Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-Apartheid activist and Nobel laureate, is officially retired from public life.
But he made an exception Friday for the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
Political violence in the enclave encircled by South Africa has flared up ahead of May 26 elections – an ominous sign in what one analyst calls the latest “stress test” for democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Cracks have emerged here with high-profile assassinations, rumors of a “hit squad,” and clashes at campaign rallies.
So the United Nations invited Archbishop Tutu to bolster democracy in the land, where, before launching his crusade against Apartheid next door, he served his first bishopric from 1976-78. On Friday, his “prayer meeting” extracted a pledge among political rivals to keep the peace and respect election results.
Citing the past political violence of South Africa, Tutu urged an audience that included the prime minister of Lesotho, “Please, please, please, please do not let the same happen to this stunningly beautiful land. Nothing can be so precious that it can be bought with innocent lives.”
Lesotho’s election is more than a contested vote in a remote country rarely heard from. It comes on the heels of successful elections across the continent: Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia have recently all experienced peaceful elections. There have been a few notable blemishes: a couple of coups des états in Mali and Guinea-Bissau, and a contested election in Cote D'Ivoire in late 2010 that briefly turned into a civil war.
The “democracy dividend” of those peaceful elections, the Brookings Institution recently observed, has seen triumphant African states “rewarded by the international community and the private sector through increased investments in durable infrastructure that directly contribute to faster growth.”
US Ambassador to Lesotho, Michele Thoren Bond, adds, “A hard-fought, transparent, credible election here in Lesotho reinforces the fact that this is becoming the norm, rather than the exception, in Africa.”
In the mono-ethnic, mono-lingual country of Lesotho – almost entirely comprised of the Sesotho-speaking Basotho tribe – there’s less a focus on the carrot-and-stick diplomacy of outsiders than an emphasis on nurturing home-grown mediation between the feuding factions. It’s led by a coalition of churches and cultivated by the UN, which has invested heavily in technical assistance.
External interventions routinely foster resentment with locals and prove unsustainable, said UN Resident Coordinator in Lesotho Ahunna Eziakonwa-Onochie.
“The Basotho are a very proud nation and believe in their ability to solve their own problems,” Eziakonwa-Onochie said after Tutu’s speech. “But if there was anyone from the outside who could come and be acceptable to all parties, it was Bishop Tutu, who loves Lesotho like a second home.”
Nevertheless, many Basotho in the capital, Maseru, openly worry that the political process is slowing unraveling and may descend into the spasms of violence that have marked modern Lesotho.
For centuries, the Basotho were simple herders and subsistence farmers, dwelling at Africa’s highest altitude, expressing a fervent wish for “Khotso, Pula, Nala” – Peace, Rain, Prosperity.
Independence from Britain in 1966 was followed by heavy-handed rule, then a military coup, and uneasy constitutional monarchy. Accusations of vote-rigging spurred violence in 1998, and South Africa invaded with 700 troops. Dozens of South Africans and Basotho were reportedly killed, and arsonists targeted South African-owned shops in Maseru and elsewhere.
Against this backdrop of political volatility, a nation of 2 million has deteriorated, suffering the world’s third-highest rate of HIV infection and 40 percent malnutrition among children. Beaten down by poverty and HIV, agitating for democracy seems a luxury.
Meanwhile, more unrest followed the 2007 elections. Over the past two years, the UN has guided the authorities toward passage of a new electoral law, which enshrined compromise and power-sharing. Yet recent months have seen a return to a win-at-all-costs ethos.
Several politicians have been gunned down, and the March 29 slaying of a renowned radio presenter, Thabang Moliko, sent a shudder through journalists and civil society. Marafaele Mokhoboli, one of Lesotho’s peskiest reporters and president of the Lesotho Association of Journalists, told the Monitor this month “my bags are packed – just in case. You can never relax and sit back here, because you never know when they may hit you.”
Some Basotho said last week they fear a return to the trauma of 1998, especially after the April 19 clashes at a pro-government rally, when opposition activists rushed at the incumbents and were beaten by baton-wielding security. Ten Basotho were reportedly hospitalized.
So much for the country’s new “code of conduct” law, say some Basotho.
“The sides keep breaching, breaching and breaching it,” says one government worker, who frets that her ministry may be targeted for retribution by post-election rioters, as it was in 1998. “It feels like the situation is getting worse and worse every day.”
Yet some ordinary Basotho hold out hope that democracy will prevail. “The Basotho are a peaceful nation, who only want to walk in peace and sleep in peace,” said Anna, a 62-year-old housekeeper in the capital. “If a party makes promises you don’t like, choose another party. We must respect different opinions.”
Enter Bishop Tutu, the octogenarian orator who charmed his audience by mixing in large doses of Sesotho. He also conjured images of the African killing fields of Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Darfur region of Sudan.
“I’ve been to all these places – please don’t add Lesotho to this list,” he implored, before a final pitch to all parties to approach, one by one, to sign his vow of peace – which they did, including Mosisili. “Whoever does not take this pledge, does not love Lesotho – and does not deserve to be its leader.”