Cracks have emerged in the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC)'s powerful national executive committee (NEC) amid indications that the party's secretary-general, Lebohang Hlaele, pushed for the suspension of the deputy leader, Professor Nqosa Mahao, for allegedly campaigning for the leader's post.
Prof Mahao is said to have been campaigning to replace the incumbent, former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, in violation of a ban on campaigning declared by the NEC in June this year. The ban was communicated in a 28 June 2020 letter to all party structures by Mr Hlaele.
He said the leader's post was not vacant and therefore there was no need to worsen divisions in the "already fragile" party which had been weakened by ongoing power struggles since last year. Despite this, some party members want the 81-year-old Mr Thabane replaced so that the party can have a younger, vibrant leader come the 2022 elections.
According to authoritative party sources, Mr Hlaele recommended Prof Mahao's suspension at an NEC meeting a fortnight ago. This after the party's Thupa-Kubu legislator, Tšeliso Kalake, had written to the NEC complaining that Prof Mahao, who is also the Law and Justice minister, had been campaigning in his constituency without informing him and the constituency committee.
Mr Hlaele, however, failed in his quest to get Prof Mahao suspended due to resistance from fellow NEC members. Save for deputy chairperson Chalane Phori and deputy secretary general Nkaku Kabi, the NEC members have been solidly behind Prof Mahao who fought a year-long bitter war for control of the party with Mr Thabane from last year.
Mr Hlaele was for long a key stalwart of the Mahao faction. But party sources say the faction is now unravelling due to the ambitions of its members who are all eyeing to succeed Mr Thabane as party leader ahead of the 2022 national elections. Mr Hlaele, Prof Mahao and chairperson Samuel Rapapa all want to succeed Mr Thabane, in addition to Moeketsi Majoro who has no option but to fight for the leader's post to secure his position as prime minister. But party sources say Mr Hlaele sees Prof Mahao as his biggest rival to the top post. He thus wanted him suspended for an unspecified duration for campaigning in Thupa-Kubu as an initial strategic step to weaken Prof Mahao.
Mr Kalake yesterday confirmed that Prof Mahao and his campaign team had visited his constituency without informing the constituency committee.
"It is true that we wrote the letter to the NEC, complaining that there were some people who were visiting our constituency to solicit votes in the event that the party holds elections for the leader's position," Mr Kalake told the Lesotho Times yesterday.
"We were referring to Ntate Mahao who visited our constituency with some youth members who are believed to be part of his campaign team. The visit was never communicated to the constituency committee.
"The matter was discussed in the NEC and he (Prof Mahao) was asked to give his side of the story. The NEC promised to inform us of its verdict on the matter but it has not done so to date," Mr Kalake added.
All has not been well in the NEC most of whose members had stood solidly behind Prof Mahao when Mr Thabane resisted his election as deputy leader in February 2019. Mr Thabane had dismissed Prof Mahao as a political novice unqualified to be his deputy.
ABC deputy spokesperson, 'Matebatso Doti, and Mr Hlaele even paid the ultimate price for their support for Prof Mahao in February 2019 when Mr Thabane booted them from their cabinet posts as Social Development minister and Law and Constitutional Affairs minister respectively.
But such is the fickle nature of local politics that Mr Hlaele is said to be now at loggerheads with Prof Mahao as they both eye the leader's post.
Mr Hlaele, a son-in-law to Mr Thabane, is now said to be working with the latter's loyalists to ensure Mr Thabane remains ABC leader for the foreseeable future only because he regards Prof Mahao as the biggest threat to his own ambitions.
According to the party sources, Mr Hlaele had hoped to use Mr Kalake's letter to get the NEC to suspend Prof Mahao. But unlike the case of Mr Phori who was easily suspended by the pro-Mahao NEC for allegedly speaking against it in the media, getting the NEC to suspend Prof Mahao proved a mission impossible for Mr Hlaele.
"Hlaele tried to take advantage of the Thupa-Kubu constituency's letter of complaint by suggesting that the NEC suspends Prof Mahao. But he did not get any support from any of the members and his bid fell through," a party source said.
Another source said Mr Hlaele's actions proved that the Mahao faction was no longer as united as it used to be because Prof Mahao, Mr Hlaele and Mr Rapapa all wanted to succeed Mr Thabane.
The issue of Mr Hlaele's alleged bid to get the NEC to suspend Prof Mahao appears to be a hot potato such that senior party officials such as Mr Rapapa and spokesperson Montoeli Masoetsa referred all questions to Mr Hlaele himself when asked about it yesterday.
"Direct your questions to Hlaele," Mr Rapapa said.
"I will not involve myself with those issues, talk to Hlaele. But I must say that the Thupa-Kubu constituency wrote to the NEC and the matter was dealt with by the NEC," Mr Rapapa said.
Asked how the matter was dealt with, Mr Rapapa said, "direct your questions to Hlaele and Masoetsa. These are administrative issues which are addressed by Hlaele and Masoetsa".
On his part, Mr Masoetsa said, "I am unable to comment on matters relating to the administration of the party. Talk to Hlaele because he is in a better position to know about the letter you are referring to".
Repeated efforts to obtain a comment from Mr Hlaele were unsuccessful at the time of going to print as his mobile phone rang unanswered. Prof Mahao was also unreachable on his mobile phone for comment.
The Thabane succession has proved a vexing issue for the ABC's NEC. After ousting him from his post as premier and replacing him with former Finance Minister Majoro in May this year, the NEC had sought to follow this up by replacing Mr Thabane as ABC leader. A special conference for that purpose had initially been penciled in for July 2020.
But in late June, the NEC announced that there would be no conference to choose a new leader and Mr Thabane would remain at the helm for the foreseeable future. Mr Hlaele even issued a circular on 28 June 2020 banning campaigning for the leader's post and threatening unspecified disciplinary action against any party official who violated the order.
Some party officials said the NEC had performed a U-turn on the special conference after realising that Mr Thabane still had a significant support base within the party and his trusted allies could engineer a split from the party thus severely weakening it. That would also wane the ABC's position as the main party in its governing coalition with the Democratic Congress (DC).
Of equal, if not greater importance in the decision to abandon the conference- according to the sources- was the fear that three of the Mahao-aligned NEC's top members including Prof Mahao himself want the top job.
Apart from Prof Mahao, the two others who want the top post are Mr Rapapa and Mr Hlaele himself. The three would then square off with Prime Minister Majoro who has no option but to contest for the ABC leadership position to secure his tenure ahead of the 2022 general elections.
Dr Majoro was elected premier despite not being the leader of a political party as is normally the case. He is an MP for the Thetsane constituency and an ordinary member of the ABC. He does not sit in the NEC after losing the deputy leader's post to Prof Mahao at the party's February 2019 elective conference.
He is only invited to its working committee in a move Mr Hlaele says isCRACKS meant to ensure he implements the decisions of the NEC rather than simply work with a kitchen cabinet of his choice. The fact of his being not an NEC member makes him vulnerable to any political skullduggery both within and outside his party.
Prof Mahao and Mr Rapapa have all openly declared their interest in succeeding Mr Thabane. But Dr Majoro and Mr Hlaele have kept their cards close to their chests.
Last week, Mr Hlaele admitted that the Thabane succession was causing the party sleepless nights.
He said "the NEC will have to pronounce itself on the issue of the party leader" and hopefully that would be done at special party conference early next year if the threat posed by the Covid-19 pandemic passes.
He said even then, some party members were against choosing a new leader as that would only further weaken the "already fragile party" which has been affected by "incessant infighting".
He also denied that he had fallen out with Prof Mahao and was now working with Mr Thabane's camp.
"It is not true that I am working with the former prime minister. The former prime minister is still the leader of the party and I work with him in that capacity. I must work with the leader of the party because I am the secretary general. Our offices must closely work together," Mr Hlaele said.
But the party sources insist that he is working with the Thabane camp only because he views Prof Mahao as the biggest threat to his own ambitions of eventually taking over the party leadership. He would thus have Mr Thabane remain as leader while laying his own groundwork to usurp the post.
A major sign of the rift between Mr Hlaele and Prof Mahao emerged after the former was excluded from a meeting held at Prof Mahao's house on 20 September 2020 by NEC members and party MPs unhappy at what they describe as Dr Majoro's non-consultative style of leadership.
The meeting at Prof Mahao's house resulted in the attendees seeking a meeting with Dr Majoro which was eventually held on 23 September 2020 at the premier's offices in Maseru to air their grievances.
Sources said Mr Hlaele had not been invited due to suspicions that he is now working with Mr Thabane, his father in law to whom he is estranged, in a plot to topple the government.
Mr Hlaele himself confirmed that he had skipped the meeting because he had not been informed about it.