Hours before she was shot dead on the outskirts of the capital, Lesotho’s former first lady, Lipolelo Thabane, made a surprising decision.
According to both a close friend and a well-connected businessman, she agreed to divorce her husband, Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, after years of refusing to make way for her rival.
With the blessing of that rival - Thabane’s current wife and first lady - the entrepreneur, Teboho Mojapela, met with Lipolelo on the day of her death to mediate.
“She said: ‘...I am ready to free him’,” Mojapela told Reuters. “‘I just want to be looked after.’”
The exchange was confirmed by her friend and confidante Thato Sibolla, who was present at the meeting.
Lipolelo’s change of heart, which has not previously been reported, adds a new twist to a scandal that has attracted rare international attention to Lesotho, the tiny kingdom of 2 million people tucked inside South Africa.
Gunmen ambushed Lipolelo, 58, in her car as she made her way home on the outskirts of the capital Maseru on June 14, 2017. Sibolla was with her in the vehicle.
Two days after the killing, Thabane, now 80, was sworn in for a second term. Two months later he married Lipolelo’s successor and one-time rival Maesaiah Liabiloe Ramoholi, now Maesaiah Thabane.
Police charged Maesaiah with Lipolelo’s murder in February and named Thabane as a suspect, although he has yet to be formally charged in court. They both deny any involvement.
In Thabane’s case, the high court must first decide whether he can be prosecuted while in office. The case has been postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although Lesotho remains one of a small number of nations yet to register a case.
Thabane’s own government is trying to force him from office before the end of July, when he said he was willing to step down. It is unclear if he will bow to their demands.
Thabane and his wife declined to be interviewed or respond to written questions while the case is pending, and their lawyers said they had been instructed not to speak to the press.
“He’s waiting for the police to lodge a complaint to court so that he can clear his name,” Thabane’s private secretary, Thabo Thakalekoala, said by telephone.
First lady Maesaiah also “wants to present her side of the story,” her adviser, Manama Letsie, told Reuters. “But she has already been found guilty in the public (opinion) court.”
The high-profile murder case has destabilised a country already in turmoil.
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Lesotho has seen four military coups since independence from Britain in 1966. South Africa, for whom this nation of jagged green mountains is an important source of tap water, is sometimes drawn in to help resolve upheavals, and it has stepped in as mediator in the latest crisis.
Thabane was an up-and-coming politician in the All Basotho Convention (ABC) party when he divorced his first wife, Yayi, and married Lipolelo in 1987.
By the time he became prime minister in 2012, he had filed for another divorce so he could marry Maesaiah.
Maesaiah had gone to court in 2015 to claim the right to be first lady on the basis of a 2012 so-called customary marriage – a practice common in a number of African countries that entitles a man to more than one wife.
She lost the case in 2015, on the grounds that Lipolelo was still married to Thabane.
“There was this perpetual animosity between them,” Lesotho’s Deputy Police Commissioner Paseka Mokete, in charge of the murder investigation, told Reuters.
Three days before the killing, a Sunday, Lipolelo asked Sibolla to call Mojapela, a politically connected businessman who had funded the ruling party’s election campaign.
Lipolelo seemed jumpy, was sleeping at friends’ houses and said she feared her life was in danger, Sibolla and a neighbour recalled.
Mojapela, a wealthy money-lender known to friends as J.P., was a friend of Thabane and Maesaiah, Sibolla said, and Lipolelo hoped he could mediate a truce between them.
Before meeting with Lipolelo, Mojapela says he sought the blessing of Thabane and Maesaiah. Maesaiah told him “by all means” mediate, he said, but do not expect the two women to meet face-to-face.
On Wednesday, Sibolla and Lipolelo set off in Lipolelo’s grey Chevrolet minivan to meet Mojapela at his lavish house, decked with Italian-style curtains and gilded furniture, in the South African border town of Ladybrand.
He told them Maesaiah wanted more than anything to be first lady. Lipolelo gave her assent.
After Lipolelo and Sibolla left, Mojapela headed back to Maseru, where he says he met Thabane and Maesaiah at the Fu Li Chinese restaurant at around 6 p.m. and relayed Lipolelo’s message.
“Maesaiah asked me to be more specific about what she wants,” Mojapela said.
Reuters could not confirm the meeting. When a reporter visited the restaurant, it was under new management.
Thabane’s private secretary, Thakalekoala, said he was not aware of a mediation attempt. Neither was Maesaiah’s close friend, Motlatsi Kompi. The first lady’s aide, Letsie, declined to comment.
Shortly afterwards, Lipolelo was dead.
“I saw the blood running down,” said Sibolla, who was shot twice in the side in the attack. “She was quite light in complexion, so you could really see it.”
Police found 9mm pistol shells at the scene, Mokete, the deputy commissioner, said. He added that the assassination was carried out by one of several gangs of traditional musicians, who are engaged in a deadly turf war.
Three men linked to the gang received calls from the phones of Thabane and Maesaiah in the days leading up to the killing, he said. Police issued arrest warrants for them, but they remain at large.
Finishing up at the Chinese restaurant, Mojapela says he headed to a friend’s house where, at around 8 p.m., his bodyguard delivered the news of Lipolelo’s death.
“I was disgusted. I cried,” he said. “There was absolutely no need for this woman to be assassinated.”