May 13, 2020 / 3:08 AM / 16 days ago

Murder case claims turbulent career of veteran Lesotho PM

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A love triangle murder case that made front page news proved one problem too many for Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, who survived repeated security crises to become Lesotho’s dominant politician but is expected to submit his resignation on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Lesotho's Prime Minister Thomas Thabane gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters at the state house in the capital Maseru, Lesotho February 27, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/File Photo

The 80-year-old’s ruling coalition collapsed in parliament on Monday, leaving him until May 22 to leave office. On Tuesday night French news agency AFP quoted him as saying he would inform King Letsie III of his intention to leave in a letter the following day.

His departure brings down the curtain on a career marked by exile, political feuding, intrigue and strains with the military.

Thabane leaves nearly three years after the event that stunned his fellow citizens and overshadowed his second term in office, the unsolved killing of his then wife Lipolelo in June 2017.

Police this year accused his current wife, Maesaiah, of assassinating Lipolelo. Police also accuse Thabane of being involved, but have yet to bring their charges to court.

Both he and Maesaiah have repeatedly denied having anything to do with the killing of Lipolelo, who was shot dead while driving her car towards her home just outside of the capital.

But the charges plunged the country into turmoil and battered Thabane’s prestige and influence. Voices in his own party began pushing for him to be declared unfit for office.

It is not the first time Thabane, a stocky, shaven-headed figure fond of quoting Bible passages, has been at the centre of intrigue.

In 2014, he fled the mountainous kingdom to neighbouring South Africa after accusing the military of having staged a coup against him, which the military denied at the time. South African security forces had to escort him back.

Thabane was born on May 28, 1939, in what was then Britain’s colony of Basutoland, composed of mountains running along South Africa’s Drakensberg range. Lesotho is often nicknamed the ‘kingdom in the sky’ because its lowest point of elevation is higher than any other nation’s.

Though small and with a population of not much more than 2 million, its political upheavals often draw in its bigger neighbour, South Africa, a parched country that gets essential supplies of tap water from Lesotho’s well-rained mountains.

MILITARY JUNTA

Thabane began his career in the civil service in 1966, the year of Lesotho’s independence. He stayed there for two decades before the military seized power in a 1986 coup, one of several since independence.

The military junta promoted him, making him foreign, and then information, minister, effectively launching his political career. Thabane later helped negotiate a return to civilian rule and repatriation of exiles, culminating in elections in 1993.

In the next poll, in 1998, he won a seat in parliament and became foreign minister. Months later, accusations of electoral fraud triggered rioting, and Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, deployed troops to try to quell it, which they failed to do, pulling out after seven months.

In 2006, after several ministerial posts in the LCD ruling party, Thabane left to form his own, the All Basotho Convention (ABC), enabling him to take power as prime minister in 2012.

In the same year, he filed for divorce from his wife, Lipolelo, so that he could marry his then lover, Maesaiah. Lipolelo refused, and a very public spat erupted between the two rivals for his affections that sometimes ended up in court.

Less than a year after the alleged coup against him, Thabane failed to retain his majority in a 2015 election. He resigned as premier before fleeing again to South Africa, whose security forces he saw as his only protection against his own military.

He spent much of his time there, at his house in the town of Ficksberg, where he often lived while in opposition, until a subsequent poll brought him to power again on June 3, 2017.

Asked in 2017 what was the worst problem his country faced, he replied, “Abject poverty”. He said his party’s motto was “Man’s biggest enemy is hunger”.

In the same month, on June 14, say police, a gang of eight gunmen shot Lipolelo in the head, killing her instantly. Two days later, Thabane was sworn in as prime minister for a second time. He married Measaiah a month later.

When police named him and Measaiah as suspects in Lipolelo’s murder earlier this year, he came under pressure to resign.

He promised to do so by the end of July, but several members of his now divided ABC party demanded he go immediately.

On Feb. 21, the day he was due to appear in court on charges of murdering Lipolelo, he again crossed into South Africa, his aides said for medical reasons, but returned days later.

Editing by William Maclean

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