Analysis: Lesotho Could Sink Into A Coup Like Too Many African States

Analysis: Lesotho Could Sink Into A Coup Like Too Many African States

On Thursday, June 19th the South African Government released a statement, noting “with grave concern the unusual movements of the Lesotho Defence Force Units in the capital, Maseru.”

This statement served an alert to much of the world un-versed in the Lesotho’s politics that the tiny sub-Saharan state may be in the midst of a coup. The troop movements appeared to be in response to a decaying political situation and the fear of a breakdown of the country’s ruling coalition.

The crisis began with a decision by the country’s Prime Minister, Tom Thabane, to suspend parliament until February 2015. In response to Thabane’s suspension, Mothetjoa Metsing, Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy party, threatened to pull his party out of the ruling coalition, sending the small sub-Saharan state’s leadership into uncertainty.

Luckily, according to the Namibian, Lesotho’s ruling coalition appears to have survived for at least the time being.

After emergency talks between the coalition’s three major parties seemed to regain trust and salvage the partnership, Thesele Maseribane, leader of the Basotho National Party, released a statement promising to maintain the coalition until 2017, “The coalition government still stands and shall remain in power until 2017.”

However, Maseribane did not mince words about the ruling coalition’s trouble. “Just like in any marriage, things will have to be worked out every now and then… We still have to iron out a few things that pertain to the actual day-to-day working, but as things stand the coalition stands.”

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While Lesotho appears to have avoided extra-constitutional regime change for the moment, the country is by no means out of the woods.

According to Dr. Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who has been referred to by the Washington Post as the “Nate Silver of Coups,” Lesotho already neared the top of the world in 2014 coup-potential before the current unrest. The country was ranked 23rd in his annual coup forecasts.

Lesotho is not alone in its instability and potential for extra-legal regime change on the continent.

Lesotho at a crucial point

According to Ulfelder’s predictions, of the 40 most likely countries worldwide to experience a coup during 2014, 29 are found in Africa. Of these 29 only three (Libya, Algeria and Egypt) are north of the Sahara. This included nine of the top ten slots, with sub-Saharan countries only joined by Thailand, a country that has already experienced a coup in 2014.

Among the sub-Saharan states to appear on Ulfelder’s list are Mali, a country whose struggles were recently documented here, Nigeria, a country in the midst of a period of such “a raging Islamist insurgency and unrest” that the country’s Chief of Defense Staff was forced to deny coup rumors and a number of others with similarly difficult trajectories.

This follows an unfortunate tradition for the continent. Since 2010 Niger, Madagascar, Guinea-Bissau, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Chad and several others have experienced coups or coup attempts. Not coincidentally, all of these countries can be found in the top quarter of countries with coup potential in 2014.

In addition to the pain and human misery associated with coups and a lack of effective, democratic governance, such extra-legal types of regime change are tremendously self perpetuating.

According to a Washington Post interview with Ulfelder in late 2013, “the most informative factors in thinking about coup risk are a country’s wealth, its form of government, and the recent occurrence of coup activity.”

In particular, the final factor, the recent occurrence of coup activity is particularly salient, with a coup attempt in the last five years making a country several times more likely to have another such attempt.

When I reached out to Ulfelder via Twitter he stated that at this early point it was difficult to know whether the upheaval experienced over the past few weeks was simply evidence of the tenuous state of the country or actions in a new democracy that made a coup even more likely in the future.

While it appears that the political parties have worked out their coalition, the “marriage” discussed by the Basotho National Party’s Maseribane has three more years to live and legislate together.

One can only hope that instead of following in the footsteps of the too many countries that have experienced coups over the last several years Lesotho begins a new tradition, one where the small sub-Saharan state has a functional coalition government and constitutional changes of power.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.