FOREIGN Affairs and International Relations, Lesego Makgothi, has sparked fresh controversy with his latest assurances of Lesotho's neutrality on the issue of the Western Sahara's bid for independence from Morocco.
Mr Makgothi who was in Morocco this week, was quoted in the North African country's media saying Lesotho will remain neutral in Western Sahara's long-running struggle for independence from Morocco. He said Lesotho had consequently suspended all its decisions and statements related to the Morocco-Western Sahara conflict pending the outcome of the United Nations-led process to resolve the conflict.
Mr Makgothi's position is at odds with that of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) who support Western Sahara's right to self-determination.
"The Kingdom of Lesotho expresses its sincere wish that its neutral position on the Sahara issue will give a strong signal to all parties that it stands alongside the international community in their efforts to achieve a realistic, practicable and enduring political solution to this regional conflict," Mr Makgothi reportedly told the Moroccan government during his visit to that country on Tuesday.
While his utterances were celebrated in the Moroccan media who hailed him for "putting yet another nail in the coffin" of Western Sahara's "separatist militia", Lesotho government spokesperson, Nthakeng Selinyane, distanced the government from the "confusion caused by the circulation of something purporting to be a position taken by a special envoy of Lesotho (Mr Makgothi) to Morocco".
"I instantly inquired about it (Mr Makgothi's alleged statement) from the Government Secretary (Moahloli Mphaka) and he did not know about it. We are not aware (of this purported government position affirming neutrality on the Sahara issue) and I talk with authority," Mr Selinyane said yesterday.
On his part, Mr Makgothi appeared to confirm that he had been correctly quoted by the Moroccan media when the Lesotho Times contacted him for comment yesterday.
"I am not in a position to comment on the Morocco issue because I am still to report to my superiors when I return home. Of course, the media in Morocco can quote me but back home, I must report to my superiors first before I can comment officially," Mr Makgothi said.
He first communicated the controversial stance of neutrality to Morocco on 4 October 2019 but a few days later the government was forced to backtrack on this position after strong criticism from local human rights groups.
"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations has since expressed to both Morocco and the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara), Lesotho's continued and unconditional support for Morocco's total withdrawal from the Saharawi territories it is currently occupying and it respects the self-determination and territorial integrity of the Saharawi people.
"Contrary to some imputations, the government wishes to reiterate that the policy of the Kingdom on the cause of the Saharawi people... has not changed in the slightest," the government subsequently said in the wake of the strong local criticism.
Morocco has laid claim to Western Sahara (also known as the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic) ever since Spain relinquished control of the North African territory in 1957.
Various efforts to resolve the long-running issue have been initiated without success, including a 1991 United Nations-brokered referendum which flopped after Morocco and the Polisario Front (the main political party in Western Sahara) disagreed over who should vote. The Polisario Front wants complete independence from Morocco.
Some government sources say Mr Makgothi continues to flip-flop on the Western Sahara issue and he is siding with Morocco because the government is keen to enter into bilateral relations with Morocco and secure investments in the fields of agriculture, education and military cooperation among others.