After shootouts, political factions struggle to work together in mountainous pocket of Africa

The Maseru Sun hotel in Lesotho says it welcomes families and business travelers. But most guests on a recent weekend were South African security forces, sent to keep order after a bout of violent unrest that has raised questions about the viability of the southern African kingdom as a sovereign nation.

While the mountainous country with a mostly rural population of 2 million plans to hold elections in February, it has yet to shake the kind of concerns about military meddling in politics that have faded over the years in much of the region.

The simple round huts and herds of sheep dotting the rugged countryside belie Lesotho's critical importance as a source of highlands water for parched South Africa, an economic heavyweight in Africa whose borders envelop the kingdom. Monumental engineering feats, including dams and tunnels, deliver that key resource from Lesotho, which has a proud narrative of independence but has sometimes been described derisively as another South African province.

On Aug. 30, soldiers converged on some police stations, a police officer was killed in a shootout, radio stations went off the air and Prime Minister Thomas Thabane fled to South Africa, alleging he was the victim of a coup attempt. The military said it was acting on information that some police planned to arm political protesters.

South African security forces later escorted Thabane back to the capital, Maseru, where political factions agreed to hold elections in February, two years earlier than scheduled. Lesotho's governing coalition is still learning how to govern — a few months ago, ministers and lawmakers visited New Zealand to study its coalition, a style of government that is rare in Africa.

The country has been a labor pool for South Africa and has no viable economy of its own, while corruption is subverting the government and the army is destabilizing and unnecessary, columnist Utloang Kajeno wrote in the Lesotho Times newspaper.

The political and economic leverage of "big brother" South Africa gives it a vital role in shaping Lesotho's future, according to Kajeno.

"If South Africa does not help, we will forever remain that restive kingdom in its womb," the columnist said.

South Africa, however, has blundered in Lesotho. Some people are haunted by 1998, when violent protests and a military mutiny followed a disputed election and South African forces staged a chaotic intervention in which dozens were killed.

"They think the same thing might happen," said Stella Diedricks, deputy manager of the Mohale Lodge, a hotel reached over God Help Me Pass on a mountain road from Maseru that dips toward a dam with a 145-meter (475-foot) wall.

The hotel still hosts delegations from Lesotho's government, but visits from non-governmental organizations with international links have slowed since the recent unrest, Diedricks said.

The U.S. State Department had instructed non-working family members of embassy staff to leave Lesotho, but later lifted that order. It noted the return of the Lesotho police to normal duty, but warned that control of the army remains unresolved.

Local commentators say Thabane, who suspended parliament in June to avoid a vote of no-confidence, had feuded with his deputy, Mothetjoa Metsing. The police are said to have aligned with the prime minister; army units are believed to have sided with his deputy.

"There is someone, somewhere, who is not willing to compromise and that is hitting hard on us, the people," said Tello Moeketse, a project director at a development trust in Malealea, a village reached over a mountain pass called Gates of Paradise. Trust projects include AIDS treatment and prevention in a country where about one-quarter of the population has the HIV virus, one of the highest ratios in the world.

Closer to Maseru, the 19th century hilltop redoubt of King Moshoeshoe draws busloads of schoolchildren who climb the craggy slope of Thaba Bosiu to learn about this early nation-builder for the Basotho people.

Yet a statue of Moshoeshoe in a new cultural village below the hill sits wrapped in a tarpaulin with one foot protruding, awaiting an unveiling ceremony. The throne's current incumbent, King Letsie III, has a ceremonial role in politics.

There is levity in Lesotho, though.

While uniformed South Africans with guns walked the halls, the Maseru Sun hotel recently threw a pool party for local residents. Children wolfed burgers and splashed and whooped in the sun. On another day, a comedian joked about the political unrest and, according to the Lesotho Times, audience members "laughed their lungs out."