Lesotho coalesced in the early nineteenth century under the leadership of a shrewd diplomat and warrior, Moshoeshoe I, from remnants of peoples displaced by an expanding Zulu kingdom. The nation became known as Basutoland when it accepted British protection in 1868. Colonial rule prevented the country from incorporation within South Africa, but left it economically destitute and politically unstable. With its most fertile land lost to the Orange Free State province of South Africa, the Basotho were compelled to eke out a living in the rugged mountainous terrain. Excessive plowing and grazing, torrential rains, and protracted droughts caused serious erosion and rapid deterioration of the arable land.
Independence from British colonial rule was not gained until 1966. Since then Lesotho has experienced a chaotic governing situation. The 1966 Constitution took the form of a parliamentary system with a constitutional monarch, Moshoeshoe II, serving as head of state. It provided for an independent judiciary and public service commission and included a comprehensive Bill of Rights. Executive power resided in the elected prime minister, Leabua Jonathan, and a cabinet staffed by the conservative Basotho National Party (BNP), which won the 1965 preindependence election. Strong parliamentary opposition came from Ntsu Mokhele's Basutoland Congress Party (BCP) and the royalist Marematlou Freedom Party (MFP). Despite losing the 1970 election, Leabua Jonathan remained in power with support from the paramilitary police unit and the South African government. Jonathan's civilian rule by decree persisted until 1986.
Worsening civil strife, a mutiny over pay and conditions of service in the paramilitary force, South African commando raids on African National Congress installations in the capital city of Maseru, and a South African economic embargo precipitated the seizure of power by Metsing Lekhanya in 1986. Acting with the approval of the South African government, and buoyed by popular disgust with the old regime, Lekhanya replaced the civilian autocracy with a military dictatorship disguised as a coalition regime with the independent-minded monarch Moshoeshoe II. A six-member military council presided over a council of ministers, which included 15 civilian politicians drawn from various partisan backgrounds and three military officers.
Lekhanya's popularity and credibility were gradually undermined by his own actions and by changes in the regional environment beyond his control. Rapid reform in South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela made foreign aid donors more willing to require democratization as a condition for further assistance. Having promised to return Lesotho to civilian rule, Lekhanya could no longer suppress popular criticism and dissent from an outspoken popular press. Controversy raged around Lekhanya's dethroning of Moshoeshoe II and installing the 27-year-old heir Letsie III with only ceremonial duties.
In 1991, Lekhanya was forced to resign at gunpoint by soldiers who had been unsuccessful in their attempts to gain wage increases. Colonel Phisoana Ramamema, the least visible member of the ruling junta, was thrust into power. He presided over a process of constitutional and economic restructuring that permitted the return of Lesotho to civilian rule with a small budget surplus.
Elections in 1993 brought Ntsu Mokhele to power. The BCP won all 65 seats in the National Assembly. In August 1994, King Letsie III announced the suspension of the Constitution and the dissolution of the Mokhele government. Opposition to this move was widespread and daily affairs came to a standstill. Representatives from Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were called upon to resolve this crisis. Their plan resulted in the reinstatement of the Mokhele government, the abdication of Letsie III (who assumed the role of crown prince), and the reinstatement of King Moshoeshoe. Although Letsie III was returned to the throne after the death of Moshoeshoe in a 1996 auto accident, he pledged not to involve the monarchy in political life. In 1998, the ailing Mokhele announced his retirement, paving the way for his deputy, Pakalitha Mosisili, to assume leadership.