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Lesotho was the focus of international attention in 2006 due to government efforts to combat HIV/AIDS, including the introduction of a policy offering free, universal HIV testing, the first such program in the world. Lesotho also continued to effectively tackle corruption related to the Lesotho Highland Water Project.
Lesotho’s status as a British protectorate saved it from incorporation into South Africa in the early twentieth century. After gaining independence in 1966, the country was ruled by King Moshoeshoe II and Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan of the Basotho National Party (BNP). Jonathan annulled the first postindependence elections in 1970, and the BNP ruled by decree until a 1986 military coup, after which Moshoeshoe was given executive powers. Another coup in 1990 saw the king sent into exile and replaced by his son, who became King Letsie III. Democratic elections in 1993, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the Basotholand Congress Party (BCP), did not lead to stability. After violent military infighting, assassinations, and the suspension of constitutional rule in 1994, Letsie abdicated to allow his father’s reinstatement in 1995. He resumed the throne following the accidental death of his father in January 1996. Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle left the BCP in 1997 and started a new party, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).
Elections for the National Assembly in 1998 touched off yet another crisis of government. 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 results that gave the ruling LCD 79 out of 80 constituency seats in Parliament with 60.5 percent of the vote. After opposition supporters burned down Maseru’s business district and junior military officers staged a mutiny, troops from South Africa and Botswana—under the mandate of the 14-country Southern African Development Community (SADC)—were sent to Lesotho at the request of Prime Minster Pakalitha Mosisili. An Interim Political Authority reached an agreement in 1998 that allowed the elected—and highly unpopular—government to retain power. However, it stipulated that new elections must be supervised by an independent election commission and include competition for 40 additional, proportionally determined seats in the National Assembly.
Elections under this new system were held in 2002 and saw a turnout of 68 percent of eligible voters. The ruling LCD captured 57.7 percent of votes cast, winning 77 of 80 constituency seats; the Lesotho People’s Congress (LPC) took 1 seat; and two constituency elections failed. The BNP won 21 of the 40 seats chosen by proportional representation, while the National Independent Party (NIP) and the LPC garnered five each. 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.
In May 2005, Lesotho held its first-ever nationwide municipal elections. Less than 40 percent of voters cast ballots, a low turnout that opposition parties and civic groups attributed to inadequate voter education and preparation. While the Independent Electoral Commission did not make the final vote tally available, it revealed a victory for the LCD, followed by independent candidates, the BNP, and the LPC.
Drought has plagued the country since 2001. 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. In February 2004, the government declared a state of emergency in the face of the food security crisis and a dramatic rise in HIV/AIDS cases. In early 2006, however, Lesotho experienced its heaviest rainfall in almost 20 years. Because of soil damage resulting from the preceding years of drought, the heavy rains destroyed over a third of ground crops ahead of the April harvest, and flooding led to the deaths of 20 people. The UN World Food Program estimates that 200,000 to 250,000 Basotho are exposed to chronic food insecurity.
Landlocked within 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, facilitated by preferential access to the U.S. market via the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), has partly offset these losses, but the end of World Trade Organization textile quotas in 2005 led to the exit of six foreign-owned textile factories from the country. Nevertheless, in 2006, government efforts to promote Lesotho’s textile sector as both worker friendly and engaged with business—as well as the country’s international reputation as a leader in combating HIV/AIDS—have contributed to the return of major foreign clothing manufacturers.
Lesotho is scarred by an adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of over 23 percent, one of the highest in the world. In November 2005, the government announced a plan to offer free HIV testing to all citizens, the first such program in the world; efforts to implement the “Know Your Status” plan by the end of 2007 continued in 2006. The plan elicited the support of high-profile philanthropy figures such as pop star and AIDS activist Bono, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and former Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates, all of whom visited Lesotho in 2006. However, nurses in the country warned that the campaign was threatened by a significant lack of health care workers.
Lesotho is an electoral democracy. Under its constitutional monarchy, King Letsie III serves as a ceremonial head of state and is proscribed from political activities. A mixed electoral system—introduced in the May 2002 parliamentary elections—determines the makeup of the 120-seat lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly: 80 seats are filled by first-past-the-post constituency votes and 40 seats are filled by proportional representation. The leader of the majority party in the National Assembly automatically becomes prime minister. Elections to the National Assembly take place every five years; the next round is scheduled for the spring of 2007. The Senate, the upper house of the bicameral legislature, consists of 11 royal appointees and Lesotho’s 22 traditional principal chiefs, who still wield considerable authority in rural areas. Any elected government’s exercise of its constitutional authority remains limited by the military, the royal family, and traditional clan structures. In January 2006, Foreign Minister Monyane Moleleki of the LCD, a potential successor to Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili, was shot in the arm outside his home; police were unable to identify a motive for the attack.
Lesotho’s major political parties include the LCD, the LPC, the BNP, and the NIP.
The government has aggressively pursued criminal charges against state officials and multinational corporations suspected of corrupt practices. In recent years, over a dozen international construction companies and government officials have been investigated—and a number of both convicted—for corrupt practices associated with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), a multibillion-dollar dam and watershed project. In 2006, two government officials working on the LHWP were accused of accepting bribes from the German engineering consultancy Lahmeyer International. Shortly thereafter, a crack in the wall of an LHWP dam prompted civil society groups to call for an audit of the project’s tender awarding process. Separately, media and civic groups in August criticized a government plan allowing civil servants to purchase automobiles at significantly discounted rates through a state-issued tender. Lesotho was ranked 79 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The government generally respects freedom of speech and of the press. Several independent newspapers operate freely and routinely criticize the government, while state-owned print and broadcast media tend to reflect the views of the ruling party. There are four private radio stations, and many South African radio and television broadcasts reach Lesotho. However, government critics in the media are subject to extremely high libel penalties; 2006 saw several threats of libel and defamation suits intended to counter negative media coverage. Journalists are occasionally harassed or attacked, which leads to some self-censorship. The government does not restrict internet access.
Freedom of religion in this predominantly Christian country is widely observed. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are generally respected. Several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate openly, including the Lesotho Council of NGOs (LECONGO), an umbrella body of civic organizations. While labor rights are constitutionally guaranteed, the labor and trade union movement is weak and fragmented, and many employers in the textile sector do not allow union activity. Many miners are members of the powerful South African National Union of Mineworkers.
Courts are nominally independent, but higher courts are especially subject to outside influence. The large backlog of cases often leads to delays in trials and lengthy pretrial detention. Mistreatment of civilians by security forces reportedly continues. Prisons are dilapidated, severely overcrowded, and lack essential health services; instances of torture and excessive force have been reported. From 2001 to 2003, 90 prisoners died at Lesotho’s largest prison, according to a government commission of inquiry. Citizens are protected against government infringements on their rights by an independent ombudsman’s office.
Tensions between Basotho and the small Chinese business community have led to instances of minor violence.
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; such women are considered legal minors while their husbands are alive, may not enter into binding contracts, and have no standing in civil courts. Domestic violence is reportedly widespread, but is becoming less socially acceptable. In June 2006, the government announced plans to improve medical care for victims of rape after almost 500 rape cases were reported between January and March; 501 such cases were reported in all of 2005. 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. A constitutional amendment reserves a third of the total seats in the new municipal councils for women.
A study released in April 2005 and commissioned by UNICEF and the Ministry of Gender, Youth, Sport and Recreation found abuse of child domestic laborers—including sexual abuse—to be a significant problem. A 2002 study found that Lesotho was home to more than 70,000 AIDS orphans.