Lesotho buries its stormy king

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As the sure-footed steeds of Basotho tribesman escorted their dead king on his final journey through the mist of Lesotho's mountain passes, the ancestors of the Basotho people smiled upon their descendants. The skies opened and the rain came down in buckets.

A S Mohale, a palace official and relative of King Moshoeshoe II, watched with satisfaction. The rain was a good sign. "It's a blessing for a great man who has died," he said. He was joined in his contentment by thousands of subjects who gathered yesterday morning in the shadow of Thaba Bosiu, "the mountain of the night", to pay their last respects to the king, one of Africa's few remaining royal heads of state.

The procession of tribesmen and military brass bands stretched for miles along the road from the king's favourite farm in Matsieng to Thaba Bosiu, birthplace of the Basotho nation and burial place of its kings. Behind the king's coffin, wrapped in the royal standard and borne on a gun carriage, came the limousines of diplomats and dignitaries.

Among those who came here - 21 miles from the capital, Maseru - were Presidents Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Frederick Chiluba of Zambia and Ketumile Masire of Botswana - the leaders of southern Africa's big powers.

The king's death in a road accident on 15 January caught everyone by surprise and was considered a loss for the whole region. He was 57 and had been back on the throne for less than a year after his second spell in exile. There was speculation that rivalry between politicians and the military could be rekindled and that trouble would return to the kingdom.

Thus the rain on the morning of the funeral was greeted with such relief. Traditionalists said it was a sign the king was leaving a legacy of peace and tranquillity. It was not a gift that he had given his people often. The 30-year history of Lesotho has been one of democracy subverted by successive dictatorships, with Moshoeshoe invariably at the centre of every political storm. He was an absolutist whose reluctance to accept his post-independence role as a constitutional monarch brought him into conflict with Lesotho's rulers and led to his being deposed twice and exiled.

The first time was for a few months in 1970 after a clash with the country's first Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan. The king refused to be a rubber stamp. In 1990 he was exiled by the junta of Major-General Justin Lekhanya, which had toppled Jonathan. The king was replaced by his eldest son, Letsie David Mohato. Moshoeshoe was allowed home in 1992 but not to reclaim his title.

Letsie, embarrassed at being king while his father was still alive, staged a palace coup and dissolved the country's first democratically elected government. Presidents Mandela, Mugabe and Masire stepped in to resolve the issue and also to return Moshoeshoe to the throne, which he again ascended on 25 January 1995.

According to the eulogies yesterday, the king was working to resolve tension between the political parties and the military, still said to harbour political ambitions. He was also praised for his struggle against apartheid in South Africa, which surrounds his kingdom.

The Commonwealth Secretary, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, called the king a Basotho patriot who kept Lesotho "on the side of justice, human rights and decency'' during the struggle. "King Moshoeshoe died all too young, at the end of his youth and in the full maturity of his potential," Chief Anyaoku said. "He died still a promise, when the best was yet to come."

The king was born Constantine Bereng Seeiso on 2 May 1938, grandson of Moshoeshoe I, the founder of the Basotho nation, who willingly made his country a British protectorate in 1868 as a defence against the Afrikaner settlers of the Orange Free State. Basotholand was ruled by Britain until independence in 1966, when the 27-year-old graduate of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was named King Moshoeshoe II.

Mr Mohale said the king's schooling in Britain gave him the air of an intellectual and an English country gentlemen, as well as that of a monarch. But if he enjoyed the sport of kings, his love of horses had more to do with his Sotho blood than Ascot. He also enjoyed keeping cattle, sheep and goats. It was his love of his livestock that led to his death: he was returning from visiting his ranches when his car crashed.