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Murder most foul in Lesotho

Adrian Kriesch
February 25, 2020

Lesotho awaits a historic court ruling that could see its prime minister, Thomas Thabane, charged with murdering his wife. The case, which also involves his current wife, has sent shockwaves through the country.

Lesotho Prime Minister Thomas Motsoahae Thabane
Image: Reuters/E. Munoz

The prime minister's office in the Kingdom of Lesotho is a chic, modern building. It's a gift from China, just like the parliament building and the congress center. Friends and supporters of First Lady Maesaiah Thabane gathered there on Tuesday were in an exuberant mood – despite the fact that she was returning from court, where she faces murder charges.

The murder trial gripping the tiny African nation all began on June 14, 2017, when Lipolelo Thabane, the estranged wife of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, was shot dead in her car on her way home.

By that time, she and her husband had already been separated for a long time, but she had refused to divorce him. Her husband, who had meanwhile married Maesaiah, was displeased. A court had ruled that the Prime Minister's new wife could not have all the privileges of a first lady if he remained married to another woman.

Lipolelo died two days before Thabane's second inauguration. The rumor mill has been going full tilt ever since.

Thabane case marks precedent 

In December 2019, the chief of police asked the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), among others, for assistance in investigating the death of the Thabane's wife. 

"Our investigations have shown that telephone communications were made from the crime scene. The number called was yours," the chief of police wrote to Prime Minister Thabane.

Thabane pulled out all the stops to have the chief of police removed, but the army chief refused an order to arrest him. Instead, a court issued an arrest warrant for the new first lady, and the police stormed the Prime Minister's office.

Newspapers reporting on the scandal
The scandal has riveted the whole countryImage: DW/A. Kriesch

"For the first time, I think, the police are reacting in this particular manner, perhaps in a positive way," says Francis Kopano Makoa. The former university professor has seen a lot happen in his home country: attempted coups d'état, massive corruption cases, murders of politicians and army chiefs.

"In the past, the police have been cowed by this kind of situation. They haven't been bold enough to address it," Makoa told DW. "A lot of crimes have not been investigated. If they had looked at them properly, the entire government elite would have had to be questioned by the police."

High court to decide on immunity

Meanwhile, murder charges have been brought against the Prime Minister — a first on the continent.  The prime minister skipped his first court appearance, but on Monday, he and his wife made an appearance at the magistrates' court in Maseru, which had been expected to formally read out charges against Thabane for allegedly acting in "common purpose" in the killing of 58-year old Lipolelo Thabane.

The matter was deferred to the High Court, which will now have to decide if Thabane can claim immunity. The trial is likely to drag on for months and threaten the stability of the country. 

"People no longer trust the government," said Mathibeli Mokhothu, the opposition's parliamentary leader.

"The governing parties are disintegrating. Nothing is changing for the people. The country's development is at a standstill."

Lesotho opposition leader Mathibeli Mokhothu
Opposition leader Mathibeli MokhothuImage: DW/A. Kriesch

Friends rally around first lady

Back at the prime minister's office, we asked to talk with the first lady about the accusations. She did welcome us in the huge entrance hall, but on the advice of her lawyers, she declined to speak to us. Someone would speak for her instead, she said. Outside, behind the building, music was blaring from loudspeakers in a van. People wearing t-shirts of the governing All Basotho Convention (ABC) were chatting along merrily.

Prime Minister Thomas Thabane sat in a camping chair leaning against the wall of a house, watching the crowd. Next to him were two big motorcycles, something one would expect to see in front of a rocker's club.

Lesotho First Lady Maesaiah Thabane
First Lady Maesaiah Thabane has been charged with murderImage: DW/A. Kriesch

The 80-year-old looked tired. He is planning to resign in July due to his advanced age. But pressure on him is rising. The executive committee of his (ABC) party has asked him to leave office "immediately." ABC party chair Sam Rapapa has been named as a possible replacement.

At the State House Thabane greeted us very nicely, but we were not allowed to talk to him either. The first lady led potential discussion partners into one room: a political ally, a domestic employee, two sons of the prime minister, a good friend and the head of her foundation.

One after the other, they told us what a good job she has been doing. They insisted that she was innocent. Then why did she disappear abroad shortly after the arrest warrant was issued?

"Her security personnel were removed, just like that. Everyone can imagine what was going to happen," said the prime minister's son, Potlako Thabane. "She was just protecting herself." All of this was just a political campaign with the chief of police as the villain, he added.

Political scientist Francis Makoa, for his part, dismisses this portrayal of events as "total nonsense."