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New Military Rulers Give Lesotho's King Power to Run Government

January 23, 1986|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Lesotho's new military rulers, who seized power in a coup early Monday, on Wednesday vested executive and legislative powers in King Moshoeshoe II, promising him broad authority to run this small mountain kingdom.

The military commanders who ousted Chief Leabua Jonathan as prime minister said they will retain ultimate political control, but they authorized Moshoeshoe, for 20 years a constitutional monarch without any power, to take over the government.

The military council also announced that, as part of its policy for promoting "national reconciliation and unity," it does not intend to prosecute Jonathan or members of his government, many of whom are reported to be under house arrest in Maseru, the Lesotho capital. Jonathan, 71, was toppled by military leaders dissatisfied with his autocratic rule and his handling of a confrontation with South Africa.

Maj. Gen. Justin M. Lekhanya, commander of the 3,000-man Lesotho Paramilitary Force, who led the coup, appealed in a short radio address for the support of the public, particularly the civil service, and urged them to ignore calls from Jonathan supporters for resistance against the military council.

Praised by Opposition

The moves, especially the installation of Lesotho's much-respected monarch as head of the government, drew immediate praise from the country's five opposition parties, although they also urged the military council to spell out all its policies as quickly as possible.

The Oxford-educated Moshoeshoe, 47, a direct descendant of the country's founder, has wanted to play a more active political role since Lesotho gained its independence from Britain in 1966 and he became king. But Jonathan, invoking the European system of constitutional monarchy, insisted that he confine himself to ceremonial duties.

When Moshoeshoe challenged Jonathan in the early 1970s, the prime minister exiled him to the Netherlands for two years, allowing him to return only after he had formally pledged not to involve himself in politics.

The king's political emasculation extended even to his exclusion from such non-controversial areas as Lesotho's strategy for economic growth and rural development, two of his special interests, and to strict limits on what he could say at ceremonial occasions. He was forced to sign legislation he strongly opposed, according to informed political observers in Maseru, and at times he was kept under virtual house arrest in his hilltop palace in Maseru.

A Return to Tradition

Moshoeshoe's installation as head of the government, even under the military council, is seen as a return to a more traditional African political system in which the king rules with the advice and consent of tribal chiefs and other elders.

Lekhanya, a policeman-turned-soldier, is known to respect Moshoeshoe greatly, and on the day of the coup, he said that one of the military council's goals was to return Lesotho to its political traditions.

Lesotho was founded in the early 19th Century by Moshoeshoe I, a Sotho chief who resisted incorporation into the Zulu empire of King Shaka Zulu and then fought off other warrior nations. But in 1868, under siege by Dutch-descended white settlers, the Afrikaners, who were pushing inland from the Cape of Good Hope and had already taken much of his kingdom, Moshoeshoe I obtained British protection for his Basuto people.

Known then as Basutoland, the territory was surrounded by what became the Union of South Africa after the British defeated the Afrikaners in the 1899-1902 Boer War. It remained under British rule even after South Africa gained full independence in 1961.

Amnesty Expected

The new military council is expected to declare an amnesty for all political prisoners and exiles within the next week, according to informed sources in Maseru, and later to open discussions on long-term policies with both the Basutoland National Party, which has ruled the country of 1.5 million people for two decades, and the opposition groups.

But Lekhanya's priority remains the early resolution of Lesotho's crisis with South Africa. In an effort to force Lesotho to expel refugees from South African apartheid and minority white rule and to end the activities here of the African National Congress, South Africa imposed an economic blockade on the country three weeks ago, allowing almost no goods to enter or leave.

Although Lekhanya is not expected to yield openly to South Africa's demands, he quickly renewed talks with Pretoria, and diplomats are expecting a compromise to be worked out in the next few days that will involve the departure of all African National Congress members to other countries and stricter controls on South African refugees remaining in Lesotho.

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