Instability lingers in African kingdom after deadly shootout

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For workers leaving a textile factory during a recent lunchtime in Lesotho, assassinations and political intrigue are a kind of background noise in the small southern African kingdom.

The shooting death last week of the country's military commander, Lt. Gen. Khoantle Motsomotso, by two rival officers who were killed in the gunfight heightened regional concerns about Lesotho, whose mostly peaceful elections in June gave hope that stability was being restored.

But many residents of the poor, mountainous country of 2 million people encircled by South African territory feel cut off from the years of unrest and maneuvering for power.

"This issue is not for us ordinary people to worry about, but it concerns those involved in politics," said Matselano Senohe, who works in a Chinese-owned factory near the central business district of Maseru, Lesotho's capital.

Munching fried bread, she recalled that after the assassination of a former army general in 2015, "it was business as usual here. In fact, we learnt about it on the radio in pretty much the same way that people outside Lesotho heard about it."

Even so, Motsomotso's killing was a jarring reminder of how periodic unrest is holding back Lesotho, which has a history of shaky coalition governments and military interference in politics for much of the period since independence from Britain in 1966.

Regional mediators had seen Motsomotso's promotion as a step forward, elevating a supporter of the new government to replace Tlali Kamoli, a military commander widely viewed as a destabilizing presence in Lesotho's political landscape.

The two officers involved in Motsomotso's death were said to be supporters of Kamoli, who has kept a low profile, leaving many in Lesotho wondering whether the shootout marked an end to the mayhem or signaled a brief respite. Troops from several southern African countries, part of a regional bloc, have deployed to the kingdom as a peacekeeping force but are largely staying out of sight.

In an emotional eulogy for Motsomotso on Thursday, Lesotho's constitutional monarch, King Letsie III, said the assassination had made the country a laughingstock and he lambasted politicians for using the military to undertake illegal missions.

"Politicians should stop enticing soldiers into politics, which has jeopardized the country's peace and stability," the king said.

Also among the funeral's attendees was Kamoli.

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane's party won the recent elections, returning him to power three years after he fled to South Africa because of fears he was an assassination target. Thabane has spoken of limiting the Lesotho military's power.

Mafa Sejanamane, a political analyst in Lesotho, said the country is vulnerable to the fallout from instability even if some residents pay it little heed.

"The country cannot attract investment unless there is certainty that once investors put in their money, they won't be convulsions which could lead to losses," Sejanamane said. "While some people may want to avoid political issues, the fact of the matter is this country will not make progress without stability."

Lesotho's textile and garment industry, for example, is linked to the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, a U.S. law that allows for duty-free entry of goods into the United States from designated sub-Saharan African countries. The industry employs more than 40 000 people and is the second-biggest employer after the government in a country relying heavily on South African imports.

The United States has made reform of the security forces a key requirement for Lesotho's continued access to AGOA.

In an editorial this month, Lesotho's Sunday Express appealed for unity.

"Over the years, subsequent governments and opposition parties have lost sight of the bigger picture, which is the national interest, and used foul means to get one over their competitors," the newspaper said.