Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy surrounded by South Africa, with some prior history of military involvement in its politics. The Prime Minister has fled across the border into South Africa, saying that a military coup is under way.
But it’s unclear what’s actually going on here, because the Prime Minister suspended parliament back in June to avoid a no-confidence vote against his unstable coalition government. And today the military allegedly may have just been trying to take him involuntarily to the king (I assume to insist that parliament be recalled into session and a new government be formed under a different prime minister). The military also claims they were merely acting today to disarm the country’s police force, which they accuse of providing weapons to the prime minister’s party supporters.
The army is understood to have acted after the prime minister attempted to remove its chief, Lt Gen Kennedy Tlai Kamoli.
The army said the general was still charge, saying the military “supports the democratically elected government of the day,” Reuters news agency reported.
A spokesman, Maj Ntlele Ntoi, denied staging a coup, saying: “There is nothing like that, the situation has returned to normalcy… the military has returned to their barracks.”
Earlier, troops were seen on the streets of Maseru and there were reports of gunfire.
Radio stations were taken off air and phone lines were cut, although later reports suggested they were working again.
Eyewitness account by Basildon Peta, publisher of the Lesotho Times, quoted by the BBC:
This whole thing started around 03:00. There were gunshots since early morning. The city is currently calm. People are playing it safe within their homes, but there is basically a media blackout.
To all intents and purposes it is a military coup with the aim of ousting the prime minister. There can be no other reason of soldiers behaving the way they have been behaving other than to seize power.
So far we have no reports of killings. It would be correct to call it a bloodless coup attempt. But I am not going to stick around. The chances are the situation may deteriorate. One does not know what is going to happen.
South Africa’s government, which has long had a very influential role in Lesotho’s politics, has said it is monitoring the situation closely and would oppose any unconstitutional change in power there.
The former British protectorate of less than 2 million people is very poor and still has a subsistence-oriented agricultural economy. The government is the largest employer in the country, according to the CIA World Factbook. The military has strongly resisted government plans to reduce its size to a more reasonable level for a country whose outside defenses are actually now maintained by another country (South Africa).
Update, August 31 2014: There has been an attempted assassination against Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who was Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s choice to replace Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli as head of the armed forces. The latter is accused of leading the attempted coup this weekend.
Low-ranking soldiers contacted by AFP said it was unclear who was now giving their orders. They remain confined to barracks.
Prime Minister Thabane remains in South Africa. His political rival, Deputy Prime Minister Mothejoa Metsing, has also now departed Lesotho for Pretoria, at the invitation of the South African government, to try to sort out the situation. This appears to leave Public Service Minister Motloheloa Phooko, from the third rival party in the coalition government, as the acting chief executive, assuming the civilian leadership is still in power, despite the coup attempt.