Outcry over Poopa appointment
. . . as govt urges critics to give acting army boss a chance
THE Transformation Resource Centre (TRC) has queried the appointment of Major-General Lineo Poopa as acting Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) commander, saying he was part of the army command during the killing of Lt-Gen Maaparankoe Mahao.
The civil society organisation has also criticised the country’s intelligence agencies for failing to anticipate the assassination of LDF commander Lt-Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo, calling on military experts in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Oversight Committee to facilitate “immediate security changes”.
However, Defence and National Security Minister Sentje Lebona said it was Prime Minister Thomas Thabane’s prerogative to appoint anyone qualified for the position, adding that critics should give Maj-Gen Poopa “the benefit of the doubt” since Lt-Gen Motšomotšo had managed to prove his naysayers wrong.
Dr Thabane appointed Maj-Gen Poopa as acting LDF commander hours after the assassination of Lt-Gen Khoantle Motšomotšo last Tuesday in his office at Ratjomose Military Base.
Lt-Gen Motšomotšo was gunned down by Brigadier Bulane Sechele who had been accompanied by Colonel Tefo Hashatsi according to the government’s account.
According to Foreign Affairs and International Relations Minister Lesego Makgothi, the two senior officers had confronted Lt-Gen Motšomotšo over the police’s investigation of three army officers implicated in the killing of a woman near the home of former LDF commander, Lt-Gen Tlali Kamoli.
Lisebo Tang was shot dead on 10 May 2014 when the car she was sitting in with Tšepo Jane was peppered with bullets by LDF members guarding the home of Lt-Gen Kamoli. She died on the scene of shooting, with Mr Jane sustaining serious injuries and taken to the Makoanyane Military Hospital. A police report stated that the vehicle in which they were sitting was shot 123 times by the soldiers guarding Lt-Gen Kamoli’s premises.
Lt-Gen Motšomotšo had explained that the investigation was being conducted in the spirit of implementing SADC decisions to probe LDF members implicated in acts of criminality.
The SADC decisions stem from recommendations made by a Commission of Inquiry established by the regional bloc following the fatal shooting of former LDF commander, Lt-Gen Mahao, by his former colleagues in June 2015.
Led by Justice Mpaphi Phumaphi of Botswana, the commission probed the circumstances surrounding Lt-Gen Mahao’s killing and the root causes for Lesotho’s perennial instability between 31 August and 23 October 2015.
The Phumaphi Commission recommended that the government investigate Lt-Gen Mahao’s killing and prosecute those found responsible.
It also recommended the suspension of LDF officers implicated in cases of murder, attempted murder and treason while investigations into the allegations proceeded in line with international best practice.
Col Hashatsi and Brig Sechele were both implicated in Lt-Gen Mahao’s death.
Upon hearing this, Brig Sechele allegedly pulled out a firearm and fatally shot the army commander.
However, Brig Sechele was also killed in a hail of bullets from Lt-Gen Motšomotšo’s bodygaurds as he was about to leave the office complex. Col Hashatsi – who was also shot — succumbed to his wounds in a nearby hospital.
When announcing Maj-Gen Poopa’s appointment as acting LDF commander, Dr Thabane said it was by virtue of his ranking as second in command to Lt-Gen Motšomotšo.
The premier also indicated that Maj-Gen Poopa had pledged his allegiance to the government.
However, TRC Director Peshoane Tsikoane questioned Maj-Gen Poopa’s temporary appointment, saying he was part of the LDF command when Lt-Gen Mahao was shot dead by his erstwhile colleagues.
The LDF claimed Lt-Gen Mahao had resisted arrest during a special operation to nab mutiny suspects. However, the Mahao family has disputed the claim, accusing the LDF of killing the former army chief in cold blood basing on the account of his nephews who were with him on the fateful day.
During the SADC Commission of Inquiry, a Makoanyane Military Hospital staff member had testified that Maj-Gen Poopa had called him asking whether a patient had arrived at the hospital. This was in reference to Lt-Gen Mahao after he was gunned down in Mokema.
“Let me remind you that it was revealed during the SADC Commission of Inquiry that Maj-Gen Poopa called the Makoanyane Military Hospital getting them ready to expect a patient after that unfortunate incident in Mokema,” Mr Tsikoane said.
“We are not even saying he was part of the Mokema operation, but we are saying he was implicated in the processes of the inquiry.
“So the most important point here is, if there is a perception that he was part of that contaminated regime, how will he have the moral authority to command that organisation?”
Mr Tsikoane also wanted to know the measures that had been put in place to prevent an attack on Maj-Gen Poopa and to improve the overall security situation in the country.
“What guarantees do we have that the acting commander is safe, particularly because you remember very well that the acting commander is directly implicated in the problems that affect the army.
“What guarantees do we have of stability? We are quite aware that the current command has given the government an assurance and the government seems to have been convinced.
He continued: “But before Ntate Motšomotšo was killed, he gave the government an assurance that the security situation had normalised. “He had expressed a commitment to follow the orders of the sitting government but now he is dead.
“Are we not going to experience the third killing of an army commander? What guarantees do we have that even the government or the head of the government is safe?”
He said these questions needed to be urgently addressed, adding that they did not have confidence in the current LDF command’s ability to provide security.
“We therefore, advise the government of Lesotho to ask the SADC military oversight committee to supervise proper security arrangements and transition management at the LDF command level.
“The SADC military oversight committee together with government must facilitate immediate security changes that are now imperative after the untimely death of Lt-Gen Motšomotšo.”
Mr Tsikoane also lambasted the National Security Service and the LDF’s Military Intelligence for failing to anticipate the events of last Tuesday.
“The fact that the national intelligence as well as military intelligence did not foresee this unfortunate eventuality of the commander’s assassination leaves much to be desired,” he said.
For his part, Mr Lebona said Maj-Gen Poopa’s critics should give him a chance to prove them wrong as had been done by Lt-Gen Motšomotšo.
Lt-Gen Motšomotšo had replaced Lt-Gen Kamoli in December 2016 after sustained pressure from the international community for the latter’s removal in line with SADC recommendations.
Many of Lt-Gen Motšomotšo’s critics had dismissed his appointment as a continuation of Lt-Gen Kamoli’s control of the military. However, Lt-Gen Motšomotšo had cooperated with the Dr Thabane-led government, prompting Brig Sechele and Col Hashatsi to accuse the former of being a “sell out”.
“Ntate Motšomotšo’s leadership of the LDF was not supported by many people who wanted the government to fire him, but he proved them all wrong,” said Mr Lebona.
“His unfortunate death should be an indication that he was serious on implementing the SADC decisions.
“People need to open their eyes and give Ntate Poopa the benefit of the doubt. On the issue of his safety, I wouldn’t say he is safe or not but we are doing everything we can to ensure that he is safe.”
Commenting on the criticism of the intelligence agencies, the minister said their failures should be used as a learning experience for enacting policies to prevent such situations.