Lesotho was settled by the Sotho people sometime in the 16th century, mingling peacefully with the earlier Khoisan whose history can be traced in rock-art in various sites in the mountains. The Basotho were welded into a nation relatively recently by one outstanding leader. Around 1820, Moshoeshoe I, a minor chief of the Bakwena, gathered a following among the tribes who had retreated to the north-western borders of present-day Lesotho to protect themselves against Zulu and Matabele raids. Despite his limited military power, Moshoeshoe’s diplomatic skills allowed the kingdom he created to long outlive those of his much stronger rivals. After successful resistance from his stronghold at Thaba Bosiu near Maseru in 1824, Moshoeshoe became chief of the local Basotho and other tribal groups, his following then numbering some 40,000. He was also successful at establishing good relationships with missionaries, especially French Catholics, whom he encouraged to establish missions and schools, and to advise him on negotiations with Europeans.
A new threat then emerged: the emigrant Boers set out on their Great Trek in 1834, in search of new territory. Moshoeshoe sought the protection of the British Crown – an alternative he preferred to annexation by the Boers, then establishing their Republic of the Orange Free State. In 1868 Basutoland (as the country was then called) was granted British protection. The frontiers, substantially unchanged today, were laid down in 1869.
Moshoeshoe died in 1870 and disputes over the succession divided the country. From 1870, migrant Basotho workers had begun working in the Kimberly diamond fields of the Cape. In 1871 Basutoland was annexed to the Cape Colony but, in 1884, it was removed from Cape control and came under direct British rule. It resisted incorporation into the proposed Union of South Africa in 1910; division along racial lines was already entrenched and Basutoland preferred to remain a British colony. The Basutoland Council was then set up as an advisory body and included 99 nominated members, around half of whom subsequently became elected members.
In 1960, a legislature, the Basutoland National Council, was formed and five years later a new constitution came into operation. Moshoeshoe II, Paramount Chief from 1960, became king. The legislature, until then unicameral, became bicameral.
Elections were held in 1965, in which the Basotho National Party (BNP) led by Chief Leabua Jonathan, narrowly defeated the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP). Lesotho became independent on 4 October 1966 with Chief Jonathan as Prime Minister, and joined the Commonwealth.
Relations between the King and the country’s first Prime Minister soon became strained, and in 1970, Chief Jonathan annulled the country’s second elections and suspended the constitution. He exiled the King (later allowing him to return but not to become involved in politics) and repressed opposition; but he was himself overthrown in a military coup in 1986, led by Major-General Justin Lekhanya. Lekhanya then reinstated the King, who was to govern on the advice of a military council; but in 1990 Lekhanya had half the military council arrested and nine ministers dismissed. The King was sent into exile and, in absentia, deposed in favour of his son, Letsie III, who was sworn in as monarch in November 1990.
Following the coup of 1986, the Lekhanya government remained in power for five years, but never achieved stability. Lekhanya was himself overthrown in a bloodless coup by his second-in- command, Elias Phitsoane Ramaema, in 1991. Ramaema repealed the ban on political activity, introduced a new constitution (effectively restoring the old one), and scheduled elections. At the elections, in March 1993, with Commonwealth and other international observers present, the BCP, led by Dr Ntsu Mokhehle, won all 65 seats in the new National Assembly leaving Jonathan’s BNP without representation in the house.
King Letsie III then abdicated in favour of his father, King Moshoeshoe II, who had returned from London following a reconciliation process assisted by the Commonwealth Secretary- General. He was reinstated as monarch in January 1995. But almost exactly one year later, King Moshoeshoe was killed in a car accident. King Letsie III was sworn in for the second time by the College of Chiefs on 7 February 1996.
The BCP lost its majority and joined the opposition in mid-1997 when many of its members including Prime Minister Mokhehle defected to the newly established Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD). In the general election in May 1998 the LCD won 79 of the 80 National Assembly seats with just over 60 per cent of the votes. The BNP took one seat with 24 per cent of the votes. Following the elections the LCD chose Bethuel Pakalitha Mosisili, the party leader, to succeed 79-year-old Ntsu Mokhehle as Prime Minister.
However, the opposition parties refused to accept the election results, alleging that there had been gross irregularities. An increasingly vigorous campaign of protest reached a peak in August 1998. Stay-away strikes were organised and crowds first gathered at and then camped in front of the Royal Palace in Maseru. Following the intervention of the then South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, a team of Botswanan, South African and Zimbabwean experts under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and chaired by a South African judge, Pius Langa, was sent to Lesotho to investigate the allegations.
After conducting hearings in Maseru and a re-count of the votes, the Langa Commission delivered an inconclusive report, which failed to settle the dispute. Further talks between the governing and opposition parties were attempted. But before progress could be made, parts of the Lesotho Defence Forces (LDF) mutinied and, with the security situation in Lesotho deteriorating, the LCD government called on SADC for assistance.
On 22 September 1998 a South African-led SADC force entered Lesotho in response to the government’s appeal. After several days of fighting between the SADC force and elements in the LDF, resulting in at least 80 deaths and large-scale looting in Maseru, the situation was eventually stabilised.
The South African military contingent was reduced in size in December 1998 and completely withdrawn in May 1999. In December 1998, an inter-party committee was established to oversee preparations for new elections within 18 months. However, it then took a long time for agreement to be reached between the political parties on the number of proportional representation seats and the arrangements for voter registration, and the elections were delayed. When finally approved by parliament, the legislation allowed for 80 seats on a first-past- the-post basis and further 40 seats by means of proportional representation.