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Revisiting the 1986 coup

Professor Kopano Makoa

MASERU — Barring a few cases for a period spanning roughly three decades between the early 1960s and early 1990s, Africa and its people helplessly swam in a whirlpool — and became victims — of recurrent yet debilitating military coup d’états that ushered in corrupt, predatory and unaccountable governments that looted their countries of the assets they had after attaining independence.
The military regimes appropriated their countries’ citizens, squandering all the wealth that was available, banning political activity and brutally crushing any challenge to their rule, denying basic human rights and muzzling dissenters through killings and torture as they saw fit.
Among other diabolic policies adopted by such military regimes were wiping off key institutions, relics and symbols that mirrored the history, nature and sovereignty of the victim nation-states on the continent.
The African military regimes replaced national constitutions with decrees and orders, changed national flags, erased from the list of official holidays certain days previously observed by predecessor civilian counterparts as official national holidays and the names of public places, roads and or thoroughfares.
They also banned or disbanded existing political parties and murdered civilian rulers they overthrew together with prominent politicians, Lesotho being no exception.
In my view, these are enough reasons for not celebrating military coup d’états as some people have done, and also for not embracing those illegally overthrowing legitimate governments by force of arms.
The military coups not only pervaded Africa’s politics during the period from 1960s to 1980s but also stood out as the dominant mode of changing regimes.
As we all recall, Lesotho was also to be afflicted by this pestilence.
The country fell victim on January 20, 1986 and succumbed to an apartheid South Africa-inspired bloody military coup that forcibly ousted the Basotho National Party (BNP) government, headed by the late Dr Leabua Jonathan.
The coup left scores of bereft families because of the deaths of members resulting from the violence used by the coup leaders both in overthrowing the government and in trying to consolidate their grip on the Basotho nation.
Because of delayed release of his confiscated passport by Major-General Justin Metsing Lekhanya’s military government, Jonathan could not travel in time to consult specialist doctors in neighbouring South Africa.
Thus he passed away a few days after arriving in that country, adding to the list of the martyr victims of the military coup.
Then under the command of Lekhanya, currently leader of the BNP, who became head of the emergent military regime, the Lesotho Para-Military Force — renamed the Royal Lesotho Defence Force after the coup — announced early in the morning of January 20, 1986 that it had seized state power and that it would exercise this as servants and under the tutelage of King Moshoeshoe II, who was later forced to take a sabbatical leave in Britain for challenging some of the military regime’s policies.
The army’s statement implied increased power for the monarch who — some people believed — should have used it for creating a climate of peace in the country.
Hence the King tended to be blamed for policy blunders and excesses of the military regime, as indeed he was expected to determine its policy-orientation and objectives.
The following remark by the Lesotho Evangelical Church’s Sesotho weekly newspaper, Leselinyana la Lesotho, is instructive:  “The capturing of power for His Majesty by Major-General Lekhanya opens a new page, a real test as to how His Majesty will start in his efforts to return the country to Moshoeshoe’s peace.”
The assumption was no doubt misplaced or rather not informed by the reality.
Lekhanya, head of the military government, did not see bringing peace to the country as the king’s responsibility and/or function.
To the major-general, “the military is the means to restore peace and national reconciliation for the Basotho people”.
The coup makers elsewhere in Africa, including in Lesotho, and their backers and sponsors always provided an excuse, rationale or justification, however flimsy and unconvincing, for their overthrowing of extant governments, citing a litany of diverse yet often unrelated matters as the reasons for their action.
They would invoke populist slogans such as the national interests, disunity among their people and political instability in order to gain people’s support or tolerance.
More precisely, they posed as the liberators of their nations, presenting and touting their coup d’états as sacrosanct messianic missions rather than the political crimes that they were.
Putting on a messianic garb not only eased mobilisation of popular support — albeit often short-lived and not sustained — for the military dictatorships, but also served to portray the armed forces as redeemers of their countries’ peoples.
After forcefully catapulting themselves on to state power, for instance, the Lesotho military rulers accused the late Jonathan’s government of creating an unstable political climate in which “the interests of politicians were not at par with those of the nation”.
The ruling Military Council, chaired by Lekhanya, travelled around the entire country preaching to coercively assembled gatherings of people all that the major-general had said in justifying his forcible seizure of state power.
That said, however, the message is that the major-general and the army under his command staged the coup in order to protect and guarantee the interests and rights of the Basotho nation.
Formally addressing the Basotho nation at a millitary parade marking the bicentennial of the Great King Moshoeshoe I, Lekhanya said: “As your army, we were deeply perturbed by the events that worsened towards the close of 1985.
“One of these events was the presence within the army itself of a rebel group which the then Jonathan government seemed to regard as the lawful army.
“This clique was led by our then colleague, the late Colonel Sehlabo… who elected, among other things, to rob the people of their money and other possessions, to rob banks, to break into businesses, to steal people’s vehicles, to rape women but, above all, (sic) elected to kill and maim anyone it pleased them to.” 
He added that the previous administration had failed to solve the border-closure problem. “Instead of resorting to diplomatic initiatives, a cacophony of obscenities was staged over Radio Lesotho against anyone who could have incurred the displeasure of the ruling government.”
But for some of us, this was no more than an anti-BNP diatribe that was not to be unexpected from elements avowedly determined to dismantle political parties, yet desperately seeking to gain legitimacy for their palpably treasonable act.
There can be no national interests where people have no rights. Here I mean right of dissent, freedom of association and of speech, the right to choose one’s rulers and to compete for governmental power.
On coming to power, Lekhanya’s military government moved swiftly against and muzzled all organised political formations that disapproved of the coup, particularly the national political parties.
His government’s infamous Order Number 4 not only outlawed political parties and their activities in the country but also criminalised any public display of party emblems. Some known political activists were detained and/or harassed for allegedly violating that order.
In fact, not only did Lesotho witness a deepening denial by the military junta of the rights and interests it supposedly intervened in order to protect them, but also a perpetration by the regime of horrendous crimes whereby in some instances family couples were abducted from their homes by armed soldiers at gunpoint and murdered at remote places at night.
Prominent among those so brutally murdered for remaining loyal to the BNP and its deposed leader and founder are Vincent M Makhele and his wife and Desmond Sixishe and his wife who were taken by armed soldiers to the Lekhalo-la-Baroa and shot while raising their arms pleading for mercy.
Colonel Sehlabo, together with some of the anti-coup soldiers, mysteriously died while detained at the Maseru Maximum Prison without charge.
Brigadier-General Ramotsekhoane, not one of the coup makers, is also another victim of the coup, losing his life while in the custody.
Thus Lekhanya’s military government was not to be the antidote of the criminal behaviour that he said was characteristic of the BNP government. If anything, his was a Trojan horse ferrying terror forces.
In the eyes of many observers it was, in fact, a bastion of corruption and a bulwark against democracy, banning popular organisations and abolishing genuine rural development committees and replacing them with chiefs-subordinated councils.
It got involved in and initiated questionable business deals with invisible elements of which the mysterious Lengau (Boeing 727 Jet Aircraft) has not faded away from our memories.
BNP members should indeed realise that Lesotho’s military junta was not as benign as it is touted by those opposed to change, let alone a positive force.
On the BNP, in particular, the January coup inflicted damage that will take huge sacrifice, if miracle, to repair.
As a matter of policy, the military government severed the party’s links, through its banning, with international friends, thereby the financial and other aid deriving there from.
The military regime also severed Lesotho’s diplomatic ties with radical states such as North Korea, the USSR, Cuba, the People’s Republic of China, etc, whose ruling parties offered bilateral aid in the form of scholarships to the BNP as a party.
All North Korea-supported development projects, in particular the building of the national stadium and government office complex in the city centre, were jettisoned by the military rulers who not only expelled its technical staff but also broke diplomatic ties with that country.
The scholarships have similarly disappeared permanently and the BNP youth today no longer has any such scheme to fall back on in the event that the NMDS is unable to assist.
The BNP’s Lesotho Youth Service Centre at Lithabaneng was simply appropriated by the military government and transferred to the national army without compensation.
Also sad and lamentable is that January 20, 1986 ushered and set in motion a process that ultimately culminated in the seizure and control of the BNP by the coup makers.
These have since turned the BNP into a closed, unaccountable and undemocratic outfit offering no scope for free elections of officials, intra-party debate and dialogue.
It is akin to a military organisation which shuns and throttles debate and dissent through threats of expulsion and indefinite suspension.
Those leading it have self-barricaded themselves within the office complex building that the late Jonathan left for the headquarters of his BNP.
The BNP has become over time no more than its leader’s fiefdom, non-participatory and hardly known today by the youngsters in this country.
Its flag is not seen flying or hoisted in any of the villages and electoral constituencies in the country.
These are leadership problems.
But who wants to be reminded that a political party leader is a leader because he leads a respectable, vibrant organisation?
Surely none of us here wants to.
January 20 is, nevertheless, not only to be a mourning day for those who decided to mark it as such.
It should be a day for seriously reflecting on the BNP, critically assessing its future prospects and seeking solutions to its seething problems of which most are the legacy of the January 20, 1986 coup d’état that ultimately determined performance in previous general elections.
Let the day also serve as an additional spur behind your current efforts at unshackling yourselves and your party, restoring its ownership to the masses and taking it back to and enabling it to reclaim the space it has lost in Lesotho’s politics.
Indeed, your gathering here will be meaningless unless it is an opportunity for re-affirming your commitment to democracy, for only when you cherish and live this ideal will you succeed in your endeavor and striving to win back and re-assemble the BNP into a democratic people’s party.
You must remember that a political party is neither a name nor the monumental buildings of the BNP Centre-type that is no longer a symbol of democracy and party unity.
Rather, a political party is the people. Go to the people in towns and all the villages in the countryside to show them the damage inflicted on them and their party by the January 20, 1986 coup d’état. 
Educate them about this day and what it heralded in particular for their BNP.
But end up by telling them that they can repair this damage only by reclaiming and owning their party.
• Professor Kopano Makoa delivered this speech to BNP supporters at Manthabiseng Convention Centre on January 20.

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