Lowdown on Lesotho, Africa's kingdom in the sky

AFP
File photo shows members of the Lesotho military on patrol in the capital Maseru, on September 17, 1999
File photo shows members of the Lesotho military on patrol in the capital Maseru, on September 17, 1999 (AFP Photo/Walter Dhladhla)

Maseru (Lesotho) (AFP) - Basic facts about the southern African state of Lesotho, where Prime Minister Tom Thabane said the military had seized power in a coup Saturday, sending him fleeing to South Africa:

- GEOGRAPHY: Lesotho has the particularity of being not only landlocked but also being surrounded on all sides by the territory of just one other state, South Africa. At 30,355 square kilometres (11,720 square miles), it is the same size as Belgium.

The terrain is mountainous and the climate continental, with cold, dry winters and hot summers. It styles itself as the "Kingdom in the Sky".

- POPULATION: 2.074 million in 2013 (World Bank).

- CAPITAL: Maseru.

- LANGUAGES: English and Sesotho.

- RELIGION: 80 percent Christian.

- HISTORY: In colonial times the country was a British protectorate known as Basutoland. It achieved independence in 1966 as a constitutional monarchy under King Moshoeshoe II, with Chief Leabua Jonathan as prime minister.

In 1970, when elections showed that an opposition party had defeated him, Jonathan suspended the constitution and the king went into exile.

Despite Lesotho's complete dependence on South Africa, Jonathan was hostile to the then-apartheid regime, and in 1982 South African forces mounted a raid on the capital, Maseru.

Four years later the Jonathan regime was ousted in a coup; after several more years of instability the country adopted a new constitution and held democratic elections in 1993.

A year later, the end of the white-minority regime in South Africa eased Lesotho's isolation somewhat.

In 1998, the country was again rocked by a severe political crisis, which led to military intervention by troops from South Africa and Botswana, under a mandate from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The current monarch is King Letsie III, the son of Moshoeshoe II.

- POLITICAL SYSTEM: The Lesotho parliament has 120 members elected every five years. Eighty members represent single-seat constituencies, and the remaining 40 are elected by proportional representation.

Prime Minister Tom Thabane took power after his All Basotho Convention, the Lesotho Congress for Democracy and smaller parties formed a coalition following elections in 2012.

But in two years of coalition rule Thabane has been criticised for being authoritarian. Earlier this year his deputy prime minister, Mothetjoa Metsing from the LCD, vowed to form a new government.

Thabane suspended parliament, but the parties patched up the coalition thanks to mediation from a group of churches and regional bloc the Southern African Development Community in June.

- ECONOMY: Lesotho is one of the poorest countries in the world and its economy is heavily dependent on South Africa, to whom it exports water and hydroelectric power. Other significant exports include diamonds, wool and textiles.

Thousands of Basotho are employed in South Africa, and their remittances are a major source of revenue.

According to the World Bank, gross domestic product per capita stood at $1,075 in 2013.

On the United Nations Human Development Index, Lesotho ranked 162nd out of 187 countries rated in 2013, with an HDI rating of 0.486.

- HIV/AIDS: Around 24 percent of the population are infected with HIV or have AIDS -- one of the highest rates in the world. Only a fraction of those infected receive free antiretroviral drugs.

- OFFICIAL WEBSITE: www.gov.ls