Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy. In recent years, the army’s involvement in the country’s already fragile politics has resulted in political instability and a security crisis. Corruption remains a challenge. Customary practice and law restrict women’s rights in areas such as property, inheritance, and marriage and divorce.
- A no-confidence motion was filed against Prime Minister Thomas Thabane in June, as infighting within the ruling All Basotho Convention (ABC) and disagreement over the influence of first lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane drained his authority. The motion went unconsidered when Parliament was adjourned later that month, and Thabane remained in office at the end of the year.
- Infighting within the ABC affected the judiciary, with former constitutional affairs minister Lebohang Hlalele launching an effort to remove acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase over perceived support of Prime Minister Thabane in August. Mahase successfully called for local judges to be recused from hearing the case due to bias, and the tribunal proceedings remained pending at year’s end.
- In August, lawmakers passed the National Reforms Authority Bill, which codifies reforms backed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The act created a National Reforms Authority (NRA), which is charged with implementing expansive governance reforms.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy. King Letsie III serves as the ceremonial head of state. The prime minister is head of government; the head of the majority party or coalition automatically becomes prime minister following elections, making the prime minister’s legitimacy largely dependent on the conduct of the polls. Thabane became prime minister after the ABC won a plurality in a snap election in 2017. Thabane, a fixture in the country’s politics, previously served as prime minister from 2012–14, but spent two years in exile in South Africa amid instability that followed a failed 2014 coup.
The prime minister can advise the king to dissolve Parliament and call a new election, but members of the lower house voted to restrict Thabane’s ability to do so by adopting a constitutional amendment in October 2019. That amendment was still under consideration in the upper house at year’s end.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, has 120 seats; 80 are filled through first-past-the-post constituency votes, and the remaining 40 through proportional representation. The Senate—the upper house of Parliament—consists of 22 principal chiefs who wield considerable authority in rural areas and whose membership is hereditary, along with 11 other members appointed by the king and acting on the advice of the Council of State. Members of both chambers serve five-year terms.
In 2017, the coalition government of Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili—head of the Democratic Congress (DC)—lost a no-confidence vote, triggering the third legislative election since 2012. Election observers declared the contest peaceful, generally well administered and competitive. However, isolated instances of political violence were noted, as was a heavy security presence at many polling places, which electoral officials said intimidated some voters. The ABC won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition government.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||3.003 4.004|
Although the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) faces capacity constraints, and the credibility of the voters’ roll has been questioned in the past, it has been commended for its independence and its efforts to uphold electoral laws and oversee credible elections. International observers broadly commended the IEC’s administration of the 2017 snap poll, but noted deficiencies they linked to a lack of capacity, including late disbursement of campaign funds to political parties.
IEC chairperson Mahapela Lehohla and two other commissioners attempted to remain in their posts after their terms expired in January 2019, and sued the government in an effort to lengthen their mandates in May. Lesotho’s political parties opposed their efforts, and the Transformation Resource Centre, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), filed a legal challenge at the Constitutional Court in July. The court rejected the commissioners’ case in October and Lehohla’s appeal in December, leaving the IEC with no active members.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||3.003 4.004|
Political parties may form freely and are allocated funding by the IEC, and 27 parties contested the 2017 election. However, politics have been unstable since a failed 2014 coup. In recent years, the country has seen politically motivated assassinations and assassination attempts, and political leaders operate within the country at some risk to their personal safety. Former constitutional affairs minister Hlaele reported that he was targeted with an assassination plot in March 2019. Nqosa Mahao, the leader of a faction fighting Thabane for control of the ABC, reported the same in June. Former social development minister ‘Matebatso Doti, who is considered a Mahao ally, survived an assassination attempt in late July.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
Opposition parties have a realistic chance of gaining power through elections, and power has rotated frequently between DC- and ABC-led coalitions. However, political instability and associated violence and intimidation has at times prompted opposition leaders to flee the country. The SADC facilitated a governance reform process in an effort to address these concerns; this culminated in the creation of the NRA in August 2019.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2.002 4.004|
Recent political instability is largely related to politics becoming entangled in disputes among factions of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF). Although the heavy military presence at voting stations during the 2017 election was questioned, no reports of voter interference surfaced. However, in June 2019, then defense minister Tefo Mapesela claimed that senior police officers threatened him after he criticized an army commander and an senior intelligence official in a phone conversation.
Traditional chiefs wield some political influence over their rural subjects.
In 2018, Lesotho-based Chinese businessman Yan Xie caused controversy when he claimed that he heavily donated to most of Lesotho’s political parties. Critics argued that Yan’s financial clout gave him considerable influence over the country’s political elites, exemplified by his 2017 appointment as a “head of special projects” and special trade envoy. In November 2019, a local government secretary told a parliamentary committee that first lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane and two cabinet ministers pressured him to direct a construction tender to a firm associated with Yan.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution guarantees political rights for all. However, societal norms discourage women from running for office, and a national gender quota does not exist to ensure their representation. After the 2017 election, only 23 percent of parliamentary seats were held by women, down from 25 percent before the contest. Women’s involvement in local government has also declined; women held 49 percent of local positions in 2011, but only 40 percent in 2017. The inaccessibility of some polling stations to persons living with disabilities was raised as a concern during the 2017 election. LGBT+ individuals generally face societal discrimination, and this discourages them from advocating for their rights in the political sphere.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
While elections are held without delays and representatives are duly seated, persistent political instability disrupts normal government operations. Infighting within the ruling ABC took place through much of 2019, after members of a faction opposing Thabane won seats on its National Executive Committee (NEC) in February. Later that month, Thabane dismissed Lhalele and Doti from the cabinet for their support of the opposing faction. In June, Thabane moved to suspend five NEC members, including faction leader Mahao, Hlaele, and Doti, from the party; Thabane’s opponents retaliated that same month, announcing they had done the same to him.
The government also lost parliamentary support as the year progressed, with lawmakers heavily criticizing the first lady’s influence. Lawmakers filed a no-confidence motion against Thabane in June, but it was not debated as Parliament was adjourned that month. In October, the lower house unanimously adopted a constitutional amendment that would limit Thabane’s ability to force a snap election, and would also force an election three months after any successful no-confidence motion; that proposed amendment remained under consideration at year’s end.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Official corruption and impunity remain problems. The main anticorruption agency, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO), lacks full prosecutorial powers, and faces capacity and funding challenges. The Asset Forfeiture Unit, which was established in 2016 to recover property connected to corruption cases, had only four people on its staff in mid-2018, and remained largely ineffective in 2019.
While DCEO officers work to fulfill the directorate’s mandate, the body was affected by instability in its leadership in 2019. In February, its director general was placed on leave by Thebane, who provided no explanation for his decision. In July, chief investigator Thabiso Thibeli was suspended by the new director general, Moses Mahlomola Manyokole, who was appointed earlier that month. Observers within the DCEO believed Thibeli was suspended after investigating high-profile individuals who were implicated in corruption over their handling of a contract to acquire government fleet vehicles. Manyokole later accused Director of Public Prosecutions Hlalefang Motinyane of holding files relating to the fleet tender case. Motinyane disputed his claim in November, and claimed that her instructions for the DCEO to investigate suspects in the case went unimplemented.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
Lesotho has no access to information law, and responses to information requests are not guaranteed. The management of public finances is shrouded in secrecy. Government procurement decisions and tenders generally cannot be accessed online. Although high-level government and elected officials are required to disclose their assets and business interests, these declarations are not made public, and enforcement of the rules is limited by resource constraints.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
Freedom of the press is only indirectly protected under constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Journalists are subject to threats and intimidation from the authorities and private citizens. State and private media outlets have also been accused of open bias.
Journalists additionally face statutory barriers that interfere in their work, including criminal code provisions that bar sedition and offenses against the “dignity of the royal family.” The Penal Code, adopted in 2010, allows police officers to force journalists to reveal their sources. No reports of arrests or killings of journalists surfaced in 2019.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution provides legal protections for freedom of religion and prohibits religious discrimination, and religious freedom is generally upheld in practice.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally respected in practice, though the government does interfere in the administration of institutions of higher education. In July 2019, the Thabane government cut sponsorship funding for some students attending the National University of Lesotho (NUL) and Lerotholi Polytechnic (LP), after they resisted its calls to increase tuition fees. In September, NUL officials warned that the institution risked closure due to government funding cuts, though it remained open at year’s end.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution provides legal protections for freedom of expression. However, political violence in recent years has discouraged some open political debate.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
Protests and demonstrations are permitted, but organizers must seek a permit seven days in advance. Demonstrations take place each year, but are sometimes broken up violently by police.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||3.003 4.004|
NGOs generally operate without restrictions. However, some civil society groups act cautiously when working on politically sensitive issues. In addition, government rules on registering NGOs are strict; those who are accused of neglecting to register their organization risk a five-year prison sentence.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
While labor and union rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the union movement is weak and highly fragmented, and these challenges have undermined unions’ ability to advance the rights of workers. The government has previously been accused of undermining bodies like the National Advisory Committee on Labour (NACOLA), Wages Advisory Board, and Industrial Relations Council.
The government also punished public-sector workers who sought to strike in 2019. Police officers held a strike in July over salary arrears; in late September, officers who did not participate in a rehearsal ahead of King Letsie III’s birthday celebration during the strike were threatened with dismissal. In October, the government docked the salaries of 4,000 teachers who held a strike to demand better pay in August.
Many employees in the textile sector—Lesotho’s largest formal employer—face obstacles when attempting to join unions. In August 2019, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a US-based NGO, reported that Taiwan-based textile maker Nien Hsing resisted the efforts of its workers in Lesotho, who complained of pervasive sexual harassment at its factories, to unionize. Local trade unions successfully negotiated an agreement to combat sexual harassment with the company that same month.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution protects judicial independence, but the judiciary remains underresourced. In April, acting Chief Justice ‘Maseforo Mahase warned that the backlog at the High Court would worsen with the imminent retirements of three of its members. In September, Mahase also warned that members of the panel were ignoring instructions to finalize overdue judgments and rulings.
The judiciary has also been subjected to political interference and continued instability during 2019. Prime Minister Thabane unsuccessfully attempted to suspend the chief judge of the Court of Appeal, Kananelo Mosito, in July and again in August 2019, with the prime minister accusing the judge of interfering with Mahase.
Mahase herself came under scrutiny by critics who accused her of favoring Thebane when dealing with cases from ABC members involved in the party’s infighting. In August, former constitutional affairs minister Hlaele moved to trigger a tribunal against Mahase, intending to remove her from office. In September, Mahase publicly alleged that other judges likely to participate in a tribunal were biased against her, and called for foreign judges to hear her case. In November, the Constitutional Court upheld Mahase’s call for local judges to recuse themselves from the probe, which was still pending at year’s end.
The government completed negotiations with Mahase’s predecessor, Nthomeng Majara, to secure her final departure from the post in October 2019. Majara was suspended by King Letsie III on Thabane’s recommendation in 2018, in a move criticized by civil society members as politically motivated.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
While the courts generally uphold due process, a large backlog of cases has persisted, and individuals are subject to trial delays and lengthy pretrial detention. In the first eight months of 2019, the government appointed three foreign judges to preside over high-profile criminal cases that were affected by the ongoing backlog. In August, magistrates dismissed over 3,000 pending cases in an effort to address trial delays.
The justice system’s ability to provide speedy due process has also been hampered by a lack of funding; the government’s budget for the judiciary fell to M10 million ($710,000) in the 2019-20 fiscal year from M26 million ($1.8 million) in the previous year. A lack of funding also forced a suspension of the mid-April 2019 session of the Court of Appeal.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
Lesotho faced years of violence related to factional disputes within the army; the SADC appointed a facilitation team to create a reform process that would partially focus on the security sector. The SADC’s work culminated in the creation of the NRA, though the country did not meet the original May 2019 deadline for full implementation of the SADC-backed program.
The constitution provides legal protections against torture, but allegations of torture have been levied against police forces, the LDF, and prison authorities. In May 2019, opposition parliamentarian Thabo Ramatla accused the police of torturing him after arresting him on unclear charges; Ramatla’s lawsuit against the police commissioner was pending at year’s end. In July, four individuals accused of theft in Maseru were subjected to torture while in police custody, and one of the victims died of his injuries in August. Another individual, who was subjected to degrading treatment while in custody, was threatened by police after discussing his treatment with the press, and went into hiding for two months. In September, the government reported that it would press charges against 30 police officers accused of torture.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||2.002 4.004|
Rights are restricted for some groups. Same-sex sexual relations between men is illegal, though this law is not enforced. LGBT+ individuals face societal discrimination, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is not prohibited by law. LGBT+ individuals also face challenges accessing health services due to discrimination. Schools often lack facilities for students with disabilities. Customary law and other traditional societal practices continue to discriminate against women and girls. For example, under customary law, women are considered minors under the guardianship of their fathers before marriage and their husbands after marriage.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution protects freedom of movement, and this is generally upheld. In recent years, a high incidence of rape on a path near the Ha Lebona and Ha Koeshe villages has prompted some women to reduce travel in the area.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution protects property rights, though related laws are inconsistently upheld. Customary practice and law still restrict women’s rights in areas such as property and inheritance, including chieftainships, which can only be inherited by men. Expropriation is provided for in the constitution but is uncommon, and subject to fair compensation. Government instability and the country’s volatile politics hampers normal business activity.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Traditional practices and harmful patriarchal attitudes negatively affect women. Violence against women is high, and there is no domestic violence law, despite government promises to enact one. Forced and child marriages remain an ongoing problem. Customary practices and law restrict women’s rights in marriage and divorce.
In August 2019, former constitutional affairs minister Mootsi Lehata, who served under former premier Mosisili, reached a settlement to avoid a trial over a 2018 rape accusation. Lehata was accused of raping a 17-year-old girl, who subsequently became pregnant, that January; the survivor withdrew her claim as part of the settlement, receiving a home and a monthly stipend to support her child.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Human trafficking remains an ongoing challenge for Lesotho. The US State Department’s 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report found Lesotho’s legal framework for prosecuting trafficking to be weak, without strong penalties to deter offenders. Other identified problems include a lack of criminal convictions for trafficking, a large backlog of trafficking cases, and a failure to investigate officials implicated in trafficking. However, the government has improved its capacity to identify and provide support to potential victims of trafficking. Child labor and forced labor for both men and women, however, remains a problem.
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Global Freedom Score63 100 partly free