What is now Lesotho was inhabited by hunter-gatherers, called the San Bushmen by the whites, until about 1600, when refugees from Bantu tribal wars began arriving. In 1818, Moshoeshoe, a minor chief of a northern tribe in what was to become Basutoland, brought together the survivors of the devastating Zulu and Matabele raids and founded the Basotho nation. During the early days of its existence, the Basotho also had to contend with incursions by Boers from the Orange Free State. Moshoeshoe sought UK protection, but not before much land had been lost to white settlers. His urgent appeals for assistance went unheeded until 1868, when Basutoland became a crown protectorate. Moshoeshoe died in 1870. The following year, Basutoland was annexed to the Cape Colony, over the protests of both Basotho and Boer leaders. In 1880, the so-called Gun War broke out between the Basotho and the Boers over the attempt to disarm the Basotho in accordance with the provisions of the Cape Peace Preservation Act of 1878. A high point in Basotho history was the successful resistance waged against the Cape's forces.
In 1884, Basutoland was returned to UK administration under a policy of indirect rule. Local government was introduced in 1910 with the creation of the Basutoland Council, an advisory body composed of the British resident commissioner, the paramount chief, and 99 appointed Basotho members. In effect, for the next 50 years the chiefs were allowed to govern. Under a new constitution that became effective in 1960, an indirectly elected legislative body, the Basutoland National Council, was created.
A constitutional conference held in London in 1964 approved the recommendations for a preindependence constitution that had been made by a constitutional commission. The new constitution went into effect on 30 April 1965, following the general election. The resident commissioner became the British government representative, retaining powers for defense, external affairs, internal security, and the public service.
In April 1966, a conflict arose in parliament between the government and the opposition over Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan's motion requesting that Britain set a date for independence. To forestall passage of the motion, Paramount Chief Moshoeshoe II replaced 5 of his 11 senatorial appointees with 5 opponents of the government. The High Court subsequently invalidated that action, declaring that his right to appoint 11 senators did not entail the right of dismissal. The Senate and National Assembly eventually passed the independence motion, the latter by a vote of 32 to 28, but the dispute foreshadowed a constitutional crisis that was not conclusively resolved at independence. The final independence conference was held in June 1966. Charging that the United Kingdom was granting independence to a minority government, and demanding a more significant role for the paramount chief, delegates representing the opposition withdrew. Moshoeshoe II himself declined to sign the final accord.
The United Kingdom granted independence to the newly named Kingdom of Lesotho on 4 October 1966; Moshoeshoe II was proclaimed king on that date. The first general election following the attainment of independence was held in January 1970. When it appeared that the ruling party, the Basotho National Party (BNP), would be defeated, Prime Minister Jonathan, its leader, declared a state of emergency and suspended the constitution. The Basotho Congress Party (BCP), led by Ntsu Mokhehle, claimed that it had won 33 seats to the BNP's 23. Leabua Jonathan admitted he had lost the election but nevertheless arrested the opposition leaders. The unrest, he said, was due to Communist influence, and since the majority of the people were behind him he would suspend the constitution and hold new elections later. King Moshoeshoe II was placed under house arrest, and in April 1970 the Netherlands gave him asylum. He was permitted to return in December.
Scattered attacks on police posts occurred in January 1974 in an alleged attempt by supporters of the BCP to overthrow the government of the ruling BNP. The abortive coup d'etat resulted in the arrest, killing, imprisonment, or exile of many people. In March 1975, 15 BCP followers were found guilty of high treason. The struggle against the Jonathan government continued through the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the Lesotho Liberation Army (LLA), the military arm of the BCP in exile, claiming responsibility for periodic bombings in Maseru, ambushes of government officials, and attacks on police stations. The Lesotho government charged that South Africa was allowing the LLA to use its territory as a base of operations.
Relations with South Africa deteriorated after that nation granted independence in 1976 to the Bantu homeland of Transkei, on Lesotho's southeastern border. When Lesotho (like all other nations except South Africa) declined to recognize Transkei, the Transkeian authorities closed the border with Lesotho, which also angered South Africa by harboring members of the banned African National Congress (ANC), an exiled South African insurgent group. On 9 December 1982, South African troops raided private residences of alleged ANC members in Maseru; 42 persons were killed, including at least 12 Lesotho citizens. In the early 1980s, South Africa used economic pressures against Lesotho.
Parliamentary elections scheduled for August 1985 by the Jonathan government were called off because all five opposition parties refused to take part, charging that the voters' roll was fraudulent. Later that year, South Africa stepped up its destabilization activities, conducting a commando raid and aiding antigovernment elements. On 1 January 1986, South Africa imposed a near-total blockade of Lesotho that resulted in severe shortages of food and essential supplies. On 20 January, a military coup led by Maj. Gen. Justin Metsing Lekhanya overthrew the government. All executive and legislative powers were vested in the king, acting on the advice of a six-man military council. On 25 January, a number of ANC members and sympathizers were flown from Lesotho to Zambia, whereupon South Africa ended its blockade of the country. All political activity was banned on 27 March.
There was widespread skepticism about the military government and its links to Pretoria, and agitation to return to civilian rule. In 1990, Lekhanya had Moshoeshoe II exiled (for a second time) after the king refused to agree to the dismissal of several senior officers. In November 1990, a new law was announced providing for a constitutional monarchy but barring Moshoeshoe from the throne. Later that month, Moshoeshoe's son (King Letsie III), was elected king by an assembly of chiefs.
In April 1991, rebel army officers staged a bloodless coup, forcing Lekhanya to resign. He was succeeded by Colonel Elias Ramaema as leader of a military junta. In July 1992, the king was allowed to return to a hero's welcome.
Multiparty elections were scheduled for 28 November 1992, but they were postponed until 1993 because of delays in delimiting parliamentary constituencies. Finally, on 27 March 1993, in the first democratic elections in 23 years, the Basotho Congress Party, the major opposition party, won all 65 seats in the Assembly. The BCP formed a government under Prime Minister Dr. Ntsu Mokhehle. The BCP offered to nominate four BNP members but only one opposition politician accepted. Several cabinet members were appointed from opposition ranks.
On 25 January 1994, army troops mutinied in Maseru after the government refused their demands for a 100% pay increase. Prime Minister Mokhehle requested military assistance from South Africa, but that request was denied. After three weeks of sporadic fighting, the two factions within the military agreed to a Commonwealth-brokered deal for negotiations with the government.
In August 1994, Lesotho's first democratically elected government faced another challenge when King Letsie III suspended Parliament and imposed a "Ruling Council." The king had been angered by the Mokhehle government's creation of a board of inquiry to investigate the dethroning of his father. Although Letsie had the support of the security forces, his royal coup was condemned internally and internationally, and the United States cut off aid. On 14 September the crisis was resolved when the king agreed to return the throne to his father. However, two years later King Moshoeshoe was killed in a car crash, and his son reclaimed the throne—much to the consternation of pro-democracy groups and Lesotho's neighbors.
Although the government increased military salaries in line with other government workers in 1995, an uprising three years later by a disgruntled faction of the Lesotho Defense Forces necessitated Botswana and South Africa military intervention. Over 50 soldiers were taken into custody and charged with mutiny in September 1998 on the heels of rioting and looting that destroyed parts of the capital following the March elections. The violence cost Lesotho untold millions as it sent the economy into a tailspin. Peacekeepers remained in the country as 1999 came to a close, prompting demands from the opposition alliance that the UN remove all foreign troops from Lesotho.
Lesotho remains among the poorest countries in Africa with the majority of the population living below the poverty line on less than $1 a day. In June 2003, Lesotho had an HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 31% among the adult population, and unemployment stood at 51%. Poverty, lack of jobs and food shortages in the sub-region were driving rural to urban migration, and increasing the likelihood that young women and women heads of household would engage in commercial and risky sex to provide for their families.