I will stop them at all costs: Hashatsi
Lieutenant Colonel Tefo Hashatsi says no Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander would be removed from office because of soldiers who attend “clandestine meetings” with politicians.
Lt Col Hashatsi made the remark on Thursday when he appeared before the SADC Commission of Inquiry into the death of former LDF commander Maaparankoe Mahao, and further insisted he would stop such soldiers “at all costs”.
In January 2014, Lt Col Hashatsi declared that LDF commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli would only be fired over his dead body, and on Thursday told the Commission he would do anything to protect him.
“I said then that the army commander would not be removed at the instigation of soldiers who attended clandestine meetings with politicians; I still maintain that statement,” Lt Col Hashatsi said.
“I was willing to stop them at all costs then and I am willing to stop them now.”
The officer explained his firm stance of dealing with soldiers “dabbling in party politics” was motivated by military intelligence’s discovery of the meetings, in late 2013.
Lt Col Hashatsi, who was responding to questions by Commissioner Noel Ndlovu, had however, made it clear before giving his testimony that he would not address any of the terms of reference guiding the inquiry, but discuss issues raised during the cross-examination of previous witnesses and only where his name had been mentioned.
The sixth witness to be interviewed by the nine-member Commission established to investigate the fatal shooting of Brigadier Mahao by the military on 25 June this year allegedly as he resisted arrest for mutiny, Lt Col Hashatsi did not appear keen to cooperate with the probe team led by Botswana judge Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi.
Referring to his now infamous “over my dead body” declaration he made on 13 January 2014, Lt Col Hashatsi said after reading “rumours” on social media about the planned removal of Lt Gen Kamoli, he knew some members of the army were behind the plot.
This realisation, Lt Col Hashatsi added, prompted him to move “to stop them”.
Asked by Commissioner Ndlovu what part concerning the removal of General Kamoli he was willing to die for, Lt Col Hashatsi reiterated his earlier statement: “That which involved members of the LDF gallivanting with politicians.
“My main concern was soldiers who attended clandestine meetings with politicians. I was willing to stop them at all costs then, and I am still willing to stop them even now.
“I was willing to ensure the army boss was not removed from his position at the instigation of some members of the force.”
Commissioner Ndlovu then asked Lt Col Hashatsi if he was aware of the implication of his statement.
“Do you know when you’re willing to die, it means you are willing to kill?” he asked.
“Yes; it’s common knowledge that soldiers die in the line of duty where we use guns which are meant to kill,” Lt Col Hashatsi responded.
“Does that mean you were willing to kill soldiers who were involved in politics? Does that mean you were willing to kill?” the commissioner pressed further.
“I was willing to stop them. Let’s just leave it at that,” the officer retorted.
However, Commissioner Ndlovu was still eager to know more about the relationship between Lt Gen Kamoli and Lt Col Hashatsi.
“Are you loyal to the commander of the LDF or the government of the day?” he asked.
“I am loyal to the commander of the LDF, which means I am loyal to the government of the day. In that respect, I am loyal to both,” Lt Col Hashatsi responded.
“So, whatever the LDF commander instructs you to do, as a senior Lt Col, is just okay?” the commissioner asked.
“There are instructions in the army and we have been taught that orders that we obey are lawful. I follow lawful instructions from the commander,” the officer said.
“If you find yourself in a situation where the LDF commander is not loyal to the government, what would be your reaction?” Commissioner Ndlovu probed further, but Lt Col Hashatsi refused to answer the question.
Undeterred by the noncooperation, Commissioner Ndlovu would, however, not let the soldier get away with it and pressed on with his line of questioning.
“So, if the commander issues an unlawful instruction, you won’t obey?” he asked.
“There goes the ‘if’ again. I requested not to respond to ‘if’ questions,” Lt Col Hashatsi told the commissioner.
“Ok, let’s talk of a situation where you are given an unlawful order by the commander; will you follow it?” the commissioner persisted.
“I will not answer that question,” Lt Col Hashatsi said.
“Why don’t you want to answer that specific question? As a senior officer in the defence force, you should be able to say what your understanding of being in the defence force is,” Commissioner Ndlovu told the officer.
“As I have said already, I am responding as a soldier and an officer. I have been taught how to identify when all is well in the LDF. But your line of questioning is seeking to push me to make an assumption that the commander could issue an unlawful order,” the lieutenant colonel responded.
At this point, Justice Phumaphi joined in the exchange: “Isn’t it why you are taught to distinguish lawful and unlawful instructions…that you should make a distinction?”
“It is true my Lord,” Lt Col Hashatsi said.
Commissioner Ndlovu further asked Lt Col Hashatsi if it was appropriate for him to react on the basis of a Facebook post.
“The meeting of 13 January 2014 was to discuss the issue of the removal of Lt Gen Kamoli. As an officer in charge of a unit, was it proper for you to respond to rumours?” Commissioner Ndlovu asked him.
“There is no smoke without fire. My being an officer did not mean I should have taken it lightly. I have tried to clarify the content of the meeting, particularly the letter of expulsion that was allegedly going to be served on the commander; that is what pushed me.
“I explained that in 1998, there was a mutiny which started as rumours. Eventually, soldiers of junior ranks such as mere corporals, forced the then commander, Major General Makhula Mosakeng, to go on national radio and read a letter of resignation penned by them. I was not going to allow events of 1998 to repeat themselves,” Lt Col Hashatsi said.
“Was Brigadier Mahao part of that syndicate of soldiers attending clandestine meetings with politicians?” Commissioner Ndlovu asked, but Lt Col Hashatsi refused to answer the question.
However, Justice Phumaphi wanted to hear from Lt Col Hashatsi what transpired on the day Brigadier Mahao was shot outside his Mokema farm.
“I have reason to believe you were one of the people detailed to be part of the operation to arrest Mahao. Were you at the scene of the incident?” Justice Phumaphi put it to Lt Col Hashatsi, who again refused to answer the question.
But Justice Phumaphi continued his probing, bluntly telling Lt Col Hashatsi: “I have an indicator that you spoke on the phone at the scene of the Brigadier’s death.”
“I cannot comment on that,” Lt Col Hashatsi told him.
Justice Phumaphi: “Why do you choose not to comment?”
Lt Col Hashatsi: “Because I don’t want to implicate myself.”
Justice Phumaphi: “You know what? Operational secrecy shouldn’t apply where a man died at the hands of the army. We need to establish facts for the army to be held accountable.”
Meanwhile, the Commission yesterday interviewed former defence ministry principal secretary, Thato Mohasoa, in-camera.