Lesotho: ABC Factions in Near Gun Battle

Prince Seeiso Bereng Seeiso of Lesotho, Principal Chief of Matsieng and brother of King Letsie III.

THERE was drama when security guards of the warring All Basotho Convention (ABC) factions came close to exchanging gunfire at the party's Maseru offices as the power struggle within the party scaled unprecedented new levels this week.

The security details from both factions on Tuesday pointed guns at each other as they fought for control of the party offices. They had been taken over last Friday by the ABC's newly elected national executive committee (NEC) fronted by Professor Nqosa Mahao and Mr Lebohang Hlaele as deputy leader and secretary general respectively.

The incident happened a day after ABC leader and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane "expelled" Prof Mahao, Mr Hlaele, chairperson Samuel Rapapa and deputy spokesperson 'Matebatso Doti from the party.

The quartet have however resisted their expulsion and vowed to stay put.

Alarmed by the near-deadly confrontation, the owner of the building, Hajee Haroon Osman, has since repossessed the keys to the ABC offices. He now insists he will only give them to Dr Thabane when the latter returns from an official trip to Mozambique this weekend because he signed the lease on behalf of the ABC.

The new and old ABC's NECs have been engaged in a bitter struggle for control of the party. It appeared the long-drawn out saga would now end after the High Court ruled in the Mahao faction's favour.

However, things took a different turn on Monday after Dr Thabane resolved to "expel" Prof Mahao and four others despite the court judgment. He was forced to make the announcement in the parking lot outside the offices which had been locked up by the Mahao camp.

And on Tuesday, security personnel of the two factions came face to face as the battle for control of the party offices almost turned deadly.

The old NEC's guards were first on the scene and attempted to access the offices by cutting the chains placed on the doors by the Mahao faction. The Mahao faction guards suddenly appeared before their rivals had gained entry.

The two sides engaged in heated arguments, going to the extend of pointing guns at each other. The stand-off only ended after the intervention of Mr Hlaele and his deputy, Nkaku Kabi, who are now separately claiming credit for diffusing the situation.

Mr Kabi yesterday said things only returned to normal after he approached the property owner, Mr Osman, and they agreed that both factions should be locked out of the offices and the keys given to Dr Thabane in his capacity as ABC leader.

Mr Kabi has so far refrained from openly taking sides and pronouncing himself on the intra-party dispute although there is widespread speculation that he sides with the old NEC. He was present at the press conference at which Dr Thabane announced the "expulsions". He said the party urgently needed to address the infighting as it would make the ABC "look bad".

He said Tuesday's confrontation between the two factions' guards was "so bad that something big could have happened".

"There were two factions that were fighting for the control of the office. The other group (Mahao faction) forced entry into the office (on Friday) and the other group (Thabane faction) came yesterday (Tuesday) to force entry into the same office.

"When I arrived at the offices I found the (Mahao faction) leaders telling people not to approach the office as both sides brandished their guns at each other. The (Mahao) side was saying that the office belongs to the NEC while the other side argued that the NEC has been expelled from the party and therefore didn't have any rights to the office.

"I didn't like it when the security guards of the other (Mahao) faction chased people away. I called Ntate Hlaele and asked that we go to the property owner to resolve the matter. He told me that he was at the police station and I waited for a long time watching those people pointing their guns at each other. I was worried and that pushed me to go to the property owner on my own."

Mr Kabi said Mr Osman immediately telephoned Dr Thabane who asked the latter to hand over the keys to him (Mr Kabi). Mr Kabi said Mr Osman refused to hand over the keys, saying he was tired of the factional drama and he would only give the keys to Dr Thabane in his capacity as the signatory of the lease agreement on behalf of the ABC.

Mr Kabi said they also agreed with Messrs Hlaele, Osman and the police that the two factions should not set foot at the offices until Dr Thabane had pronounced himself on the matter.

"We requested the police to join Mr Osman's private security and guard the place. We averted bloodshed at the office by going to the property owner to give us direction and there is no reason for the two factions to go there now that he has told us to leave the building."

In the aftermath of the "expulsion" of Prof Mahao and others on Monday, Mr Kabi has been tasked by Dr Thabane to call an NEC meeting to deal with the infighting in the ABC.

He said the meeting would go ahead as planned on a date to be announced, adding "but I have heard that those who were expelled from the party will also call a special conference where the ABC members will decide their fate".

On his part, Mr Hlaele said they had no option but to again petition the courts because by expelling them Dr Thabane had violated last week's court ruling which confirmed them as the new NEC.

"We have to go to court right away because it is clear that this person (Dr Thabane) is going to give the office keys to the people he has appointed as the executive committee despite the court ruling in our favour. This issue can only be solved by the courts and we will approach the courts today (yesterday)," Mr Hlaele said.

He alleged that the people who had broken into the offices had been sent by former secretary general Samonyane Ntsekele, adding on Tuesday, he had advised the security guards from both factions to leave the building to avoid killing people or being killed in the process.

"The property owner called us together with the police to inform us that, due to the damage that has been caused by the people sent by Ntate Ntsekele, he had requested a meeting with Ntate Thabane to discuss the issues surrounding his property and the damage. He said he had to speak with Ntate Thabane because he was the one who signed the lease agreement. Ntate Thabane said he was out of the country and will be back on Saturday so they agreed to meet thereafter to map the way forward."

"They (old NEC guards) broke the chain and damaged the keyhole. I then told them it was in their own and their children's best interests to leave the building because they were going to kill people and that they would also get killed. Those lucky to be alive would go to jail while the person who sent them there will still be out there enjoying life with his children and wife. I asked them to leave for the sake of unity and peace in the country and that I did not want to witness bloodshed. Fortunately they didn't protest and left. The other tenants complained to the property owner that they were scared and felt unsafe," Mr Hlaele said.

Mr Osman and Mr Ntsekele were not reachable on their mobile phones.

Acting police spokesperson Senior Inspector Rantoane Motsoetla said they were investigating the matter.

"Police officers are and will continue to be stationed there until the ABC issues have been resolved. There are ongoing investigations in relation to the office break in," Senior Inspector Motsoetla said.

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