Why Lesotho Matter

There's a political crisis in Lesotho--and it matters far beyond the borders of the tiny African country, which is nestled inside South Africa.

Late last month, military forces in the small kingdom surrounded key government installations prompting the prime minister and newly appointed commander of the armed forces to flee to neighboring South Africa. Since then, mediation by the regional inter-governmental body, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), returned Prime Minister Thomas Thabane to power. But the incident underscores the general democratic backsliding the region has undergone over the last few years -- and the central role SADC has played in condoning it.

Just a short time ago, Lesotho was a democratic success story. After decades of political instability, the kingdom reinstated multiparty democracy in 1998 only to witness significant violence following the release of the results. However the kingdom rebounded to hold its first peaceful election in 2002. Since then Lesotho has garnered very little attention. But far from the headlines, political infighting threatened the fragile stability Lesotho gained. Elections in 2012 saw the ruling party of Pakalitha Mosisili gain the most seats in parliament but still resign to allow a coalition government take power which held an absolute majority. The resignation avoided a repeat of post-election violence but also created the perfect conditions for political instability as the fragile coalition struggled to maintain power. In June, Thabane suspended parliament for nine months to avoid a no confidence vote amid rumors of possible coup attempts.

The details of exactly what happened on August 30 remain unclear but it appears that such political infighting is what led to the attempted coup by the military. As before, SADC mediators were called upon to help diffuse the situation. But SADC’s involvement may be a mixed blessing. Its involvement in Zimbabwe did little to prevent rampant election rigging in last year’s election and the organization was largely silent on possible irregularities in contentious districts in the recent South African election. Attacks on civil society and the press in Zambia has received little commentary and SADC has been nowhere to be seen as the last absolute monarchy in Africa, Swaziland, imprisons human rights lawyers and journalists. Rather than uphold its own established principles, the organization suspended and then redrafted the jurisdiction of the SADC Tribunal which made several rulings against member states, embarrassing governments that sought to extend their power, whether by legal means or not. Prior to this summer, Lesotho served as one of the bright spots in the SADC region; now even that is in dispute.

Civil society organizations in the region have been warning of this democratic backslide for years, but recent events are bringing the issue to the forefront of discussion. The recent appointment of Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to chair the regional organization also undermines its democratic credentials. While Mugabe’s rise to the chairmanship can be seen as bringing Zimbabwe in from the diplomatic cold, it also provides organizational support for a regime that repeatedly violates SADC’s own principles and calls for reform. If nothing else, this is a major diplomatic victory for Mugabe, but underscores the trend of supporting long entrenched leaders over democratic norms.

The stakes are high for SADC to right the path they are on regarding democratic standards. Mozambique is facing a general election next month while Zambia will face elections next year. The two main political parties in Mozambique, Frelimo and Renamo, have spent months negotiating an amnesty agreement to stop the political violence that threatens to reverse the gains it made since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992 but will be facing a new president regardless of which party wins the election. Zambia hasn’t seen its president, Michael Sata, in months amid rumors of ill health and infighting amongst the ruling party.

As more foreign investment goes into the region, the stakes for political instability grows. With this background, the continuing uncertainty in Lesotho takes on greater meaning. SADC mediation may have returned Thabane to the State House but the larger political issues remain unaddressed. The more SADC is willing to back leaders but not their institutions or their populations, the more democracy in the region will be undermined. The need for SADC to step up is large, but what remains unknown is whether they are up to the task.

Originally appeared on UN Dispatch