Destroying public trust during a pandemic

Few things are going on as normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, political dysfunction in Lesotho continues, with negative ramifications for Basotho.

Tom Thabane, Lesotho's Prime Minister, in happier times with the Obamas. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The arrival of the coronavirus COVID-19 on the world scene has profoundly disrupted many aspects of life for people on every continent. Whether for lack of testing or because Lesotho somehow has managed to escape the fate of anyone infected crossing the border, it is one of two African countries at the moment still reporting zero cases of the virus locally. The country, however, still followed South Africa in declaring a three-week lockdown that has brought most of the country to a standstill. This has been profoundly disruptive to many people, especially those who work in the informal sectors.

One area that was stilled prior to the lockdown was Parliament. Embattled Prime Minister Tom Thabane prorogued that body on the 20th of March, declaring that it would not reopen until mid-June. While Thabane claims he shuttered Parliament on account of the COVID-19 virus, keen observers note that the country did not go on lockdown until nine days after Parliament was closed, suggesting the closure was done to keep Thabane from losing his position as Prime Minister. This all comes on the heels of Thabane and his wife, the First Lady Maesaiah Thabane, facing murder charges—the first time a head of government on the African continent has been charged with murder while still in office. The charges have led to serious political fallout, upending political alliances, and bringing the long-standing fissures in the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) to a head. Coalition partners (the Basotho National Party (BNP) and the anti-Thabane faction in the ABC) along with the main opposition party (the Democratic Congress (DC)) brought a case in the High Court challenging the closure of Parliament as illegal. Despite the lockdown, that case is ongoing with arguments heard on Monday the 6th of April.

So, the coronavirus and the political ferment in Lesotho have come to a head at the same time. Why does this matter? The near-constant political turmoil in the Mountain Kingdom since the coalition era of government started in 2012 has coincided with a substantial decrease in popular trust in public institutions. As we have seen in other parts of the world, trust in government institutions matters a lot when it comes to building common cause during events like a global pandemic. In countries with a swift response and unity of purpose (Germany, for one), the virus has been contained better than in places where the government response has been uneven and lackadaisical (the United States is an obvious example). With trust in governing bodies low in Lesotho, a court fight over the government’s legitimacy during the lockdown creates a recipe for disaster if and when the virus hits with any magnitude. Already on social media, Basotho are reporting that security forces are enforcing the lockdown with draconian force, and there are worries about whether the money earmarked for virus response is going to be used effectively in the public interest. With public faith in the government already diminished, political moves that further tarnish the general public’s sense of the state’s legitimacy could make an uninspiring response to the pandemic into an epidemiological disaster. This is even truer for Lesotho where much of the population is at enhanced risk of coronavirus complications, because so many people are immunosuppressed, suffer from tuberculosis, or are former miners afflicted with silicosis.

The destruction of public trust in governance has been long-coming in Lesotho. The various machinations of the coalition governments of 2012, 2014, and the current coalition that came to power in 2017 have led to a growing distrust in democracy. This data, from Afrobarometer, is from 2017, and it still suggests (at that time) a relatively robust trust in Prime Minister Thabane. Now, however, facing murder charges and with his own party in open revolt against him, it is safe to say that this approval numbers are likely significantly lower.

So, why are politics in Lesotho in such a shamble, even by the low standards set by the Mountain Kingdom in recent years? The politics of personality have, perhaps, finally run their course. Thabane’s second run as Prime Minister, which started in 2017, has been dominated by his personal life. Currently, he is facing murder charges that were filed against him in early February. Along with his third wife, Maesaiah, he is accused of conspiring to murder his second wife, Lipolelo Thabane.

The tale is sordid and complicated, but in short, after the 2017 election that Thabane’s coalition won, he was estranged but not yet divorced from Lipolelo. He was also betrothed at the time to Maesaiah. Maesaiah, however, was not able to take up the full position of First Lady, with the financial and staff benefits that come with it, because the divorce between Prime Minister Thabane and Lipolelo was not yet finalized. Thus, when Lipolelo was murdered in cold blood two days before the inauguration many Basotho immediately suspected that the Prime Minister and/or Maesaiah might have been involved in some way. This suspicion has only risen as Maesaiah has inserted herself as the power behind the throne in Lesotho’s politics, angering ministers and coalition partners alike in the intervening years. Fairly or unfairly, many Basotho have likened her to Grace Mugabe, another first lady whose power grab subverted longstanding political power structures.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the case against the Thabanes was the fact that it went forward at all. In Lesotho Prime Ministers are empowered to appoint their own police commissioners so it was hardly a shock that there was little to no movement in the hunt for Lipolelo’s killer(s) after Thabane was sworn in. It was, in fact, more surprising when in December 2019, Commissioner Holomo Molibeli wrote a letter to Thabane telling him that he needed to answer questions in the investigation, as the police had evidence that a cell phone at the scene of the crime had called his mobile number. This shocking revelation led Thabane to attempt to fire Molibeli, an action that was overturned by the courts. When the police came to Lesotho’s State House in an attempt to question the First Lady, she fled to South Africa, only to return to be booked on charges of murder.

Just this week, the opposition DC party announced that it had an alliance with the anti-Thabane faction of the ABC plus the BNP and a few others to form a new coalition government. The current Finance Minister Moeketsi Majoro, an ABC member, is tapped to become the new Prime Minister with DC leader Mathibeli Mokhothu as the Deputy Prime Minister. This announcement came on the heels of news that Thabane was attempting to appeal to two other smaller opposition parties in an effort to stay in office, at least until his announced July 31st ‘retirement’ from the post.

Thus, Thabane’s move to prorogue Parliament on the 20th of March was clearly at attempt to buy time to try to get a new coalition in order and forestall a confidence vote, especially as the Majoro ABC faction aligned with the DC had a clear Parliamentary majority lined up. With Parliament out of session, however, the Prime Minister stays in office.

So why does all this matter in the midst of a global health crisis? Basotho politicians seem to be still focused on political maneuvering, even while the number of global infections and deaths continues to climb—even right across the border in South Africa. This fuels the perception (rightly earned) that the political class in Lesotho is concerned only about self-preservation and not about governance. This seeming lack of concern for constituents has led to an increased apathy in the population toward elections and democracy. Lesotho’s voter turnout has dropped precipitously in the last decade, with voting rates at 46% in the most recent general election.

The recent history of Lesotho suggests that the very apathy of the population is what some members of the political classes desire. Apathy allows them to continue to gut state enterprises and carry on with lucrative business practices without the regulatory hand of the state scrutinizing their ventures. The electoral process can feel to Basotho like a choice between indistinguishable elites whose priorities have nothing to do with the everyday affairs of their citizens. This may just prove to be deadly for many in the current pandemic. When people lose faith in the national government, will they be willing to continue the lockdown if it has to be extended past the three weeks already announced? Will a general populace that largely survives on government grants, remittances from relatives working in South Africa, and the informal economy be able to weather weeks of complete economic shutdown without turning on leaders they see as out-of-touch and scrambling merely to stay in power?

Time will tell, but scuttling the public trust has real consequences. In ordinary times, it means that the newspapers are frequently filled with reports of dodgy tenders for public deals and near-constant machinations among the political elite. But in ordinary times, Basotho are also dealing with the ongoing public health crisis of HIV/AIDS. That pandemic, and the “development” that has accompanied it, has limited the public health response of the Lesotho state and contributed immensely to Basotho’s distance from and mistrust of government institutions. In these extraordinary times of a novel public health crisis, a slow or staid public response will put the lives and tenuous livelihoods of the majority of the citizens at risk.

What hope do ordinary Basotho have during these times? There has been a mobilization of medical aid from the Jack Ma Foundation, the first shipment of which arrived just prior to the lockdown, and reports that rich Mosotho businessman Sam Matekane is assisting in the rapid scale-up of health response in Lesotho. Despite reports that not all of the Jack Ma aid was compatible with local testing machinery, an African-led response spear-headed by Ethiopia is heartening. However, in terms of local solutions, there is little hope of any substantive political change as the current Reforms Process grinds on, and even local nurses are on strike. The best hope for many Basotho might be the traditions of self-help and community response through church and friendly-society initiatives that have carried Basotho through hard times like the Great Depression, the long apartheid years, and the HIV/AIDS crisis of the twenty first-century. These bottom-up societies have carried on through thick and thin with limited support or interference from the government and the development industry, and one can only hope that the Mountain Kingdom government and NGO responses will be adequate enough to assist these important community groups to help Basotho make it through the pandemic.

About the Author

John Aerni-Flessner is Assosictae Professor of African and World History at Michigan State University.

Charles is a Teaching Assistant Professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Global Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Further Reading