Lesotho | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Lesotho

Lesotho

Partly Free
63/100
Overview: 

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 restricts women’s rights in areas such as property, inheritance, and marriage and divorce.

Key Developments: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In May, Lesotho’s Constitutional Court declared criminal defamation unconstitutional, which was viewed by analysts as an important step forward for press freedom.
  • In September, King Letsie III suspended Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane. The suspension was ostensibly based on a controversial rental transaction involving Majara and her alleged mismanagement of the court, but civil society groups argued that the move was politically motivated.
  • Former deputy prime minister Mothetjoa Metsing of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), who fled Lesotho for South Africa along with other opposition politicians in 2017 and faced potential corruption charges, returned to the country in November. His return followed the signing of an agreement to participate in a governance reform process facilitated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which stated that he would not face any criminal charges while the reforms were ongoing. However, Metsing again fled for South Africa in December, after the Constitutional Court struck down the agreement, making him once more vulnerable to prosecution.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 27 / 40

A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 10 / 12

A1.      Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4

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. Thomas Thabane became prime minister after his All Basotho Convention (ABC) won snap elections in 2017. Thabane, a fixture in the country’s politics, had 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.

A2.      Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4

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. The development triggered the third round of legislative elections held since 2012. Election observers declared the elections peaceful, generally well administered and competitive. However, some isolated instances of political violence were noted, as was a heavy security presence at many polling places, which electoral officials said intimidated some voters. Thabane’s ABC won a plurality of seats and formed a coalition government.

A3.      Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4

Although the 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. In 2017, international election observer missions broadly commended the IEC’s administration of the snap polls, but noted deficiencies they linked to the body’s lack of capacity, including late disbursement of campaign funds to political parties.

B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 11 / 16

B1.      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 / 4

Political parties may form freely and are allocated funding by the IEC, and 27 parties contested the 2017 elections. 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.

B2.      Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4

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. In 2017, a number of opposition politicians, including former deputy prime minister Mothetjoa Metsing of the LCD, fled for South Africa. Metsing claimed that he feared for his life, but the government said he fled to escape potential corruption charges and sought his extradition. In November 2018, Metsing returned to Lesotho after signing an agreement to participate in a governance reform process facilitated by the SADC, which stated that he would not face any criminal charges while the reforms were ongoing. However, Metsing again fled for South Africa in December, after the Constitutional Court struck down the agreement, once more making him vulnerable to prosecution.

B3.      Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4

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 elections was questioned, no instances of interference with voters were reported. 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 has made large donations to most of the country’s political parties. Critics argue that Yan’s financial clout has given him considerable influence over the country’s political elites, exemplified by his 2017 appointment as “head of special projects and the prime minister’s special envoy and trade adviser on the China-Asia trade network.”

B4.      Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4

The constitution guarantees political rights for all. However, societal norms discourage women from running for office, and women remain underrepresented in Parliament; following the 2017 elections, 23 percent of seats are held by women, down from 25 percent previously. The inaccessibility of some polling stations to persons living with disabilities was raised as a concern during the 2017 elections. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) individuals generally face societal discrimination, and this discourages them from advocating for their rights in the political sphere.

C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 6 / 12

C1.      Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4

While elections are held without delays and representatives are duly seated, persistent political instability disrupts normal government operations.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4

Official corruption and impunity remains a problem. The main anticorruption agency, the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO), lacks full prosecutorial powers, and faces capacity and funding challenges. Despite its shortcomings, DCEO officers do work to fulfill the body’s mandate. In 2018, it pursued several controversial cases that involved high-ranking government officials. In February, for example, the DCEO opened an investigation into Prime Minister Thabane over corruption allegations involving the powerful Gupta family’s mining interests in Lesotho.

The Asset Forfeiture Unit, which was established in 2016 to recover property connected to corruption cases, had only four people on its staff as of June, hampering its effectiveness.

C3.      Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4

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.

CIVIL LIBERTIES: 36 / 60 (−1)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 12 / 16

D1.      Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4

Freedom of the press is only indirectly protected under constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. Journalists are subject to threats and intimidation from both authorities and private citizens. Both state and private media stand accused of being openly biased. In August 2018, the management of a privately owned radio station, MoAfrika, was summoned to a hearing by Lesotho's Broadcasting Dispute Resolution Panel (BDRP) following government complaints about its critical reporting on state affairs. Also in August, Ts’epang Makakula, one of the station’s reporters, was arrested while reporting on a strike by factory workers in the town of Maputsoe. The BDRP then fined the station in October over a program that was critical of the communications minister.

In May, the Constitutional Court declared criminal defamation laws unconstitutional, in a positive step for press freedom.

D2.      Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4

The constitution provides legal protections for freedom of religion and prohibits religious discrimination, and religious freedom is generally upheld in practice.

D3.      Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4

Academic freedom is generally respected in practice. However, in November 2018, the National University of Lesotho suspended student leader Thabang Rapapa for two years, for allegedly instigating riots that broke out in August over delays in the disbursement of student allowances. Rapapa denied instigating the unrest.

D4.      Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4

The constitution provides legal protections for freedom of expression. However, political violence in recent years has discouraged some open political debate.

E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 7 / 12

E1.      Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4

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.

E2.      Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally operate without restrictions. However, some civil society groups act cautiously when working on politically sensitive issues.

E3.      Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4

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 also been accused of undermining bodies like the National Advisory Committee on Labour (NACOLA), Wages Advisory Board, and Industrial Relations Council. Many employees in the textile sector—Lesotho’s largest formal employer—face obstacles when attempting to join unions. In October 2018, authorities suspended the Lesotho Police Staff Association (LEPOSA) “for security purposes.”

In August, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a protest organized by striking factory workers near Maseru.

F. RULE OF LAW: 8 / 16 (−1)

F1.       Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4 (−1)

The constitution protects judicial independence, but the judiciary remains underresourced and some appointments have been criticized. The 2017 reappointment of Justice Kananelo Mosito as head of the Court of Appeal raised questions among many observers, as he had resigned earlier that year to avoid impeachment over allegations of tax evasion. In February 2018, the High Court nullified his appointment, but the decision was overturned in October by the Court of Appeal.

In September, King Letsie III suspended Chief Justice Nthomeng Majara, on the recommendation of Prime Minister Thabane. The suspension was ostensibly based on a controversial rental transaction involving Majara and her alleged mismanagement of the court, but civil society groups argued that the move was politically motivated. The suspension also defied two orders by the High Court issued in May, which had ruled that the government could not take any action against Majara.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4

Courts uphold fair trial rights in most judiciary proceedings. However, the large backlog of cases often leads to trial delays and lengthy pretrial detention. The shortage of judicial officers has aggravated the situation, and by late 2018, the backlog numbered over 3,000 cases. In July, Amnesty International expressed concern about repeated delays in the trial of five soldiers implicated in the 2016 attempted murder of Lesotho Times editor Lloyd Mutungamiri. At year’s end, the trial had still not commenced.

The Court of Appeal did not convene between April 2017 and November 2018 due to the litigation surrounding Mosito’s appointment. Officials within the criminal justice system have also faced intimidation.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

Following years of violence related to factional disputes in the army, in July 2018, the SADC appointed a facilitation team to work with the government on a reform process that includes comprehensive security-sector reform. The reforms are intended to end the upheavals and instability that has plagued the military for years, in addition to addressing the human rights violations committed by the LDF, including extrajudicial executions.

Although the constitution provides legal protections against torture, allegations of torture have been levelled against the police, LDF, and prison authorities. In April, some opposition parties petitioned the ombudsman to review allegations of torture and address impunity. Prison conditions are inadequate and detainees are subject to physical abuse.

F4.       Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4

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. 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.

G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 9 / 16

G1.      Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4

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.

G2.      Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4

The constitution protects property rights, though in practice the related laws are inconsistently upheld. Customary practice and law still restricts 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 unlikely, and subject to fair compensation. Government instability and the country’s volatile politics hampers normal business activity.

G3.      Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

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.

G4.      Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4

Human trafficking also remains an ongoing challenge for Lesotho. The US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons Report found Lesotho’s legal framework for prosecuting human trafficking to be weak, without strong penalties to serve as a deterrent. 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.