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ABC abandons plans to replace Thabane

  • fears founding leader’s supporters could split the party if he is forced out
  • leadership contest could also split the powerful Mahao faction

Pascalinah Kabi

THE fractious All Basotho Convention (ABC) has abandoned plans to hold a special elective conference to choose a successor to its founding leader and former Prime Minister Thomas Thabane.

The Sunday Express has learnt that just over a fortnight ago, the party’s national executive committee (NEC) even issued a strong warning to party officials who had already begun campaigning for the top post, urging them to desist from doing so.

In a circular to all members, it said that there was no vacancy for the leadership post. It threatened unspecified disciplinary action against all its members who cause “confusion, divide and bring vulnerability within the party” by campaigning for the post while Mr Thabane remains in office.

Authoritative party sources this week told the Sunday Express that the party’s NEC had put the brakes on the conference due to Mr Thabane’s refusal to step down and fears that jostling for the post among the party’s top officials could tear it apart.  The NEC is said to be afraid that forcing Mr Thabane out could also attract litigation from the former premier.

ABC deputy leader Professor Nqosa Mahao has previously told this publication that Mr Thabane was retained as party leader for another five years at the party’s February 2019 elective conference. This means that unless he steps down or is incapacitated or expelled, he remains in the hotseat until 2024 when he will be 85. But Prof Mahao had also hinted that the party was now expecting Mr Thabane to quit end of July as he had previously promised.

But the NEC is now said to be afraid that Mr Thabane still had a significant support base within the party and his trusted allies could engineer a split from the party thus severely weakening it.  That would also wane the ABC’s position as the main party in its governing coalition with the Democratic Congress (DC).

The ABC entered the coalition with 52 seats to the DC’s 26. Two ABC MPs Mokherane Tsatsanyane (Stadium Area constituency) and Sello Mooki (Bobatsi) have since defected to the opposition Alliance of Democrats (AD).

They defected in protest over what they said was the persecution of Mr Thabane by the party. Other Thabane loyalists who have remained in the party have been registering their threats to the ABC-led government by voting with the opposition on key issues such as the election of a deputy speaker of parliament. They have also been holding not-so-secret meetings with AD officials.

Of equal, if not greater importance in the decision to abandon the conference, according to the sources, is the fear that three of the Mahao-aligned NEC’s top members including Prof Mahao himself want the top job.

Apart from Prof Mahao, the two others who want the top post are chairperson Samuel Rapapa and secretary general Lebohang Hlaele. The three would then   square off with Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro who has no option but to contest for the ABC leadership position to secure his tenure ahead of the 2022 general elections. Dr Majoro was elected premier despite not being the leader of a political party as is normally required by law. He is an MP and ordinary member of the ABC. He does not sit in the NEC after losing the deputy leader’s post to Prof Mahao at the party’s elective conference in February 2019. That makes him vulnerable to any political skullduggery both within and outside his party.

The ABC NEC forced Mr Thabane to step down as prime minister on 11 May 2020 after declaring him a liability following accusations he was involved in the 14 July 2017 murder of his estranged wife, Lipolelo Thabane.

It was also felt that Mr Thabane (81), had run out of steam due to his advanced age, allowing his wife ‘Maesaiah (42) and her close allies to usurp his powers.

Immediately after forcing Mr Thabane to quit as prime minister, ABC spokesperson Montoeli Masoetsa said the NEC would call a special conference to elect a new party leader to replace him.

But as shown in its 28 June 2020 circular to all party structures signed by Mr Hlaele, the NEC has now performed a spectacular about-turn on the issue. Mr Thabane remains party leader and there will no longer be a July conference to replace him.

The NEC also warned those campaigning for positions in the youth league committee to immediately abandon their activities.

“It has come to the attention of the NEC that there are members who are going around in constituencies without informing the NEC. Those have started to draw divisions by canvassing for positions within the party,” Mr Hlaele says in his circular.

“Such actions are not acceptable within the ABC as they cause confusion, divide and bring vulnerability within the party. It is not wrong to canvass but that needs to be done in line with the circular calling for the elective conference.

“There has never been a circular issued regarding the youth elective conference or that intended to elect the party leader, as the party still has a leader.

“Serious disciplinary actions (sic) will be taken against any member or members of this party who will be found to be in continued efforts of confusing and dividing the ABC through campaigns that are not regulated by the NEC through a circular. That being the case, the committee once again urges all members of ABC to work towards the unity of the ABC.

“Constituency committees are ordered to report to the office of the secretary general members who are in the process of dividing the party once they arrive at the respective constituencies,” added Mr Hlaele.

Ironically, Mr Hlaele is among the party heavyweights named by the party sources as campaigning for the top post.

“Hlaele is among those canvassing for the top job. The prime minister (Dr Majoro), Prof Mahao and chairperson Sam Rapapa are all vying for the job. They have people campaigning on their behalf. Those people have approached the constituency committees and other party structures canvassing for votes,” a source said.

Asked why Mr Hlaele and the NEC would issue a circular condemning activities they are involved in, the source said, “the NEC, which has been pro-Mahao in his power struggle with Ntate Thabane, is no longer a cohesive unit because its three main pillars, Mahao, Rapapa and Hlaele all want the top post.

“The campaigning is already causing divisions among them and their supporters. Such divisions can only get worse during and after the polls. They could ultimately weaken the NEC which has been calling the shots in the ABC and government. They could even split the party,” the source said.

Another source said the NEC has had to reconsider its position about replacing Mr Thabane because the veteran politician’s supporters have regrouped and are mobilising to fight the NEC and Prime Minister Majoro who they feel are persecuting him by refusing or failing to stop the murder charges against him.

“The NEC won a major victory by collapsing Thabane’s government and forcing him to step down. But now there is a fierce backlash from his supporters whose numbers have been boosted by disgruntled members of the AD which was kicked out of government.

“Thabane’s supporters are urging him to stay put and should the NEC dare kick him out, it will face a lawsuit from him. It would also have to contend with the loss of support from ABC MPs still loyal to him. Some of these like (Mokherane) Tsatsanyane and (Sello) Mooki have given a foretaste of what to expect if the alleged persecution of Ntate Thabane continues,” the source said. This was in reference to the two MPs’ June 2020 defection to the opposition (AD) in protest over what they said was the persecution of Mr Thabane by the party.

Dr Majoro and Prof Mahao were unreachable on their mobile phones for comment while Messrs Hlaele and Rapapa’s phones rang unanswered yesterday.

ABC spokesman, Montoeli Masoetsa yesterday told this publication that the anticipated special conference at the end of July or shortly afterwards would no longer happen. Instead, a special conference would be held in January 2021 to discuss policy issues and not to elect a new leader.

He said the NEC had indeed received reports that “some NEC members or their representatives were moving around the constituencies to campaign for the party leadership”.

“That is why the circular (barring them from campaigning) was released.

“Although the NEC members denied campaigning, they conceded that there were individuals who were campaigning on their behalf without their permission,” Mr Masoetsa said.

Mr Masoetsa is the one who initially announced plans to hold the conference to replace Mr Thabane.

He was nonetheless singing a different tune yesterday.  “There is no way we can elect a new leader while we still have a substantive leader,” he said.

“The initial plan was to elect a new leader because he had said he would leave at the end of July. For now, he is still the leader and he is not going anywhere.”

He said a special conference was still needed and would now be held in January 2021 not to elect a new leader but to amend the ABC constitution “to take care of some loopholes and to reinforce our policies”.

He claimed there were no divisions among the party’s top brass for the leadership post. “There is no ambition for leadership from either Mahao or Rapapa and Hlaele,” Mr Masoetsa said.

But he also implied the elective conference had been shelved because of its potentially divisive impact.

“We are concentrating on uniting the party and we want that unity to reflect in the government. Common sense tells that if we open campaigns for the leadership, these people (Mahao and Rapapa) will neglect their ministerial duties and we cannot afford that to happen now.”

His denials of Prof Mahao and Mr Rapapa’s leadership ambitions are inaccurate as the duo has already confirmed their desire to contest the top post in separate interviews with this publication two months ago.

ABC insiders say that Dr Majoro and Mr Hlaele would also “definitely contest”.  Whoever wins will take over from Mr Thabane who has led the party since its inception in 2006.

The stakes are even higher for Dr Majoro. He may have succeeded Mr Thabane as premier on 20 May 2020 but the latter remains party leader. This gives Mr Thabane some leverage within the party and has a potentially destabilising effect on Dr Majoro’s ability to govern without shackles from the former premier and those close to him.

A victory for Dr Majoro would also help consolidate his position which remains tenuous due to the fact that he is only an MP and not a member of the powerful NEC.

A victory against Prof Mahao, the man who beat him to the ABC’s second most powerful post , or any other contestant, is the only way he can ring-fence his position as prime minister and be a shoo in to retain the post in the event of an ABC victory at the 2022 general elections. Dr Majoro is the first person in the history of post independent Lesotho, outside of a military coup, to become premier without being a leader of a party.

The pro-Mahao NEC was previously united behind the Law and Justice minister after he won the deputy leader’s post in February 2019.  But it now seems divided as his allies, Messrs Rapapa and Hlaele stake their own ambitions to lead the ABC.

The deferment of a special conference to replace Mr Thabane would also appear be a boon for Dr Majoro. If it had proceeded end of July and he had lost, that would have effectively eliminated any hopes he would be premier beyond 2022.

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