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The tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho faced its third year of drought and poor harvests in 2004, with half a million people remaining reliant on food aid through November.
Lesotho's status as a British protectorate saved it from incorporation into South Africa. King Moshoeshoe II reigned from independence in 1966 until the installation of his son as King Letsie III in a 1990 military coup. Democratic elections in 1993 did not lead to stability. After violent military infighting, assassinations, and a suspension of constitutional rule in 1994, King Letsie III abdicated to allow his father's reinstatement. He resumed the throne following the accidental death of his father in January 1996.
In 1998, troops from South Africa and Botswana were sent to this mountain kingdom at the request of Prime Minster Pakalitha Mosisili, under the mandate of the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC), to quell army-backed violence and a potential overthrow of the government. The violence was touched off by the results of National Assembly elections. Although international observers described the voting as free and fair, the appearance of irregularities and the absence of opposition voices in government prompted demonstrators to reject the results that gave the ruling Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) 79 of 80 National Assembly seats. At least 100 people were reportedly killed before order was restored. An agreement, drafted by the Commonwealth in 1998, allowed the elected, but highly unpopular, government to retain power, but stipulated that new elections be supervised by an independent election commission.
The 2002 legislative election was marked by a turnout of 68 percent. The ruling LCD captured 55 percent of votes cast, winning 77 of 78 constituency seats. The Lesotho People's Congress (LPC) won 1 seat. There are 80 constituency seats, but elections in two constituencies failed. The Basotho National Party (BNP) won 22 of the 40 seats chosen by proportional representation, while the National Independent Party won 5 and the LPC won 4. Smaller parties won the remainder. The BNP assumed its seats but has refused to formally accept the election results, filing numerous legal challenges and boycotting several by-elections.
After the Canadian construction conglomerate Acres International was convicted in September 2002 in Lesotho's High Court for corrupt practices in a multibillion-dollar dam and watershed project, the World Bank banned the company from new contracts for a three-year period. Other multinational companies also face possible sanctions from the Bank.
Lesotho's 2003 winter harvest failed, and rains in early 2004 came too late to save the maize crop, estimated at 68 percent below average. Drought has plagued the country since 2001. Following the food security crisis and a dramatic rise in HIV/AIDS cases, the government declared a state of emergency in February 2004.
Entirely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho is highly dependent on its powerful neighbor. Its economy is sustained by remittances from its many citizens who work in South African mines. Retrenchments at the mines, however, have contributed to high unemployment in Lesotho. Increased growth in the textile industry has party offset these losses, although some 40 percent of the population remains in absolute poverty. Lesotho's economic problems are compounded by one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS rates, which has lowered average life expectancy to less than 38 years.
The people of Lesotho are guaranteed the right to change their leaders through free and fair elections. The mixed-member voting system introduced in the May 2002 parliamentary elections expanded the number of National Assembly seats by 40, to 120. The additional seats were chosen by proportional representation, while the others continued to be chosen by the first-past-the-post system of awarding seats to whoever gets the most votes. The Senate, the upper house of the bicameral legislature, includes royal appointees and Lesotho's 22 principal traditional chiefs, who still wield considerable authority in rural areas. Any elected government's exercise of its constitutional authority remains limited by the autonomy of the military, the royal family, and traditional clan structures. Parliamentary elections take place every five years. Under the constitution, the leader of the majority party in the Assembly automatically becomes prime minister.
Lesotho was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, the government has aggressively pursued criminal charges against state officials and multinational corporations engaging in corrupt practices, as seen in the landmark trials connected to the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and the press, but journalists have suffered occasional harassment or attack. The several independent newspapers routinely criticize the government. There are four private radio stations, and extensive South African radio and television broadcasts reach Lesotho.
Freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country is generally respected. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly and association is generally respected, and several nongovernmental organizations operate openly. While labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the labor and trade union movement is weak and fragmented. Approximately 10 percent of the country's labor force is unionized. Of the remainder, most are engaged in subsistence agriculture or employed in South African mines.
Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large backlog of cases often leads to lengthy delays in trials. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Prisons are dilapidated and severely overcrowded, and lack essential health services. Between 2001 and 2003, 90 prisoners died at Lesotho's biggest prison, according to a government commission of inquiry.
The textile industry has become crucial to the economy as a result of the United States' African Growth and Opportunity Act. The industry now provides nearly half of all foreign exchange and has attracted foreign investors, notably Taiwan, which employs an estimated 25 percent of all workers. In May, Lesotho successfully lobbied the United States to extend the preferential trade regime until 2015.
The constitution bars gender-based discrimination, but customary practice and law still restrict women's rights in several areas, including property rights and inheritance. Lesotho's constitution perpetuates the minority status of Basotho women married under customary law. A woman is considered a legal minor while her husband is alive. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread but is becoming increasingly socially unacceptable. Women's rights organizations have highlighted the importance of women's participation in the democratic process as part of a broader effort to educate women about their rights under customary and common law. Out of 120 parliamentary seats, just 13 are held by women.