosisili.
"I have nothing to say and am just waiting for the moment of truth when the people shall speak and make known who they want to be their next leader," said the soft-spoken opposition politician.
Analysts and party insiders who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity, said Mr Mokhothu appears to have the upper hand over his rival.
They say although Mr Sekhamane has worked with Dr Mosisili for a much longer period in the party and in government, the youthful Mr Mokhothu enjoyed the full support of Dr Mosisili who had handpicked him to deputise him after the departure of former deputy leader Monyane Moleleki in December 2016.
Mr Moleleki ditched the DC to form his Alliance of Democrats (AD) which is part of the current ruling coalition alongside the All Basotho Convention (ABC), Basotho National Party (BNP) and the Reformed Congress of Lesotho (RCL).
Dr Mosisili set tongues wagging after endorsing Mr Mokhothu as deputy leader even though he was not even in the national executive committee (NEC) but was an ordinary MP for Qhoali constituency.
"There was nothing sinister with that as anyone nominated by the majority could fill that vacancy," DC chairperson Motlalentoa Letsosa said of Mr Mokhothu's elevation in an interview with the Lesotho Times.
Party insiders say Mr Mokhothu's position as deputy leader, with strong ties to the incumbent (Dr Mosisili), has allowed him to exercise more authority and achieve influence on party members.
"Those who are loyal to Dr Mosisili are likely to transfer their allegiance to Mr Mokhothu as he is seen as the former's blue-eyed boy and preferred successor," said one DC official.
"Moreover, as leader of the opposition in parliament, he has had the opportunity to cultivate good relations with the DC's legislators."
Another analyst said being leader of the opposition had been an added advantage for Mr Mokhothu as it had given him the platform to coordinate and run the DC agenda in parliament.
The post of leader of the opposition had also enabled Mr Mokhothu to take charge of the entire opposition's dealings with the government, the diplomatic community, regional and continental bodies.
"As leader of the opposition, he (Mr Mokhothu) interacts with the government, ambassadors, SADC and the African Union and represents the entire opposition bloc on important issues such as the reforms process. His stature and profile have grown as a result. This would make him more acceptable and more of a statesman than Ntate Sekhamane," one party insider said.
Mr Mokhothu, is only 42 years old, having been born in 1977. His rival Mr Sekhamane is much older, having been born in 1955.
But those who don't want him see his age as his main Achilles Heel. They say he is too young and inexperienced to withstand the rough and tumble of Lesotho's highly contested political terrain.
Still for his well-wishers, his age is an asset not a liability. He has not been in politics long enough to be tainted by allegations of corruption and other vices that naturally accompany a long political career.
Mr Mokhothu's political career started in the late 1990s at the sub-branches while he was still with the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).
He was first elected into parliament in 2012 when he was just 34 and won his constituency Qhoali #68.
He also has government experience, having been appointed Minister of Gender, Youth, Sports and Recreation at the age of 38 in 2015.
With his mentor, Dr Mosisili no longer in charge of the party, his detractors are smelling blood and they say he cannot survive on his own.
Mokhothu's emergence has not sat well with some members of the party's NEC who feel they have been overlooked by Dr Mosisili. If he wins only time will tell whether or not Mr Mokhothu will be able to survive on his own.
If experience and academic qualifications alone were the yardstick of choosing a party leader, Mr Sekhamane would be the automatic person to succeed Dr Mosisili. He has an impressive array of qualifications which include a Master's degree in economics. He also has extensive government experience having served as a principal secretary, the government secretary and as minister in the key portfolios of finance and foreign affairs. He has an extensive book of international contacts.
He is also not short of self-confidence.
"I have leadership skills and have a vision for the nation as a whole not just my party," he told the Lesotho Times in an interview this week (see story on Page 7)
"If things were to be weighed objectively, I am the most qualified member of the DC, a Master's degree holder in economics. I have been a congress member for the longest time and I don't think anyone has served longer than I have in the congress movement.
"I believe I am eligible and can be the next leader of the DC because I am qualified and am a born leader, I have leadership skills and I have a vision for the nation as a whole not just my party.
"Being leader of DC alone is not enough. Actually, this is just a stepping stone to my bigger dream. I want to be the prime minister of Lesotho.
"I see the DC as an instrument for the development of the nation and I want to be DC leader because it has a chance of forming the next government. That way my dream of becoming prime minister shall be fulfilled," Mr Sekhamane said.
He cited his long working relationship with Dr Mosisili at both party and government levels among the reasons why he was the natural successor to the latter.
"We may all be contestants but I am the one with the most experience. I worked under the direct supervision of Ntate Mosisili from 2000 to 2017 and no other candidate ever worked that long with him. I know him (Dr Mosisili) like the back of my hand, his strengths and his shortcomings, thus I have learnt a lot from him.
"I am the one who implemented the free primary education system (as principal secretary in the Ministry of Education in 2000) in fulfilment of Ntate Mosisili's dream. I also saw to the success of the school feeding programme. I am the best remembered government secretary after I succeeded Ntate Mohlabi Tsekoa who excelled at what he did. I had big shoes to fill and I didn't disappoint.
"I established the business council to enhance cooperation among the business sector, the prime minister and the cabinet ministers. I am the first and last Mosotho to be president of the African Association for Public Administration and Management (AAPAM) representing the whole of Africa."
While he may have the required experience, qualifications and huge doses of self-confidence, things are never straight forward in politics.
Insiders in the party say Dr Mosisili has been surreptitiously doing the bidding for Mr Mokhothu. In African politics, having the backing of an incumbent outgoing leader holds its advantages.
And if the recent booing and heckling of Mr Sekhamane is anything to go by, his qualifications and experience could count for nothing in the upcoming polls.
A fortnight ago, DC supporters, who attended the party's rally in Maputsoe, Leribe district, embarrassed Mr Sekhamane when they booed him while he was introducing himself.
In contrast, Mr Mokhothu was met with cheering and chanting at the same rally. He was even presented and draped with a Linare blanket for "having stood by Ntate (Pakalitha) Mosisili during difficult times".
Analyst Lefu Thaela said the fact that he was heckled could also mean that most DC supporters are against him.
By letting Mr Mokhothu become the deputy, the DC has already proved that it is ready to give young leaders a chance than recycling old people just because they have been there for long, he says. This could work against Mr Sekhamane and favour the youthful Mr Mokhothu, especially among those who think a younger leader is more attractive to voters when pitted against the old guard leading the current coalition.
However, the Director of the Development for Peace Education (DPE) and political analyst, Sofonea Shale, cautioned about reading too much into the jeering. Mr Shale said voting at the elective conference would be a preserve of invited delegates and not the booing masses.
"I don't think we can read anything in that, because voting is done by those who have been delegated to do so, who are also vulnerable to different forms of persuasions.
"Generally booing of leaders doesn't bring the desired results by those who do it," Mr Shale said.
And so, the battle lines have been drawn. In a week's time, the nation will know whether the DC would have gone for the youthful vitality of Mr Mokhothu or opted for the experience of Mr Sekhamane.