Africa

The characters at the heart of Lesotho's murder drama

The wedding of the prime minister and Maesaiah Image copyright The Post
Image caption Prime Minister Thomas Thabane married Maesaiah at a public ceremony in 2017

The wife of the prime minister of Lesotho has been formally charged in court with murdering his previous wife.

It is the latest twist in a story that has garnered huge international interest with its mix of power and intrigue.

But who are the four characters at the centre of this drama?

Maesaiah Thabane - the accused

Image copyright AFP

Many years ago, she gave up a village life to go and find work in the capital, Maseru.

This is where the 42-year-old met her future husband, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, who is nearly twice her age.

Sometime after Mr Thabane had separated from his then-wife Lipolelo Thabane in 2012, Maesaiah began living with him and took on the duties of a first lady.

In 2017, a colourfully dressed Maesaiah accompanied him to his inauguration for a second term as prime minister. This was just two days after Lipolelo was gunned down.

Two months later she became Mr Thabane's third wife, marrying the prime minister in a Catholic ceremony held at a packed stadium in Maseru.

Since then, Maesaiah has been repeatedly accused of having undue influence over the government, accusations that her husband has denied.

Last month, her fortunes changed dramatically. She became a fugitive from justice, wanted in connection with the murder of Lipolelo.

Maesaiah had gone into hiding, and was believed to have spent most of her time in neighbouring South Africa, which completely surrounds Lesotho.

She eventually surrendered to police, and appeared in court on Wednesday.

She has not yet been asked to plead to the murder charge, and has been granted bail.

Lipolelo Thabane - the victim

Image copyright Lesotho Times

According to a friend, she was the exact opposite of the woman accused of murdering her - a quiet and unassuming woman who played the role of a traditional housewife.

"She accommodated all the Thabane clan and family, and adopted the four children from the prime minister's first marriage. One child was autistic. She raised all of them and gave them the best schooling," said the friend, who spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity.

Lipolelo proved to be a fighter when Mr Thabane filed for divorce, challenging the decision in court.

"She was prepared to accept that he had another woman, but divorce was out of the question because she did not want to lose the benefits that come with being a first lady," the friend added.

Her life ended brutally on 14 June 2017 at the age of 58. She was shot dead at close range on the side of a dirt road while returning to her home in the small village of Ha'Masana on the outskirts of Maseru.

At the time of her death, she was still fighting divorce proceedings, even though she had been living apart from her husband for five years.

Two years earlier, during her husband's first term in office, she had won a court battle to continue to be recognised as Lesotho's first lady.

A court overturned an instruction Mr Thabane gave to his officials to cancel Lipolelo's spousal benefits and instead offer them to Maesaiah, who had been living with the prime minster as if she was his wife.

Thomas Thabane - the husband

Image copyright AFP

Prime Minister Thabane, 80, is known as a strategic operator but did not anticipate this scandal that may spell the end of his political career.

He has also been questioned in connection with Lipolelo's murder but has made no comment on the case. In 2017, he described it as a "senseless killing".

He divorced his first wife, Yayi, before marrying Lipolelo and then Maesaiah.

Mr Thabane is one of the continent's oldest leaders and has spent most of his working life as a politician.

No stranger to political rivalry, Mr Thabane once fled to South Africa, alleging a coup plot by the military and had to be escorted back by the police to the mountain kingdom.

But now his party, the All Basotho Convention, has called on him to step down in the wake of the murder investigation.

Mr Thabane has agreed to resign but said it was because of his age and made no link with the investigation.

The BBC contacted government officials for comment but they were unwilling to take questions on the matter. A spokesman for the prime minister's party said: "The matter has not been addressed."

Holomo Molibeli - the policeman

He is Lesotho's most senior policeman, and it is his investigation that has placed the prime minister and his current wife at the centre of a murder case that could bring about their downfall.

He implicated the couple in court papers filed to stop Mr Thabane from removing him from his post.

Court documents seen by the AFP news agency contained a letter from Mr Molibeli to the prime minister dated 23 December 2019.

In it he wrote: "The investigations [into the murder] reveal that there was a telephonic communication at the scene of the crime in question... with another cell phone... The cell phone number belongs to you."

But Mr Thabane has in turn accused Mr Molibeli of presiding over a brutal police force saying that was the reason he wanted him gone.

The court ruled in the commissioner's favour.

Mr Molibeli has described the murder case as one of the most dangerous and complex he has worked on in his 30 years of policing. He said his life had been threatened.

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