Ministers and their deputies were left without army guards l week after army commander, Lieutenant General Mojalefa Letsoela, summoned all soldiers in Maseru to an urgent "commander's mass parade" to diffuse simmering tensions within the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) over salary increments.
The commander's mass parade was held on Tuesday at Makoanyane Barracks, allegedly without the knowledge of Defence and National Security Minister, Tefo Mapesela. Yesterday, Mr Mapesela was seething with anger and accused Lt-Gen Letsoela of causing panic among cabinet ministers after the sudden withdrawal of their guards without prior notice. He described Lt-Gen Letsoela's alleged failure to inform him about the army's salary grievances and the mass parade as "a revolt against civilian authority".
He also accused Lt-Gen Letsoela and Defence principal secretary, Tankiso Phapano, of sidelining him in all the discussions on the proposed harmonisation of salaries of members of the security agencies.
The government recently embarked on an exercise to harmonise salaries to ensure that members of security agencies of comparable ranks earn similar salaries.
While the harmonisation exercise has been well-received by ordinary soldiers who expect salary increments once it has been completed, the project is being opposed by the army command. It is not clear why the top army command is opposed to the harmonization process as it would benefit the lower ranks of the army and probably boost morale. The LDF simply says it does not consider salary increments a priority in light of the ongoing economic hardships facing the country.
Against the background of discontentment among ordinary soldiers over their command's opposition to the harmonization exercise, Lt-Gen Letsoela had summoned all soldiers in Maseru, including those guarding ministers and other senior government officials to a parade aimed at explaining the LDF's position and "countering the disinformation campaign targeted at the LDF".
LDF public affairs officer, Lt Kelebone Mothibi, subsequently issued a statement saying the LDF command had called the soldiers after realising that there were "subversive" statements on social media suggesting that the army command was opposed to the proposed harmonisation of salaries.
"This subversive propaganda was so rife that hasty counter-measures had to be taken to reverse it," Lt Mothibi said.
"The LDF command deemed it fit to summon each and every member of the LDF who happened to be in the general area of Maseru at the time to the commander's mass parade where the Chief of Defence Staff sought to clarify the matter to halt this disinformation campaign targeted at the LDF.
"It would be recalled that... it is the command function to give direction, inform and protect the personnel from such ill-fated propaganda campaigns. The extent to which this disinformation campaign had spread necessitated that all members should be addressed and be given an opportunity to clear their doubts hence the commander's mass parade was called."
Lt Mothibi said the LDF command was aware of the economic hardships in the country and it therefore did not consider salary increments a priority. It was deemed appropriate to explain this properly to the soldiers, hence the parade.
"The command fully appreciates the economic situation our country finds itself in, and does not deem salary increments a priority. We, the LDF, shall remain the hope of the nation," Lt Mothibi said.
He said soldiers guarding ministers' residences resumed their duties immediately after the mass parade "with a clear sense of purpose as usual".
He said the LDF command was "happy" to inform the nation that the morale of the LDF members was once again at an "all time high" and that there was absolutely no reason to panic.
Following Lt Mothibi's statement, Brigadier Ntlele Ntoi, also from the LDF public affairs office, gave interviews to local radio stations, saying the army was never party to discussions on the proposed harmonisation of salaries.
"It is important to mention that as the army command, we were never party to the discussions that led to the decision to harmonise salaries of members of the security agencies," Brigadier Ntoi said.
He added that the army had already advised the government to re-think the harmonisation exercise, particularly where it concerned the LDF. He however, did not say what the LDF command wanted in place of the harmonisation proposals.
On his part, the Government Secretary, Moahloli Mphaka, yesterday told the Lesotho Times that cabinet on Tuesday decided to temporarily suspend the implementation of the harmonised salaries for the security agencies after noting the confusion the exercise had caused.
"Cabinet resolved to put on hold the implementation of that (harmonised salary) structure so that it could advise itself on how to best handle this matter to ensure there is understanding among all stakeholders and not this confusion it has caused," Mr Mphaka said.
But the exercise is already clouded by controversy. Yesterday, Defence Minister Mapesela told the Lesotho Times that he was not happy with Mr Phapano and Lt-Gen Letsoela for failing to inform him about the army's opposition to the harmonisation exercise.
He said contrary to the army command's belief, police officers earned more than their army counterparts in comparable ranks and it was unfortunate that the army had chosen to view the government's intention to increase army salaries in a bad light.
"Until yesterday (Tuesday) when the army command released a statement, I didn't know that they were unhappy with this exercise. They never communicated anything to me and when I asked the Ministry of Public Service why the army was excluded from this exercise I was told that they flatly refused to attend meetings.
"How do they find that (harmonisation exercise) to be a problem? Police officers are earning way higher than them (army) and this exercise was meant to close the gap between them and the police. The army commander and the commissioner of police earn the same salaries but others from the rank of sergeant to police constable earn more than soldiers," Mr Mapesela said.
He said Lt-Gen Letsoela did not inform him that he would temporarily withdraw soldiers guarding ministers' residences on Tuesday morning. He said he was surprised to wake up to find that he had no guards and to later learn from his cabinet colleagues that soldiers had been temporarily withdrawn from their residences.
"He (Lt-Gen Letsoela) should have told me (about the temporary withdrawal of guards) so that I could inform my colleagues in our WhatsApp group. The panic among cabinet ministers could have been avoided had I been told that all soldiers in Maseru were commanded to attend a mass parade on Tuesday.
"I also did not know that the army command was working with my own principal secretary (Mr Phapano) to register their grievances (concerning the harmonisation exercise) with the public service ministry. "I only learnt yesterday (Tuesday) that there has been exchange of letters between my principal secretary and the public service ministry concerning this issue. No one is telling me anything. They are purposely keeping me in the dark."
He said Lt-Gen Letsoela's conduct was "a clear indication" that the army command did not regard him as the responsible minister and they wanted someone else to be their minister.
"There is a revolt against civilian authority but their plans will not come to fruition, not in this country," Mr Mapesela said.
Contacted for comment, Mr Phapano said he was engaged elsewhere and would call this reporter as soon as he was free to answer questions. He never called back as promised.