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Why attempted coup in Lesotho presents regional dilemma

Just two years ago Lesotho was referred to as a democratic success story in Africa. But its attempted coup presents a test for the Southern African Development Community, committed to peace in the region.

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Soldiers ride a military vehicle through Maseru, Lesotho, on Tuesday. Police have been told to abandon their posts and not wear uniforms to avoid being targeted in attacks in the kingdom's continuing power vacuum, an official said Tuesday. At least one policeman was killed when the military disarmed police stations on Saturday.

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Two years ago, this tiny nation high in the mountains of southern Africa earned acclaim for passing the latest test of African democracy: It pulled off the region’s first peaceful handover of power. Lesotho then went one step further, forming what some call the first and only coalition government in all of Africa.

This week, however, these claims to democratic fame have been put to the test. An attempted military coup early Saturday sent Prime Minister Thomas Thabane scampering into South Africa – and the entire police force into hiding. A power vacuum still persists after four days.

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“It’s a test of one of Africa's democratic ‘success stories,’” says the United Nations’ resident coordinator in Lesotho, Karla Hershey.

But the attempted coup goes beyond Lesotho, presenting a major challenge for the Southern African Development Community, the 15-member union committed to “peaceful settlement of disputes.” SADC has been burned by Lesotho before, and has been hesitant to take decisive action after this weekend’s attempted coup. 

In 1998, post-election charges of fraud and violence spurred then-Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili to invite SADC intervention. The mostly South African troops arrived in Lesotho, where violence and looting escalated. Much of the capital, Maseru, was razed, and 58 Basotho and 8 SADC troops were reported killed.

That trauma spawned an evolution of SADC’s approach to conflict resolution, says Dimpho Motsamai, a Southern Africa analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg.

“Given the very bloody nature of what happened in 1998, it’s had a very lasting effect on SADC’s political psychology,” Ms. Motsamai says. “Military intervention is the very, very, very last resort.”

On Monday, when Prime Minister Thabane requested SADC peacekeepers – to protect his life and help restore order – the union declined. Instead, it offered to send “observers," whose arrival has not yet been confirmed.

“When we talk about SADC coming, no one wants 1998 to happen again,” says Maseru resident Litsitso Foloko, who works for a mobile-phone provider downtown. “Because you know what would happen? The next day I’d lose my work.”

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It is unclear whether the presence of SADC observers will deter foul play – or if they'll even be armed. Monday was marked by bursts of gunfire and blackouts across the capital, where personal safety is now a top priority. As the sun set on Tuesday there were still no police in the streets of Maseru. 

For now, the military commander who tried to oust Thabane last weekend refuses to step down. The Saturday-morning military assault on the police, seen as loyal to Thabane, killed at least one cop. All police are home or in hiding – especially those who had been investigating corruption within the circles of Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing, to whom the military is seen as loyal.

The gamesmanship at play obscures many of the issues affecting ordinary citizens. Lesotho suffers the world’s second-highest rate of HIV infection. Half the population lives beneath the national poverty line, and malnutrition is 40 percent. The international community has contributed hundreds of millions over the past decade, which could go up in smoke if peace and public services further deteriorate.

“Mob justice is very painful," says a waitress in a near-empty restaurant, who declined to give her name. "People are fearing for their lives.”