Basutoland (now Lesotho--pronounced le-SOO-too) was sparsely populated by San bushmen (Qhuaique) until the end of the 16th century. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, refugees from surrounding areas gradually formed the Basotho ethnic group.
In 1818, Moshoeshoe I (pronounced mo-SHWAY-shway) consolidated various Basotho groupings and became their King. During Moshoeshoe's reign (1823-1870), a series of wars with South Africa (1856-68) resulted in the loss of extensive Basotho land, now known as the "Lost Territory." In order to protect his people, Moshoeshoe appealed to Queen Victoria for assistance, and in 1868 the land that is present-day Lesotho was placed under British protection. After a 1955 request by the Basutoland Council to legislate its internal affairs, in 1959, a new constitution gave Basutoland its first elected legislature. This was followed in April 1965 with general legislative elections with universal adult suffrage in which the Basotho National Party (BNP) won 31 and the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) won 25 of the 65 seats contested.
On October 4, 1966, the Kingdom of Lesotho attained full independence, governed by a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral parliament consisting of a Senate and an elected National Assembly. Early results of the first post-independence elections in January 1970 indicated that the BNP might lose control. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Chief Leabua Jonathan, the ruling Basotho National Party (BNP) refused to cede power to the rival Basotholand Congress Party (BCP), although the BCP was widely believed to have won the elections. Citing election irregularities, Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan nullified the elections, declared a national state of emergency, suspended the constitution, and dissolved the Parliament. In 1973, an appointed Interim National Assembly was established. With an overwhelming progovernment majority, it was largely the instrument of the BNP, led by Prime Minister Jonathan. In addition to the Jonathan regime's alienation of Basotho powerbrokers and the local population, South Africa had virtually closed the country's land borders because of Lesotho support of cross-border operations of the African National Congress (ANC). Moreover, South Africa publicly threatened to pursue more direct action against Lesotho if the Jonathan government did not root out the ANC presence in the country. This internal and external opposition to the government combined to produce violence and internal disorder in Lesotho that eventually led to a military takeover in 1986.
Under a January 1986 Military Council decree, state executive and legislative powers were transferred to the King who was to act on the advice of the Military Council, a self-appointed group of leaders of the Royal Lesotho Defense Force (RLDF). A military government chaired by Justin Lekhanya ruled Lesotho in coordination with King Moshoeshoe II and a civilian cabinet appointed by the King.
In February 1990, King Moshoeshoe II was stripped of his executive and legislative powers and exiled by Lekhanya, and the Council of Ministers was purged. Lekhanya accused those involved of undermining discipline within the armed forces, subverting existing authority, and causing an impasse on foreign policy that had been damaging to Lesotho's image abroad. Lekhanya announced the establishment of the National Constituent Assembly to formulate a new constitution for Lesotho with the aim of returning the country to democratic, civilian rule by June 1992. Before this transition, however, Lekhanya was ousted in 1991 by a mutiny of junior army officers that left Phisoane Ramaema as Chairman of the Military Council.
Because Moshoeshoe II initially refused to return to Lesotho under the new rules of the government in which the King was endowed only with ceremonial powers, Moshoeshoe's son was installed as King Letsie III. In 1992, Moshoeshoe II returned to Lesotho as a regular citizen until 1995 when King Letsie abdicated the throne in favor of his father. After Moshoeshoe II died in a car accident in 1996, King Letsie III ascended to the throne again.
In 1993, a new constitution was implemented leaving the King without any executive authority and proscribing him from engaging in political affairs. Multiparty elections were then held in which the BCP ascended to power with a landslide victory. Prime Minister Ntsu Mokhehle headed the new BCP government that had gained every seat in the 65-member National Assembly. In early 1994, political instability increased as first the army, followed by the police and prisons services, engaged in mutinies. In August 1994, King Letsie III, in collaboration with some members of the military, staged a coup, suspended Parliament, and appointed a ruling council. As a result of domestic and international pressures, however, the constitutionally elected government was restored within a month.
In 1995, there were isolated incidents of unrest, including a police strike in May to demand higher wages. For the most part, however, there were no serious challenges to Lesotho's constitutional order in the 1995-96 period. In January 1997, armed soldiers put down a violent police mutiny and arrested the mutineers.
In 1997, tension within the BCP leadership caused a split in which Dr. Mokhehle abandoned the BCP and established the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) followed by two-thirds of the parliament. This move allowed Mokhehle to remain as Prime Minister and leader of a new ruling party, while relegating the BCP to opposition status. The remaining members of the BCP refused to accept their new status as the opposition party and ceased attending sessions. Multiparty elections were again held in May 1998.
Although Mokhehle completed his term as Prime Minister, due to his failing health, he did not vie for a second term in office. The elections saw a landslide victory for the LCD, gaining 79 of the 80 seats contested in the newly expanded Parliament. As a result of the elections, Mokhehle's Deputy Prime Minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, became the new Prime Minister. The landslide electoral victory caused opposition parties to claim that there were substantial irregularities in the handling of the ballots and that the results were fraudulent. The conclusion of the Langa Commission, a commission appointed by SADC to investigate the electoral process, however, was consistent with the view of international observers and local courts that the outcome of the elections was not affected by these incidents. Despite the fact that the election results were found to reflect the will of the people, opposition protests in the country intensified. The protests culminated in a violent demonstration outside the royal palace in early August 1998 and in an unprecedented level of violence, looting, casualties, and destruction of property. In early September, junior members of the armed services mutinied. The Government of Lesotho requested that a SADC task force intervene to prevent a military coup and restore stability to the country. To this end, Operation Boleas, consisting of South African and Botswanan troops, entered Lesotho on September 22, 1998 to put down the mutiny and restore the democratically elected government.
After stability returned to Lesotho, the SADC task force withdrew from the country in May 1999, leaving only a small task force (joined by Zimbabwean troops) to provide training to the LDF. In the meantime, an Interim Political Authority (IPA), charged with reviewing the electoral structure in the country, was created in December 1998. The army mutineers were brought before a court martial. In general, Lesotho's political situation has stabilized substantially, and the next elections are expected to take place in 2000.