April 11, 2002

Emphasis on conflict resolution in run-up to election

With Lesotho's elections set for 25 May the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is focusing on conflict resolution initiatives to avoid a recurrence of the unrest that followed 1998's poll. The UNDP said special emphasis would be placed on the mobilisation of political parties, NGOs, traditional leaders, church and women's groups to "play an active role in the electoral and democratisation processes". The UNDP itself "would remain committed to maintaining its role as a neutral mediator and facilitate dialogue within Lesotho", it said in a report presented at the Lesotho High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa, on Thursday, April 11.

The country faced vast economic and social problems, and political stability and good governance were fundamental for effectively addressing these challenges, the UNDP said. Its report, a copy of which was obtained by IRIN, said: "Lesotho is slowly recovering from the civil strife that followed the disputed May 1998 elections. The protests [by those who disputed the results] culminated in the military intervention by forces of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) during September 1998. "Following the restoration of law and order, a multi-party Interim Political Authority was established to oversee preparation for the next general elections ... a new Independent Electoral Commission has been appointed and agreements have been reached on a new electoral model and the methodology for voter registration." The May election will be critical to restoring some of the economic and political stability that was lost due to the events of 1998. The country experienced a severe drop in foreign direct investment after the unrest. By contrast, in the decade prior to 1998, Lesotho "witnessed a remarkable economic boom". The report said: "The economic expansion was driven mainly by the large-scale constructions of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and rapid growth in the exports of manufactured textiles and clothing. However, towards the late 1990's these two growth engines slowed down."

Problems in the financial and utilities sectors were also building up and the income brought to Lesotho from Basotho migrant miners in South Africa, on which Lesotho is heavily dependent, continued to decline with falling gold prices and increased mechanisation in the industrial sector. But it was the civil unrest that followed the elections of 1998 that dealt a severe blow to the economy, which went into its first outright recession in more than 20 years.

Over the past two years economic activity has been resuming slowly. Lesotho still has an unemployment rate of around 40 percent, and the country is ranked 127 out of 174 countries on the Global Human Development Index. Lesotho once boasted the highest rates of life expectancy in the Southern African region.

"However, the HIV/AIDS pandemic is rapidly reversing these achievements. According to some estimates, more than one third of the adult population is HIV-positive, with disproportionately high rates among younger women," the report said.

The UNDP said it intended to support Lesotho's democratic processes, "including preparations for the holding of democratic elections, mainstreaming of gender concerns, transparent and accountable governance, and strengthened national capacities for peaceful management and resolution of conflict". (IRIN)

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