As crisis continues, Lesotho buries victim of foiled coup

Michael J. Jordan
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A South African Police service van and a member of security are seen outside the Lesotho Mounted Police headquarters on September 3, 2014 in Maseru

A South African Police service van and a member of security are seen outside the Lesotho Mounted Police headquarters on September 3, 2014 in Maseru (AFP Photo/Hlompho Letsielo)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) - A police officer killed in Lesotho's August 30 abortive coup was laid to rest Saturday.

The death of Lesotho police sub-inspector Mokheseng Ramahloko was the first and so far only fatality in the tiny African nation's three-week crisis.

For the mountain kingdom, dealing with his killers has become a question of war and peace.

Working a night-shift, Ramahloko was guarding the force's armoury when he heard soldiers burst in and bark their demands.

The 53-year-old immediately called the deputy police commissioner to warn him: the soldiers wanted access to the police commissioner, the armoury, and the files on the most sensitive of high profile anti-corruption investigations.

Within minutes, Ramahloko was shot dead. His violent end has taken on greater symbolism as Lesotho's leaders search for ways to resolve the crisis peacefully.

"My uncle is gone and there's no bringing him back," said nephew Edgar Ramahloko, shortly after burying his relative Saturday afternoon. "They must arrest and punish whoever did this and whoever commanded them to do this."

But that is easier said than done in Lesotho.

Specifically, the question is what to do about the "renegade" defence force commander, Tlali Kamoli, who allegedly led the assault that killed Ramahloko and the bungled attempt to abduct Lesotho Prime Minister Tom Thabane.

Pursuing justice may lead to bloodshed; amnesty may bring impunity.

Kamoli has been in virtual hiding ever since, purportedly surrounded by armed loyalists. He also has the backing of both the second-largest member of the ruling government coalition, and the leading opposition party.

The opposition –- led by former prime minister Pakalitha Mosisili –- recently warned that arresting Kamoli might trigger "atrocities and bloodbath". For ordinary Basotho, that raised the spectre of street battles between party supporters.

While Thabane continues to call on the Southern African Development Community to intervene militarily – and help snatch Kamoli – the regional bloc steadily rebuffs him, pressing for a political-only solution.


- Disturbing the peace -


Meanwhile, Thabane, the police chief Khothatso Tsooana and the prime minister's newly appointed military chief, Maaparankoe Mahao, are all heavily protected by well-armed South African police on loan by Lesotho's neighbour as part of the SADC deal.

As if to underscore the instability, a brief shoot-out early Friday morning near police boss Tsooana's home saw Lesotho police and soldiers exchange fire.

"There will only be real peace in the country when we remove the need for the South African police to be here," Thabane told some 2,000 mourners at a city stadium.

Lesotho leaders have now taken an unusual step to squeeze Kamoli and his alleged co-conspirators by levelling sanctions against the army. On Thursday, the government cut all petrol supplies to their 3,000-plus military personnel.

"If we give them petrol, we indirectly support the insurgency," a senior government official told AFP.

"We don't want to punish the entire army, but this is a necessary step to remove Kamoli and his clique. We'll smoke them out of their cave."

At Ramahloko's funeral, many expressed fear that Kamoli would not go quietly.

Though ordinary Basotho have calmly gone about their business as usual over the past three weeks, beneath the surface is the lingering trauma of 1998, when post-election looting spurred a bloody intervention by South African troops.

Funeral speaker Khoabane Theko, an influential village chief, alluded to rumours that Kamoli may be offered cash incentives to end his resistance.

"I appeal to you, Kamoli: take your package and leave," said Theko. "You're disturbing the peace of this country."

But a police comrade of Ramahloko's, referred to the criminal investigation into the last month's foiled coup, and vowed that "even if it takes years, the killers will have to answer for what they did."