Sang Tan/AP/File
Former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses young people at the One Young World, World Summit at Old Billingsgate in London in this file photo.

Bishop Tutu urges peace in upcoming Lesotho elections

Political violence has flared ahead of May 26 Lesotho elections, but Archbishop Desmond Tutu urges candidates to keep the peace and respect election results. 

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.

Think you know Africa? Take our quiz 

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.

In response, Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili encouraged supporters to “retaliate with all your might” if attacked, while the Lesotho military has vowed to “hit very hard” any provocateurs.

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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Bishop Tutu urges peace in upcoming Lesotho elections
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today