Partners in Conflict in Lesotho

The project began in 2001 as a partnership initiative between the National University of Lesotho's Department of Political and Administrative Studies (NUL-PAS) and the University of Maryland's Center for International Development and Conflict Management (UMD-CIDCM), in response to a request for help from then Lesotho Ambassador to the United States, Dr. Lebohang K. Moleko. Primary funding through 2003 was provided by the U.S. Government's Education for Democracy and Development Initiative (EDDI).
The initial project director at NUL-PAS, Dr. Pontso Sekatle, became a government minister later in 2001 and was ably replaced by the late Mr. Koroloso Lekhesa. Other primary partners included `Mamphekeleli Sophy Hoohlo, Fako Johnson Likoti, Khali Mofuoa, Thato Molapo, Vuyelwa Ntoi, and `Mamochaki Shale at NUL, along with `Mamajara Lehloenya, Moeketse Masoleng, and Victor Shale at the Ministry of Local Government under Minister Sekatle. Several of these partners have been able to find additional funding to continue to build on the initial work of the partnership, allowing continuing work in applied conflict management, research and adapting the instructional aspects to bring the program to the high school level, with CIDCM partners continuing to consult as needed.
The project was designed to address chronic political problems that have beset Lesotho's transition toward democratic governance, recently reflected in extensive post-election violence and coercive diplomacy by the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1998. Our data on risk factors (Peace and Conflict 2001) placed Lesotho at high risk (low peacebuilding capacity), due in large part to its fragile transitional democratic status, along with endemic poverty. Our initial needs and capacity assessment highlighted four systemic political issues exacerbating the obvious economic problems of poverty, land scarcity, and dependence on South Africa, which posed serious challenges for sustainable democracy in Lesotho. These four issues are as follows:
  • persistent inter-party conflict, reflecting a highly contentious, zero-sum, litigious attitude to issues of power and politics with little substantive policy debate;
  • persistent intra-party conflict, with parties organized around personalities, not policies, and lack of democratic, internal party mechanisms for managing conflicts, leading to frequent splits;
  • tensions between traditional and statutory leaders at the local government level, with chiefs' roles poorly defined as power flowed to interim community councils (appointed as a step toward the transition to elected local governments); and
  • tensions between principal chiefs and political parties especially over reform of the Senate, consisting of principal chiefs and the Prime Minister's (PM's) appointees.
Among the four areas of tension highlighted in our needs assessment in 2001, considerable international attention was being paid to the first, and to some extent the second, in coordination with a reformed Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Local public sector and civil society resources (such as the Lesotho Network for Conflict Management, LNCM) were similarly focused, with too little being done to address tensions between traditional and statutory leaders at any level, despite plans for moving quickly to institute elected local governance (replacing the traditional authority of the chiefs) following the 2002 national elections. Since we were receiving strong and persistent calls for help in addressing these latter tensions, especially at the local level, this soon became the primary focus of our work.
In focusing on tensions between chiefs and statutory leaders over local governance issues, the project adopted a bottom-up approach. Once National University of Lesotho (NUL) partners had received intensive training at the University of Maryland, and conflict management methodologies had been adapted by building on Basotho traditions, partners worked initially with local chiefs and interim councilors at the village level. We co-facilitated workshops in eight of the country's ten districts, working with residents and coordinating with the Ministry for Local Government to ensure participants met criteria designed to maximize impact (including gender balance, commitment, and capacity to apply new skills and bring new insights to their communities and organizations).
Success at this level led to requests to include police and district administrators, Ministry of Local Government (MLG) officials, and civil society organizations (CSOs) with responsibilities related to conflict at the community level. While we had held some initial workshops with political party representatives to help prepare for the 2002 national elections, it was our success in engaging at the local level that led to pressure to include members of parliament, party leaders, principal chiefs, more senior ministry officials and police, and IEC commissioners, allowing us to directly engage representatives of all key stakeholder groups relevant to tensions over proposed local government reforms. Thus it became possible to achieve consensus agreements on how to prepare the ground for a smooth transfer from traditional to elected local government.
Project outcomes are highlighted below. Sustained follow-up to the agreements was assured by including a skills-building component in all workshops, so participants left not only with a consensus agreement on approaching the issues and action plans on how to implement them, but also with the ability and empowerment to continue actively managing new tensions that inevitably arise during the implementation process. Specific support was also given for senior MLG officials in action planning and implementation, and other follow-up workshops were designed to strengthen capacity, particularly for police and chiefs, to manage local conflicts during and following the transition period.
Credit for the successes listed belongs to the participants, who had the courage and dedication to work through the issues and the challenges of making and implementing consensus agreements and applying acquired skills, as well as to the many other dedicated individuals and groups in and out of government (including the International Electoral Commission, civil society organizations, church representatives, police, chiefs, councilors, ministry officials, and elected leaders) that contributed to overlapping goals in parallel with this initiative. The project, which was conceived and driven from Lesotho, demonstrates both the value and the challenges of multi-track diplomacy in engaging both informal and formal leaders at all levels to address conflict issues in an unstable, high-risk, transitional political environment, to prevent violence and promote political development through inclusive problem-solving and building capacity for a sustainable democratic peace.
Highlights of the Project's Successes:
  • Modest contribution toward the wide acceptance of the 2002 national election results by opposition parties, reflecting an unprecedented level of cooperative relations among political parties;
  • Consensus agreements among political party leaders, principal chiefs, senior police, and senior national and district administrators on how to ensure success in the first-ever local government elections nationwide;
  • Substantial contribution to the success of the first-ever local government elections in 2005, and a smooth and non-violent democratic transition of power from chiefs to local councils;
  • Training in conflict management, prevention, and peacebuilding for more than 700 national and community leaders, including leaders of all political parties represented in parliament (including the Prime Minister), principal and local chiefs, senior police, senior ministry officials, heads of all ten district administrations, community council members, women leaders, and CSO professionals;
  • Resolution of several community conflicts at the village level and up (including water and boundary disputes, land use and cattle stealing, jurisdictional disputes between chiefs and councils or ministry officials, and community disputes), helping to reduce both criminal behavior and the number of civil court cases, strengthening the new community councils and helping chiefs to adapt by professionalizing their role as community mediators and peace officers;
  • Initial establishment of the National University of Lesotho's Moshoeshoe Centre for Diplomacy and Conflict Transformation, and continuing work by NUL partners with independent funding, including research assessing the impact of the project and related conflict management work; conflict management education and training for teachers and students in high schools (five so far); professional mediation training programs; and plans to expand training for youth in and out of schools (unfortunately, changes in government policies cancelled NUL's new development plan, forcing the closure of the center (along with other new research centers) soon afterwards -- NUL partners are now working to re-establish it);
  • Evaluation showing almost all participants benefited, reporting improved tolerance, communication, and ability to deal with conflict impartially and constructively, and to apply conflict management life skills within their communities and organizations; and
  • Peacebuilding capacity national rating for Lesotho raised from weak (2001) to moderate (2005) in the Peace and Conflict biennial ratings.
A fuller account of the project (co-authored by John Davies, Wubalem Fekade, `Mamphekeleli Sophy Hoohlo, Edy Kaufman, and `Mamochaki Shale) is soon to be published as part of an edited volume by the Alliance for Peacebuilding.