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Coup in Lesotho delights citizens -- and neighboring South Africa

By Ned TemkoStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 1986



Maseru, Lesotho

The ouster of this black nation's Soviet-leaning ruler seems to have delighted its own people and neighboring South Africa as well. Soon after Lesotho radio announced early yesterday that military chief Maj. Gen. J. M. Lekhanya had overthrown Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan in a bloodless coup, crowds poured into the streets to celebrate.

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Women and men cheered or honked car horns and soldiers raised fists in celebration as the first freight train allowed into Lesotho from South Africa in three weeks pulled into Maseru Station after the military coup.

South Africa, which surrounds Lesotho and controls its economy, imposed a near-total blockade on shipments across the border at the start of January. Lesotho was reported down to a few days' gasoline supply, despite rationing, and stocks of food and medicines were cut. Road traffic into Lesotho was still slow late Monday. But a Lesothan border official said South Africa's restrictions there also seemed to be easing.

South Africa accused ousted Prime Minister Jonathan, who has ruled Lesotho since independence from Britain in 1966, of abetting cross-border ``terrorism'' by the outlawed African National Congress. The ANC, led mostly by exiles, is South Africa's most powerful black anti-apartheid organization.

``We do not know what will happen next,'' said one woman, cheering passing soldiers on the street. ``There may still be problems. The South Africans don't like black people. But it seems South Africa is pleased with what has happened.''

Convoys from the 1,500-man Army -- or Lesotho paramilitary force -- toured the streets several times during the day to shouts of support on all sides.

Every hour or so a military helicopter wafted overhead. Otherwise, there was no visible sign of the military takeover nor, by press time, was there any indication of resistance.

As an apparent precaution, however, the authorities announced late Monday afternoon a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Although the coup was bloodless, it was preceded last week by at least one barracks skirmish, in which five people died.

Maj. Gen. Lekhanya, who heads the new government, is a career policeman named to head the paramilitary force when it was formed in the 1970s. Last Friday, he led a delegation of Lesothan officials who visited South Africa in search of a compromise on the border crisis.

A foreign businessman who knows the new military ruler well told the Monitor: ``He is not a political sort of man. My sense is that he will try to restore civilian government as soon as he thinks [it is] feasible.''

Diplomats here said Monday that:

They had been told the day-to-day workings of government were being handled by civil servants while the shape of a new cabinet was worked out.

It seemed possible some of the ousted ruler's ministers might keep their jobs.

It was likely Lekhanya would seek active support from Lesotho's King Moshoeshoe II -- the largely ceremonial but popular head of state -- in a bid to minimize the role of the military in political life.

One problem Lekhanya will have to tackle, however, is the role of Lesotho's various opposition political leaders who were jailed by Jonathan last week after they visited South Africa for talks with Foreign Minister Pik Botha.

Though the diplomats view the South African border pressure as one catalyst for Monday's coup, they say Jonathan had stirred growing domestic dissatisfaction for some time. Sixteen years ago he short-circuited an election he seemed in the process of losing and in effect declared himself prime minister for life. Plans last year to hold another election were scuttled when opposition politicians charged the operation was rigged.

In the interim, Jonathan gradually tested the limits ofhis relationship with South Africa -- key to Lesotho's economic survival -- by harboring what he termed South African ``refugees'' and tilting toward the East bloc.

Aggravating the situation was the fact that Lesotho -- an enclave of lush valleys and flat-topped mountain peaks -- remained one of the world's poorest nations. Per capita income is less than $500 a year.

``Jonathan was good for the rich and for his own government and family,'' a woman who works as a maid in Maseru said. ``But for others, like us, he was not good.''

In the past 18 months, according to a Western businessman who has sold equipment to the Lesothan military, an array of Soviet-manufactured weapons has been entering Maseru. Ferried in by cargo planes, the arms are said to have gone partly to the paramilitary force.

According to the businessman, North Korea and Libya seem to have had a role in additional deliveries of arms for the youth branch of the ruling political party. The British-trained paramilitary force, he says, audibly griped at the arming of the youth branch.

Diplomats say the paramilitary force generally saw Jonathan's eastward tilt as a needless taunt at South Africa -- a neighbor they don't much like, but whose friendship they need.

An associate of Lekhanya says that on a personal level he doesn't like the Soviets. The new ruler's daughter is said to have gone to the Soviet Union to study, on an official invitation amid Jonathan's shift in foreign policy. She returned, having ``very intensely disliked the place,'' one source said.

Diplomats here said it was too early to tell whether the new leader would close East-bloc missions. In 1983, Jonathan invited the Soviet Union to open an Embassy. At the time of the coup, Cuba's foreign minister was visiting Maseru. He was not available for comment. However, these diplomats did expect the new government to hike pressure on South African residents with any links to the ANC. But how quickly or harshly, they said, was difficult to predict.

In an indication of how jolting the change was, a Lesothan border policeman remarked late Monday, ``Yesterday if you'd asked me, I wouldn't have said the people disliked Jonathan. But today, look around you.''