Lesotho: 'The Die Is Cast, ABC Split Looms'

Lesotho's Thomas Thabane (file photo).

Far from being the solution, last Wednesday's High Court ruling which confirmed the legitimacy of the new national executive committee (NEC) of the All Basotho Convention (ABC) only opened up a fresh chapter in the long-drawn out war for the control of the ruling party.

Less than 24 hours after the court ruling which threw out the case against the election of Professor Nqosa Mahao and his colleagues into the ABC's NEC, party leader and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane quickly moved to rid the party of the man he infamously described as "a useless rag" that should never be allowed to succeed him at the helm of the ruling party.

On Thursday, Dr Thabane issued letters demanding that Prof Mahao, new secretary general Lebohang Hlaele, chairperson Samuel Rapapa, spokesperson and deputy spokesperson 'Matebatso Doti "show cause" why they should not be expelled from the party for alleged insubordination by holding rallies against his express orders. Dr Thabane subsequently unilaterally expelled them on Monday and predictably, the move has been resisted by the quintet who have vowed unspecified disciplinary action against the veteran leader.

In all this, Dr Thabane showed that he would not accept Prof Mahao as his second in command. In turn the exasperated former National University of Lesotho (NUL) Vice Chancellor joined his allies in what is already a bare knuckle fight for the control of the party which, only two years ago, represented the country's best hope out of instability and grinding poverty.

It is a fight to death and according to analysts, this is one where there will be no easy winner. Instead the analysts say, the war can only end in a party split and the collapse of the current coalition government. The analysts say the resultant fragmentation will forever bury the ABC's dreams of becoming the political behemoth that parties like the Basotho Congress Party (BCP) and the Lesotho Congress of Democracy (LCD) once were before they were also afflicted by the same demon of personality clashes and the resultant power struggles.

When the ABC began to unravel shortly after the hotly disputed February 2019 elective conference which ushered in Prof Mahao and others into the party's NEC, NUL lecturer Monyane Moletsane told the Lesotho Times that the election of Prof Mahao was one of a series of events that showed that the power dynamics were changing in the ABC and Dr Thabane was no longer the all-powerful figure that he was a few years ago.

"This (election of Prof Mahao) is more about the power dynamics within the party. Tom (Thabane) is no longer the individual that he was in 2012 or before that. The fact that he was booed in Quthing (at the ABC's August 2017 ABC sabbatical conference) tells you that the power dynamics are changing. What happened in Quthing was unthinkable some 10 years ago but the shouting (down of Thabane) shows that there are some power dynamics that have gone beyond him," Dr Moletsane said.

If there was any need to demonstrate how the power dynamics had shifted as observed by Dr Moletsane, then nothing was more telling than the sight of Dr Thabane announcing the expulsion of Prof Mahao and others from the parking lot outside the party's offices in Maseru. This after the offices had been locked at the behest of the quintet, denying Dr Thabane access.

The tables had surely turned. Dr Thabane was given a taste of the medicine that the NEC endured when they found the party offices locked in February, forcing them to hold their inaugural press conference in the same parking lot. One ABC official who spoke on condition of anonymity told this publication that Dr Thabane's open air press conference symbolised the jettisoning of the founding leader of the party by the 'young turks'.

Having observed the shifting balance of power, Dr Moletsane warned that Dr Thabane had no choice but to swallow his disdain for Prof Mahao and work with him.

But Dr Moletsane's warning fell on deaf ears and instead the power struggle has entered another dimension whose endgame, analysts say, can only be collapse of the once formidable party.

University of Limpopo Public Law Professor Hoolo Nyane this week told the Lesotho Times a split is now inevitable because it has always been clear from the beginning that Dr Thabane would never accept Prof Mahao as his deputy.

"Despite the outcome of the elective conference and the court ruling or even future court verdicts that may favour Prof Mahao, Dr Thabane will never agree to work with Prof Mahao.

"Therefore the two men will continue to front two factions of the ABC and this impasse will lead to two important scenarios - the split of the ABC and a collapse of the government," Prof Nyane said.

But before the formal split and collapse of the government, both factions were likely to approach the courts to stake their claims. This would have negative consequences on the courts whose credibility will be tested by the manner they handle the intra-party disputes.

"In the event that the courts rule in favour of Mahao, Thabane will pull another stunt wherein he will say that he is acting in accordance with the powers given to him by the ABC constitution. But if the courts rule in favour of Thabane, then Mahao's future in the ABC will be very bleak. It will be the end for the Mahao faction in the party and they might have to form another party."

The intra-party conflict was likely to test the credibility of the courts in interpreting the ABC constitution which he said was a "bad law" because it was silent or vague on so many critical issues.

Besides the court actions, the Mahao camp has vowed to call a special conference to act against Dr Thabane. But according to Prof Nyane, even this approach is problematic because there is no clause in the ABC constitution which gives the NEC or the special conference powers to discipline the party leader.

He said that the ABC constitution was one of the "worst laws" around as it did not clearly articulate important issues relating to the structure of the NEC such as positions within the NEC, who gets elected and who gets coopted.

"I have not come across any clause that gives the special conference powers to recall Thabane but it would be easier to recall him as Prime Minister through a successful vote of no confidence against him (in parliament).

"A no confidence motion has already been filed against him in parliament but the special conference would only lead to another prolonged court case which would be aggravated by the fact that the ABC constitution is a bad law. The powers that those people (NEC) are claiming to have within the ABC, including calling special conferences, are not clearly spelt out in the ABC constitution.

"There is a lot of confusion in the ABC and they must forget that that the party constitution will resolve their problems. The ultimate solution will come from the courts and they (factions) will always be in court until such time they decide to split.

"If they call a special conference, they will be just calling it under the pretence that constituency committees have powers to give direction but this is just going to be a long drawn-out battle.

"Right now, the leader has expelled others from the party and the constitution does not clearly spell out his powers to expel people. These (expelled) five have decided to go against his decision. So that party constitution will never resolve the ABC issues. It is for the courts to interpret it and patch it here and there," Prof Nyane said.

Senior NUL lecturer Dr Tlohang Letsie said the ABC had effectively split and what remained to be resolved was who should keep the party name.

"They have already separated while still within the party and the only thing that they are now fighting over is the name ABC. This fight will either be decided by the courts or the special conference if ever they called it. I don't see any form of reconciliation between the two factions, they have gone too far," Dr Letsie said.

He said the infighting should be blamed on Dr Thabane.

"I think the infighting can be explained in terms of the characteristics of the leader himself. He has that mentality of ABC being his personal property and his actions demonstrate that he thinks and believes that the ABC is his personal property. So he sees whoever comes in as his deputy as a threat that might end up taking away 'his property' from him.

"So he will always want a kind of a deputy leader that he can control the same way he was seen controlling Prince Maliehe," ," Dr Letsie said.

NUL Dean of Political Science Professor Motlamelle Kapa also said the ABC was headed for a split.

"They are headed for a split and we don't know when it will happen and who will move out but the prospects of reconciliation are close to zero now. A split is inevitable."

Prof Kapa said Dr Thabane probably afraid of calling elections because he was aware that his chances of bouncing back into government were slim and this is why he had not jumped ship to form a new party as he had done when he left the LCD to form the ABC in 2006.

"Unlike other leaders who quickly jumped ship and formed a new party because they enjoyed massive support, the ABC is in dilemma."

He also said Dr Thabane even if dissolved parliament and called for fresh election he risked annoying his coalition partners who were not ready for elections.

On his part, political scientist Professor Kopano Makoa blamed the infighting on Dr Thabane, saying the ABC leader had made it clear from the beginning that he was opposed to the new NEC.

"The ABC is in this situation because of the ABC leader. He gave a media interview where he said he did not want the new NEC. Unity is impossible where a leader fans divisions. They (ABC factions) are and have always been disunited from the word go and so a rupture should be expected as an outcome," Prof Makoa said.

He said the ABC impasse had focused the spotlight on the party constitution which would end up attenuated if it kept failing tests of legality in the courts of law.

"The Prime Minister has once again put his authority and the ABC constitution to the test and he will be tested by the courts. He has put the ABC, ABC constitution and his authority to the test.

"As long as the impasse remains, the ABC constitution will continuously be tested and ultimately, there will be no constitution because when the constitution continuously fails the test, you end up having that constitution attenuated.

"Again, his (Thabane's) own authority will be diminished. A continuously tested authority ends up losing its powers, or having those powers attenuated. That attenuation may end up with people not recognising that authority," Prof Makoa said.

He said apart from testing his authority within the party, the manner in which Dr Thabane handled the infighting also focused the spotlight on whether or not the ABC was an open organisation, tolerant and accommodative of diverse views of its members.

Prof Makoa warned that Dr Thabane's behaviour also tested him not only as a party leader but as prime minister. He said Dr Thabane's commitment to democracy and basic human rights as prime minister was now open for scrutiny by the international community.

"There is an international dimension. This is a multi-faceted test of a party leader and prime minister.

"The international community is now watching him because human rights issues are no longer about internal organisational matters but universal. The very same questions that were asked in the courts of law are now being asked in relation to the governance of Lesotho," Prof Makoa said.

Although Dr Moletsane concurs that the endgame is the ABC split, he wants the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African Union (AU) to prevent that by mediating between the warring factions.

"The ABC impasse needs a political solution through the external mediation of SADC and AU because the infighting has a direct bearing on the reforms and the stability of this country.

"SADC and AU have a role to play because going to court is not a solution for the infighting. The courts are not mediators, they just interpret the law and make their ruling however they see fit," Dr Moletsane said.

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