Lesotho - Dirty politics and muddy waters - CNBC Africa

Lesotho - Dirty politics and muddy waters

Southern Africa

by Gary van Staden, Political Analyst, NKC African Economics 0

Lesotho - Dirty politics and muddy waters. Photo: Wikipedia.

The ongoing political instability in the mountain kingdom and the multi-billion-rand Phase 2 of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) may well be linked, as political elements vie for control of the processes and lucrative tenders.

The R26bn LHWP involves the construction of a R165m dam, a 38km tunnel and facilities to generate hydroelectricity. Construction is mainly inside the borders of Lesotho, while South Africa will fund the entire project and Gauteng water users will pay royalties to Lesotho. The supply to Gauteng is critically important.

Back in June 2014 the impending collapse of then-prime minister Tom Thabane’s coalition government (the collapse that precipitated the current crisis) was sparked over a fight for control of the LHWP and the attempt by Mr Thabane to take the Polihali Dam project away from Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs Minister Timothy Thahane – a member of coalition partner Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD) – in violation of previous agreements.

Mr Thabane was eventually forced to rescind his decision to move the LHWP into his office, but the mere attempt was to prove the final straw in breaking the back of a shaky coalition government that had already lurched from crisis to crisis, due mainly to disputes over Mr Thabane’s autocratic leadership and his reneging on several coalition agreements.

The LCD wrote a letter in which the party demanded that Mr Thabane publicly reverse his decision or “risk the LCD reconsidering its position in the coalition.” Under growing pressure, Mr Thabane staved off the inevitable collapse of his government by proroguing Parliament. This, however, precipitated a political crisis that destabilised Lesotho and sparked widespread violence and conflict. It inevitably led to the involvement of the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), as previous political crises have always done.

In the general chaos South Africa and other members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) forced Lesotho to hold early elections, and imposed harsh conditions and untenable demands on the freshly-elected government led by Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili. The SADC-imposed ‘solution’ has to date proved to be no solution at all, as nothing appears to have been resolved and the issues driving several processes seem to drift back to control of the LHWP.

Allegations and counter-allegations of corruption continue to damage the country and many of its key politicians. Political controversy and the LHWP have seldom been far apart.

Media reported in January 2015 that Mr Thabane had ordered the dismissal of Lesotho’s chief delegate to the LHWC, Topollo Charles Putsoane, for alleged poor performance and insubordination – an instruction then minister of Energy, Meteorology and Water Affairs Tšeliso Mokhosi refused to implement.

Mr Thabane was allegedly angry with Mr Putsoane because of his refusal to authorise payments to a Ministry of Energy adviser who emerged as technical adviser to the LHWC shortly after he was paroled (he had spent the previous nine years in jail for taking kickbacks). Mr Thabane reportedly said at the time that the then-coalition government under his leadership would continue to use the controversial advisor despite South Africa’s reservations, because ‘’he had been reformed by his prison term,” he had first-hand experience to share about the LHWP and Lesotho needed his advice.

“He went to prison and I assure you he is corrected now. Even the king thinks he is corrected. We can’t let South Africa dictate to us who we should hire to advise us.” Mr Thabane told the Mail & Guardian.

Many more reports and investigations into developments on the Lesotho end of the LHWP were conducted by the local newspapers Lesotho Times and its sister paper The Sunday Express. While there is no evidence to suggest the recent assassination attempt of Lesotho Times and Sunday Express editor Lloyd Mutungamiri was connected in any way to the LHWP probes and revelations, those newspapers remain thorns in some political sides. 

It is obvious that there are several other issues generating a climate of instability and violence in Lesotho – including the ongoing debates and controversies over the LDF commander and the killing of a former one as well as deepening struggles for political turf – but there are also several strong indicators of instability and political infighting finding source in the control of the lucrative LHWP finances, tenders and spinoffs.

Clearly, political office is a key element of this control. Corruption is near endemic in Lesotho and the finances involved in the LHWP are a major temptation. When mixed, power and greed make a toxic brew that is clearly contributing to the ongoing crisis in the mountain kingdom. This aspect of the problem and cannot be ignored by those who say they are seeking a lasting resolution.