Lesotho’s former prime minister Thomas Thabane paid a team of hitmen from a notorious local gang a down payment of more than $20,000 to kill his estranged wife, according to police statements.
The cash was alleged to be the first instalment of a much larger sum – approximately $180,000 – that was agreed as a fee for the murder three years ago.
It is the latest twist in a long-running crisis that some observers have described as a “game of thrones” in the poor mountainous kingdom in southern Africa.
Thabane was forced to resign last month. The political veteran, 80, has denied any involvement in the death of Lipolelo Thabane, who was shot several times at close range as she sat in a car outside her home in the Lesotho capital, Maseru, two days before her husband’s inauguration.
Lipolelo, 58, had reportedly refused a divorce and won a court battle to retain her privileges as first lady until any formal separation.
Thabane remarried two months after the murder. His second wife, 42-year-old Maesaiah, became first lady when Thabane became prime minister. She has been charged with murder and is currently in custody.
In a statement opposing her release on bail, the deputy commissioner of police, Paseka Mokete, said Thabane and Maesaiah “wanted the deceased dead so that [Maesaiah] … could assume the position of first lady.”
Maesaiah had previously stated she “would like to get rid of the deceased”, Mokete said.
The statement described an incident when Thabane “physically pointed out the residence of the deceased to his co-accused”, and said the prime minister’s mobile number had been discovered in communication records from the crime scene.
The killing was originally blamed on unknown criminals. Lesotho has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Mokete said the suspected murderers were members of the “infamous Famo gang, notorious for displaying violence and for brutal killings”, who had been promised the equivalent of $179,485 to be paid in installments.
“They would be remunerated in cash … and through employment opportunities, should they carry out the murder of the deceased prior to [Thabane’s] inauguration as prime minister,” the statement said.
Thabane tried to hold on to power but was weakened by internal divisions within his All Basotho Convention party.
Lesotho is one of the least developed countries in southern Africa. A recent survey by the World Bank found some improvement over a 15-year period but said nearly half of its 3 million citizens lived in poverty. Aid agencies have said more than 500,000 people face severe food shortages in the coming months following a protracted drought.
In recent years, Lesotho has tried to generate income through the cultivation of medical marijuana and tourism.