Lesotho: LDF in Weapons Storm

19 November 2019

The Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) is facilitating the acquisition of weapons by its soldiers for their private ownership.

But the development has stirred serious concerns in light of the current proliferation of weapons being used in numerous murders in the country for which nobody has been held accountable.

Highly placed sources have queried why the soldiers should get institutional assistance for purchasing private firearms particularly after the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had already issued warnings about the possible misuse of weapons by rogue soldiers who may want to destabilise the country.

The LDF has gone out of its way to facilitate the purchase of private guns by its members by facilitating stop order payments to the favoured supplier after making all the necessary arrangements with that supplier. This is a marked departure from the normal practice wherein soldiers wanting to buy private firearms apply for licences, just like any ordinary civilians, and then purchase the weapons in their private capacities once necessary approvals are granted and never through wholesale deals facilitated by the LDF.

Despite the warnings by SADC, it has emerged that the LDF had approved a deal for a local company, Rugged Lava Arms & Ammunition, to supply private guns to its soldiers for their personal use.

The company, which has only been in business for a year, now stands accused by the soldiers of failing to deliver the guns almost six months after it started receiving payments through stop order deductions from the soldiers' salaries.

Even the Czech Republic, the country where the guns are being sourced from, is said to have delayed granting an export permit to Rugged Lava Arms & Ammunition, amid concerns about the instability in Lesotho.

In terms of the deal between the soldiers and Rugged Lava, owned by one Peete Sekhonyana, the payments are deducted from the soldiers' salaries over a three year period and the amounts deducted vary depending on the model of the guns ordered.

LDF Public Affairs Officer, Lieutenant Kelebone Mothibi, however said there was nothing wrong with soldiers acquiring private weapons for personal use. He also dismissed fears that the weapons could be used to destabilise the country.

"There is nothing wrong with officers acquiring private guns because they have been trained in their handling and they have also been vetted, hence we don't think they could be used to destabilise the country in any way. The weapons are for their personal protection outside their work," Lt Mothibi told this publication yesterday.

Ahead of the deployment of the SADC standby force to Lesotho on 2 December 2017, the regional body warned of the likelihood of army equipment including missing arms of war being used in plots by rogue soldiers to destabilise the country.

The SADC standby force, also known as the SADC Preventive Mission in Lesotho (SAPMIL), was essentially deployed to prevent rogue soldiers from destabilising Dr Thabane's coalition as it went about implementing SADC recommended multi-sector reforms to curb perennial instability in the country.

A confidential report by SADC ahead of the standby force's deployment stated that some arms of war had gone missing from the LDF armoury and warned that missing weapons could be used by rogue soldiers to launch reprisal attacks as efforts to hold them accountable for past transgressions intensified.

The report speaks of arms of war and ammunition missing from the armory of the LDF as well as heavy AK47 rifles that disappeared from the Lesotho Correctional Services (LCS).

Apart from those SADC warnings, violent crime has been on the upward trend in Lesotho with numerous murders being reported in the last few months for which nobody has been held accountable. The opposition has blamed the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) of committing some of the murders.

Meanwhile, the non-delivery of the guns six months after they began paying for them has left some of the soldiers fearing that they could be victims of a scam by the arms supplier.

"Some of us have been paying for the guns since June 2019 and we had hoped we would be having our guns by September 2019 as promised by the supplier," said one soldier on condition of anonymity.

"But we are surprised that to date we still haven't gotten our guns and we have not been given any updates. We could have got the guns from any other registered supplier but we were made to believe by our bosses that this is an authentic deal because this particular company is owned by one of the cabinet ministers.

"But with the way things are happening now, we fear we may have been scammed and we want the payments stopped and we should be refunded what has been deducted so far."

But Lt Mothibi said the deal was still on and Mr Sekhonyana would deliver the weapons beginning next month.

"The company (Rugged Lava Arms & Ammunition) belongs to one Mr Peete Sekhonyana and he is the one who approached the LDF authorities with this arrangement (to supply guns) which was accepted.

"He in turn approached several countries to source the merchandise after satisfactory vetting that those who had applied are free from criminal records and can be entrusted with such weapons.

"He found a supplier who also did his own vetting to make sure that the guns would not end up in the wrong hands. Then there was the arrangement of (stop order) payments which started in June. Those who applied (for the weapons) were informed that the first batch of guns would be delivered in December, meaning that no deal has been breached as yet," Lt Mothibi said.

He said he did not have information on the number of officers who had applied for the guns.

On his part, Mr Sekhonyana denied claims that he was merely a front in the company which some say is owned by a cabinet minister (name supplied) from one of the coalition parties.

"I built this company from scratch and it is just over a year old. I approached the LDF authorities and marketed my products. I came up with an affordable payment plan and the deal was approved. I have also done this with all the other security agencies.

"The vetting process to determine who is eligible to get a gun is done by the authorities together with the issuance of the licenses. Mine is just to supply the merchandise after having satisfied myself that all the procedures have been met. The countries that supply me have their own vetting processes to make sure that the guns don't end up in the wrong hands," Mr Sekhonyana said.

He however, contradicted Lt Mothibi by saying that the first batch of guns should have been delivered in September 2019.

"There was a delay from my supplier in the Czech Republic who told me that they had not approved my export permit because they had learnt that Lesotho was going through a phase of instability and therefore they did not want to play any part in aggravating that.

"I later received a call from my supplier's office in South Africa saying they wanted to come over and see for themselves what the true situation was on the ground with regards to the reports of instability. They came and did their own checks in the presence of the LDF authorities.

"They took about seven weeks to compile a report on their findings which was then sent to the Czech Republic.

"The export permit was finally granted after the report but now the problem is that they had already sold the guns to another buyer. The first consignment is now expected in February 2020 and I have communicated this to the LDF authorities," Mr Sekhonyana said.

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