MASERU — If the police had had it their own way on Friday, they would have probably wanted Makotoko “Mashai” Lerotholi to cross the Maseru Bridge border post in a prison van.
They would have probably wanted him to be handcuffed and draped in prison garb.
To catch a glimpse of how the border post has changed during his two-year exile in South Africa, Mashai would have had to peer through the tiny windows of the security van.
From the border the van carrying him would have been escorted — probably by the military — to Maseru Central Prison where they would have locked him up.
The police would have announced “victory”.
Finally they would have caught Lesotho’s most wanted man.
But fate robbed them of this “victory”.
What crossed the border around 4pm on Friday was a free Mashai.
He was free because he was dead.
So instead of a security van he was in a Lesotho Funeral Services hearse.
His death had “freed” him to come back home.
His death changed everything.
Instead of being received by a high security convoy Mashai was received by dozens of friends, relatives and sympathisers.
Instead of a secret arrival he got a public one.
It was a hero’s welcome.
Light rain showers started drizzling as the hearse entered the tollgates at the border post.
It was as if the rains were welcoming him back to Lesotho.
The superstitious ones were intrigued.
“This is a royal blessing from the heavens,” mumbled an old lady in the crowd.
Mashai was of royal blood.
The crowd made up of mostly All Basotho Convention (ABC) supporters broke into militant songs and close relatives started crying.
“Mashai is a soldier of soldiers,” they sang.
The police battled to control the crowd.
“Show respect young man, we are crossing our soldier Mashai’s body back to his country,” said a young woman to one of the police officers at the border.
ABC chairman Molobeli Soulo desperately tried to call for order but it was to no avail.
The police demanded that people produce their passports but the crowd responded with songs.
“(Prime Minister Pakalitha) Mosisili tell the truth as to who brutally murdered Mashai,” they hummed.
Eventually the police gave up and allowed some people to cross without getting their passports stamped.
Then an almost two-kilometre-long convoy of vehicles moved slowly towards the Maseru city centre where they took the Mpilo Boulevard to the Lesotho Funeral Society mortuary.
Among the people who received Mashai’s body from South Africa was ABC leader Thomas Thabane.
The permanent secretary to King Letsie III and a senior member of the royal family, Chief Mabotse Lerotholi, was in the convoy.
The chiefs of Likhoele and Thaba-Bosiu, Lerotholi Seeiso and Khoabane Theko respectively, were also among the mourners.
When a hymn about love was sung, some exclaimed that Mashai loved his people to an extent that he would sacrifice his life for them.
Chief Seeiso told the Sunday Express in an interview later that Mashai would risk his life trying to protect the people he loved.
“I knew him as a person who would sacrifice his life for the people he loved,” he said.
“He was a kind of a man who was passionate about peace and orderliness.”
Chief Seeiso said it was hurtful that Mashai “was slandered by those who said he attacked ministers’ homes”.
“I was a soldier myself and I know what that man could do and what he could not do,” Seeiso said.
“I knew him personally and I know that he was not that stupid.
“It is not true that he was involved in all these things he was accused of, including stealing armoured cars at Makoanyane barracks, because he was not stupid.”
ABC’s recording secretary Thabo Thakalekoala told the Sunday Express that Mashai would not be forgotten in the history of the opposition party.
He said Mashai’s voluntary act of becoming Thabane’s body guard angered his former colleagues and they began to seek ways of harming him.
When Mashai joined the ABC at its establishment he had retired from the army.
“The army tried all tricks to trap him,” Thakalekoala said.
“That is why they did not hesitate to link him with the attacks and the disarming of soldiers at ministers’ homes in 2007.
“They went further implicating him in another disarming of soldiers in 2008 and we members of the ABC know that he was incapable of doing that.
“He was again incapable of taking part in the State House attack because he was very ill.
“How could a man who could not walk, let alone run, be engaged in that kind of a mission?”
Perhaps his death is the only reason why Mashai came back home on Friday.
While in South Africa Mashai had told his lawyer Haae Phoofolo that he would never come back to Lesotho.
When the government tried to extradite him after his May 8 2009 arrest, Mashai became more resolute about his unwillingness to come back home and ordered his lawyer to fight the process.
“He told me that he will never come back to Lesotho alive,” said.
“I was just thinking now that he meant those words because he is coming back a dead man.”
Mashai fled the country in 2007 amid police allegations that he was part of the group that attacked ministers’ homes in the aftermath of that year’s disputed general election.
Mashai claimed the army had brutally tortured him while he was in custody.
He also maintained then, as he did until his death, that he was innocent.
Those who knew him said he was never well again after the alleged torture.
But even while in exile allegations against him only seemed to mount.
Last year the police said Mashai had allegedly disarmed soldiers at Ha-Thetsane.
This year the police had yet another allegation, this time claiming Mashai had led a group of bandits that attempted to assassinate Mosisili in a botched attack at State House.
Mashai never got to answer to those allegations in court but a good majority believed he was an innocent victim of political machinations.
Mashai will be laid to rest on October 31.