Who is Tom Thabane? And what next for Lesotho?

The last transfer of power in Lesotho to Pakalitha Mosisili in 1998 ended in riots and violence by opposition supporters who did not believe that Mosisili’s party had truly won a crushing victory in the 1997 election — although the vote largely reflected the will of the people, the crisis ended only with international intervention from South Africa.

So with word that Mosisili has given up hope to form a coalition headed by his breakaway Democratic Congress party, the path seems clear for an orderly — and peaceful — transfer of power from Mosisili to Tom Thabane, former foreign minister and one-time protegé of Mosisili, later this week.

In the parliamentary election on May 26, Democratic Congress — a party formed only in February 2012 as a splinter from Mosisili’s longstanding Lesotho Congress for Democracy party — won 48 seats.  The Lesotho Congress for Democracy, under Mothetjoa Metsing, won just 26 seats, as somewhat of an evolved protest group, while Thabane’s All Basotho Convention won 30 seats.

Together with the Basotho National Party, the LCD and the ABC are expected to form a coalition under Thabane.

The peaceful transfer of power in the small mountainous country (it’s surrounded entirely by the national of South Africa) comes just after a remarkably similar transfer in Senegal earlier this year.  As in Senegal, the transfer from Mosisili to Thabane is expected to be marked more by continuity than by rupture.

Lesotho, which notched a GDP growth rate of around 2.5% throughout the prior decade, has benefitted from its strong relationship to the powerful South African economy — in particular, it has benefitted from exporting textiles to South Africa.  The country is also rich in two natural resources: diamonds and water — in 2004, Mosisili notably launched the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to boost the export of water to South Africa.

The major issues in the election were not unlike issues throughout the rest of southern Africa.  Lesotho’s HIV/AIDS rate is estimated to be around 25%, (although Mosisili’s governments worked to push for universal HIV testing and free anti-retroviral drugs).  Poverty is widespread in a country that’s taken an economic hit in the wake of the global downturn and fewer job opportunities in South Africa, despite Mosisili’s efforts to introduce free education and pensions for the elderly (keep in mind, however, that life expectancy is around 52 years).  With a homogenous population of just 2 million, however, Lesotho has not been plagued with the sorts of inter-ethnic, tribal or racial tensions that have scarred much of sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa.

In particular, Thabane’s ABC, which has attracted much of its support in among the 25% of the Bosotho population that is urban-dwelling and not rural,  has focused on Basotho-Chinese tensions — Chinese traders in Lesotho are eroding Lesotho’s edge in textiles, causing a fair amount of disenchantment among the Basotho.

The challenge for Thabane and his government will be to find a path for Lesotho’s economy beyond textile exports, and to ensure that Lesotho continues to be part of a wave of economic growth that’s now hitting much of sub-Saharan Africa.  That Thabane will benefit from an orderly transfer of power following free and fair elections — in marked contrast to the 1998 riots — puts Lesotho within a small but growing subset of African countries with strengthening democratic norms and increased political stability.

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