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Of political bedlam and diamond mining in Lesotho

10 september 2014

Firestone Diamonds, which owns a 75 percent stake in the Liqhobong Diamond Mine, in Lesotho noted on its website that the country’s political and constitutional history has been relatively peaceful compared to what has been experienced by many other African countries.

The London based diamond junior claimed that since gaining its independence from Britain in 1966, there had been notable lengthy periods of constitutional rule in the tiny southern African country, the first being from 1966 to 1970 while the second extends from 1993 to today.

However, Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail newspaper reports that Lesotho was no stranger to political crises since independence.

It claimed that after the 1970 elections, the Basotho National Party refused to cede power when it appeared to have lost the polls.

A state of emergency was consequently declared, while the constitution was suspended and parliament dissolved.

In 1986 the military, supported by apartheid South Africa, seized control and a military council ruled Lesotho with King Moshoeshoe II.

In 1990, King Moshoeshoe II was exiled, with a new military authority establishing a National Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution and spelt out a roadmap for return to civilian rule by 1992.

However, junior army officers mutinied in 1991 and installed Phisoane Ramaema as chair of the military council.

The Sunday Mail further noted that King Moshoeshoe II refused to return to the country and his son was enthroned King Letsie III.

Moshoeshoe II, however, returned to Lesotho in 1992 as an ordinary citizen but became king again in 1995 when Letsie III abdicated the throne in favour of his father.

King Moshoeshoe II died in a car accident in 1996 and his son once again ascended to the throne.

The country’s 1993 constitution stripped the king of executive authority and barred him from engaging in politics.

Problem brewed again the following year, as police and prisons services mutinied, and King Letsie III — backed by the army — staged a coup that suspended parliament and appointed a ruling council.

However, the elected government returned within a month following domestic and international pressure.

The army was to quash a violent police mutiny in 1997 and in 1998 an electoral dispute led to a power vacuum and violence that sucked in South African troops.

Stability returned the following year and the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) taskforce withdrew, leaving a small unit to train the Lesotho Defence Forces.

Fast-forward to 2014, and there are reports of another ‘coup’ in Lesotho.

The country’s Prime Minister Tom Thabane said he fled for his life across the border to South Africa last Saturday (30 August), accusing the military of seizing power in a ‘coup’.

"I have been removed from control not by the people but by the armed forces, and that is illegal," he told BBC.

"I came into South Africa this morning and I will return as soon as my life is not in danger. I will not go back to Lesotho to get killed."

The military, however, denied staging a coup.

"As we speak now, the situation in Lesotho, in the capital, is back to normal. It's business as usual," “Lesotho's defence forces spokesperson Ntlele Ntoi was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

He said the military had gathered intelligence that the police were going to arm factions that wanted to participate in a demonstration on 1 September.

The demonstration was however called off.

Ntoi said the military sought to disarm police in the capital, Maseru, to avoid bloodshed, however, an exchange of gunfire between the military, youths and police injured one soldier and four policemen.

Lesotho's deputy Prime Minister, Metsing, was said to be in charge of government in the absence of the premier.

South African President Jacob Zuma had since summoned Lesotho’s political leaders for emergency talks.

Foreign ministers of three Sadc countries also met last Sunday to find a solution to end the political crisis in Lesotho, reports say.

While, Firestone appeared to downplay the historical political disturbances in the country, it was quite clear that Lesotho had a history of political instability.

However, unlike other African countries, such as the Central African Republic, were coups were staged, there seem to be no evidence that diamonds were being used to fund operations of the mutineers.

Apart from Firestone, Paragon Diamonds, Lucara Diamond and Gem Diamonds, also had operations in Lesotho. 

Firestone announced last month that it had commenced the disposal process of its Botswana operations to focus on its interests in Lesotho, for which it raised $225.2 million earlier this year.

Gem Diamonds said recently that its revenue for the first half of the year leaped 54 percent to $148.9 million from $96.5 million recorded a year earlier.

The revenue growth was driven by reduced breakage, higher quality diamonds mined at Letšeng in Lesotho and a strong market for large, high-quality rough diamonds.

Paragon Diamonds was also planning to bring its flagship Lemphane diamond mine in Lesotho into production.

The company said it was elated with ‘positive’ diamond value modelling report of the Lemphane project.

Lesotho had long been known as a source of large, high-quality diamonds, at least initially from alluvial deposits, although its diamond assets had to date remained unexploited.

Firestone noted that there are 39 known kimberlite pipes and 366 kimberlite blows and dykes in the country of which 24 had been shown to be diamondiferous.

Those that are considered significant include Kao, Lemphane and Mothae diamond pipes, as well as the Firestone-controlled Liqhobong pipes, all high in the Maluti Mountains.

The country had, until recently, the highest priced diamonds in the world.

Its average price of rough production fell 7 percent to $584.88 per carat in 2013.

So, as Lesotho’s politics go through another tumultuous stage, the diamond industry appear far removed from the hullaballoo.

For Firestone and other diamond miners in Lesotho, its business as usual, it seems.

Mathew Nyaungwa, Editor in Chief of the African Bureau, Rough&Polished