Lesotho military appears to fracture after coup attempt

Map of Lesotho's location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Lesotho’s location in southern Africa.

In the aftermath of the August 30th attempted coup d’état by a disgruntled general (see our background report), Lesotho is now bracing for a conflict among units of the small, southern African country’s armed forces.

Eyewitness News of South Africa reports that Lesotho’s General Kamoli — fired from the head of the military just before he attempted to seize power — has taken off with stolen weapons and supporters:

Former Lesotho military commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli has reportedly seized army weapons in preparation for a possible stand-off.

He is accused of destabilising the mountainous country last week after he apparently plotted a coup and has refused to step down as the commander of the Lesotho Defence Force.

Reports from Lesotho are that Kamoli has seized an unknown number of weapons from state armouries in order to prepare for offensive and defensive operations.

Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao says Kamoli has refused to vacate military offices after he was sacked by Prime Minister Tom Thabane.

Eyewitness News also reported that 150 government officials are still in hiding in case the pro-coup forces regain the upper hand. Prime Minister Thabane, however, did return from his temporary refuge South Africa with South African police protection. Negotiations, brokered by South African leaders, continued in an effort to resolve the political crisis peacefully. Thabane had angered members of the military and political opponents for suspending parliament earlier this year and refusing to re-convene it.

An AFP report suggested that the political talks are going poorly. Thabane is still uninterested in bringing parliament back into session, and those military commanders who have remained loyal to his authority are now saying they will be imminently launching operations against Kamoli, the rogue general who has fled into the mountains. They are only waiting now to see if outside armed forces will be assisting.

As part of last week’s agreement Zuma has deployed South African police to protect Thabane and some of his key allies, but Lesotho’s leaders are calling for a more robust force to hunt renegade general Kamoli.

Lesotho’s army commander Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao told AFP on Sunday that military action was now the only option against Kamoli.

“Negotiations have failed as far as we are concerned. At this point in time I think we are left with no option but military operations.”

The army chief was frank about the difficulties he would face in taking on Kamoli, who has taken to the mountains with a seized cache of weapons including artillery, mortars and small arms.

However, “it would definitely be very helpful” to get military support from the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation regional bloc.

“I have asked the relevant body in SADC to consider coming to our assistance,” Mahao said.

This new development eerily begins to mirror the situation in nearby, much larger Mozambique, where political disputes between various leaders and political parties had devolved over the past year into low-level insurrection against government forces, after opposition members re-took up arms and disappeared into the rural mountains to harass the government. A ceasefire deal there was reached recently ahead of elections and some of the people hiding in the mountains returned to the capital.

Possible coup attempt in progress in Lesotho

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.

According to the BBC:

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).

Map of Lesotho's location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Lesotho’s location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

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.

Meanwhile in Libya…


The gains by ISIS in Iraq may be hogging the headlines, but let’s not forget about the situation in Libya. When we last left the story, in May, General Khalifa Hifter was attempting a second coup (again unsuccessfully) and rallying the anti-Islamist militias and secular-leaning non-loyal troops and aircraft to his side in Benghazi, the major eastern city. Benghazi is an ideal recruiting ground since many of the best organized militias started there at the beginning of the Arab Spring uprising against Gaddafi. He was having less success in the capital, Tripoli, in the West.

Since then, the internal fighting has continued to widen between the major blocs. Hifter was initially making more headway in his attacks on the Islamist militias in Benghazi and was rallying more forces to his cause. But loosely affiliated western forces under the Zintan Brigade had already held the main airport in Tripoli. Islamist militias struck back at the airport this weekend causing flight disruptions as well as consternation among outsiders (i.e. Westerners), who seem to vaguely prefer Zintan control of the facilities and runways — or perhaps just stability in who is controlling them.

There was also a national general election near the end of June, which although partially disputed and less than ideal is on track to be resolved relatively smoothly in the next couple weeks. The anti-Islamist bloc dominated the results this time, unlike last election, which means the side most sympathetic to Hifter’s position is expected to gain power, while the backers of the Islamist militia will be relegated to a minority. Could that position General Hifter for a “democratic”-coated rise to power in Libya?
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The latter day United Arab Republic

Formerly briefly united into one country, known as the “United Arab Republic,” Egypt and Syria still look pretty similar politically and economically decades after separation. In spirit, the UAR lives on.

But in one country winning the presidency with 97% of the vote is deemed tyranny by the West. In the other, the same figure is “important for democracy.”

“The Egyptian election is important for the process of the democratic transition and return to forming an elected government in Egypt,” a [UK] Foreign Office spokeswoman [said.]

What a joke.

The Philadelphia Coup of 1776

US-flag-13-stars-Betsy_RossThe common narrative in the United States surrounding the Declaration of Independence is that everyone was so appalled by the British crackdown in Massachusetts and the lives lost at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 that all the leaders (and the majority of the populations) of the other colonies were swept up in a united front demanding the rejection of British rule (over a year later).

In reality, it was far more complicated than that. Many of the people were largely apathetic toward the whole matter one way or the other. But among those who were politically engaged, there was nowhere close to unity on the issue between the thirteen colonies (and that doesn’t even get into all the other British colonies in North America that flat-out refused to entertain the idea of joining even a conference to discuss recent events).

The lack of support for independence was so strong in coastal Georgia, for example, that the state’s leaders tried to un-sign from the Declaration of Independence and re-join the British Empire during the war. By war’s end, even after the Battle of Yorktown, the Province of Georgia was fully re-occupied by the British until it was handed over by the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that formally accepted U.S. independence. New York City, similarly, was fairly solidly in support of continued British rule (to protect its trade interests and keep the other colonies from controlling its internal affairs) and also remained in British control until handed over by the treaty.

In certain colonies, such as Massachusetts, the local assemblies were suspended by the British or replaced by puppet governments, and they lacked local support — often to the point of having none of the laws followed by anyone. So in those cases, it’s fair to consider the self-proclaimed “Patriot” assemblies to be the more legitimate governments of those colonies for the purposes of declaring independence. But in other colonies, such as New York, the patriot faction was so deep in the minority that even the real local governments representing popular opinion were never going to go along with plans for independence. This being inconvenient, New York patriots simply formed their own assembly when the real assembly refused to send delegates to the Continental Congress.

That’s a bit iffy, to say the least, but it’s nowhere near as questionable as the decision by the Second Continental Congress to take matters into their own hands to impose the same on the Province of Pennsylvania. The elected local government there was insufficiently supportive of the position of a majority of the rest of the provincial delegations meeting at the Continental Congress, so those other states simply voted to “totally suppress” the government of Pennsylvania, to allow themselves to move ahead with plans for an official Declaration of Independence. Read more

Constitutional rebellions

Should constitutions include an official principle of the people’s right to rebel against their governments?

There has always been a bit of (or a lot of) tension between those who believe the right to revolt is natural and inalienable at all times versus those who believe all transitions must be orderly, legal, and constitutional.

As a pressure valve for self-preservation, the latter camp tends to adopt constitutional systems (formally or informally) that allow for regular turnover, either by frequent election or by scheduled leadership changes. Britain’s modern parliamentary system, for example seeks to keep rebellion in check by making it relatively easy to bring down governments that are messing up, via orderly no confidence votes and early elections. In another example with similar motivations, the current Chinese government leadership has five year terms now between internal party elections and has age limits, to guarantee turnover.

The U.S. model tends to release the pressure through a combination of semi-frequent elections (though no early elections for the presidency, ever) and very formalized removal procedures for misconduct. So, civilians can remove other civilians constitutionally from power and transfer the power down an established chain without elections, and it’s not a coup d’état.

Still other systems allow for less turnover but implicitly favor mass demonstration as the best way to express opposition. The various French Republics, descending from the awkward marriage of a powerful central executive (originally the king) and multiple revolutions, managed to arrive at a strange compromise under De Gaulle’s 5th Republic after 1958. That compromise was to have (more or less) a nearly omnipotent president elected to seven year terms (with more than one term permitted), almost no formal way to express opposition (e.g. no early elections, weak parliament, etc.), and then to just continue to let unions, students, and other protesters go wild in the streets (or at least go on mass strikes) when they became sufficiently furious over something. As in all 15 French constitutions, the one implemented in 1958 included a “right to resist oppression.” This compromise setup posed various problems for the 5th Republic, but it’s certainly been more stable and stronger than the third or fourth republics, which basically collapsed under their own inefficacy. (Both the first and second ended in fluid transitions into dictatorship.) Eventually, though, they did moderate it down to five year terms at the beginning of this century.

In the United States, of course, there’s been lots debate since 1776 (or even before) about whether (and when) people can overthrow their governments. Through repeated use of military force domestically by the government, as well as consistent court decisions, the consensus has been achieved that it’s pretty much not ok to overthrow or take up arms against the U.S. government… unless you count that last time when they waged a war of separation against the British Empire and various loyalist populations. So, had any of those later insurrections — whether in Appalachia, Western Massachusetts, the Confederacy, or among the American Indians — prevailed, I guess it would have been a different story. (And indeed, that one uncomfortable, local armed coup d’état in North Carolina in 1898 went largely ignored by the U.S.) But at the very least, it has been made clear that there is no legal or constitutional right to overthrow the government of the United States, even if perhaps there is a Jeffersonian-style “natural” right to give it your best shot and see what happens.

But there’s also a very curious compromise in a number of countries, occupying a middle ground between the “transition must be legal” faction and the “revolution is a natural right” faction. A study by Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, Tom Ginsburg, and Emiliana Versteeg (discussed here after the recent Thailand coup) found that 20% of countries today (up from 10% in 1980) with formal constitutions in effect have adopted constitutional provisions explicitly protecting the right of the people to rebel, revolt, or otherwise topple their governments. Some of them are as vague as the French provision I mentioned above. Others, under the Turkey model, are much more explicit in carving out a role for the country’s military to intervene against the civilian leadership when it oversteps (or is perceived as overstepping) against the people or “democracy” or secularism or whatever.
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Life imitates art: Thai anti-coup rallies adopt Hunger Games salute

I kept expecting to find articles saying this was just a rumor but every source seems to be confirming: The pro-democracy Red Shirt protesters opposing the recent Yellow-aligned military coup in Thailand have officially adopted the defiant anti-authoritarian salute from the Hunger Games books and movies.

“Catching Fire,” the second movie in the franchise and perhaps the one most prominently featuring the salute, was released in November 2013 in Thailand, and became the country’s eighth highest grossing movie of last year. The first movie, released in March 2012, was in the top 20 that year.

The new military government and police forces have announced that the salute will be banned along with the already prohibited political gatherings of more than five people at a time.
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