BACK in 2021, the government resolved to award a 600 000 000 Chinese Yuan (about US$83 million or M1, 5 billion at today’s exchange rate) “Lesotho Safe City Project” tender to Chinese technology giant, Huawei.
Funded through a concessional loan by the Export-Import Bank of China to the Lesotho government, the project entails the installation of surveillance cameras and other digital equipment in Maseru and other parts of the country as part of efforts to help the police fight rampant crime in the country.
It also entails the provision of digital communications equipment to the Lesotho Mounted Police Service.
The Sunday Express (SE)’s Chief Reporter, Mohalenyane Phakela, engaged former Police and Public Safety principal secretary, Retired Colonel Tanki Mothae, to discuss the proposed project and how it would help fight rampant crime in the country.
SE: Please explain the ‘safe city’ concept and how it can benefit Lesotho
Mothae: The concept entails countries setting up electronic surveillance systems to police their citizens in order to ensure their safety. The cameras that will be installed in cities will enable the police to record criminal activities. It serves more as a crime deterrence tool because criminals know they will be watched. The cameras capture the real time when incidents occur and that enables the police to easily detect crime. Other security agencies can also use the system to identify national security threats. It makes countries secure for citizens and investors by fighting different forms of crime. It also detects traffic offences and even serves as a first-hand warning of emergencies such as burning buildings, riots and other forms of accidents.
SE: At what point did Lesotho decide on the need for a Safe City Project?
Mothae: Remember Lesotho is part of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Under FOCAC, different African countries pitch various projects they wish to implement with Chinese assistance. The Safe City project is one of several projects which Lesotho pitched at the 2014 FOCAC summit and it was approved. The government was concerned about the high crime rate which was paralysing the nation and thought of the Safe City project as a solution.
Our country ranks very high in terms of crime. On a daily basis, there are reports of murder, rape and robbery among others.
This project will help end the heinous crimes. It will help the police to act swiftly in response to crime.
The objective of the police force is to eradicate murders, stock theft, robberies and all sorts of crimes. We intend to eliminate or reduce crime as it is one of the issues contributing to instability in the country.
We are at a point where every citizen feels the need to own a gun to feel safe. That should not be the case. This country should be a safe environment for everyone.
The government is concerned about the safety of citizens and investors. This project will help us reduce the high crime rate because the cameras installed across the country will assist in capturing the crimes, thus, enabling the police to act swiftly.
SE: Has the efficacy of the project been tested successfully anywhere else?
Mothae: There are several African countries which have already implemented the Safe City project. These include Rwanda, Botswana and Zambia. We went to these countries to study the project’s effectiveness. There is a relatively low crime rate in Botswana, and it is next to non-existent in Rwanda. Zambia has enrolled the project in 10 provinces. Crime is low in these countries because people know they are being watched and they will be prosecuted if they commit crimes. We believe the same can apply to us here once we implement the project. It will make Lesotho a safe and peaceful country.
SE: What is the timeframe for the rollout of the project?
Mothae: The idea was that there should be the passage of an enabling act or regulations to enable the evidence collected via the project’s cameras to be admissible in the courts of law.
It should be a national security system which will be used to ensure the safety of all citizens. Cameras will be installed in a manner in which they will cover every street, passage or valley of the country and these cameras will be installed in a manner which will enable them to capture everything.
It will be piloted in Maseru urban and the nearby villages of Berea. From there we will extend the scope to the whole of Berea and Leribe. If we find that the project is working well, we will then implement it countrywide. Crimes like stock theft will be yesterday’s news.
SE: An agreement was signed last December. Why wasn’t the project implemented during your time in government?
Mothae: It is in our best interests for the project to be implemented without further ado. It has been in the pipeline for eight years now. Our hope is that the incoming government will study and familiarise itself with the project and give it a greenlight.
A safe Lesotho should be one of the priorities of the new government. A safe environment attracts investors. Our economy is struggling and one of the major contributors is the high crime rate. We need a safe Lesotho to achieve prosperity.
SE: There has been widespread criticism of such projects with critics saying they invade citizens’ privacy and they can be abused by governments to spy on people to fight political opponents. What is your take on this?
Mothae: There should be a balance between privacy and public safety. From a security point of view, our focus is on public safety and that of the protecting people’s property. There is nothing private about people’s property being stolen, or people being killed by unidentified criminals on a daily basis. We believe that the right to life and safety supersedes the right to privacy. We need a safe and peaceful Lesotho. We do not intend to spy on people but to keep the country safe.
SE: Given that the project will be implemented by a foreign hi-tech company, don’t you fear that they may export or sell sensitive information about citizens and the country in general?
Mothae: Of course, national security is a priority. However, we are not the first country to implement the Safe City project. Wherever such projects have been implemented particularly in Africa, this has been done by foreign companies.
The track record of those companies is good. Besides, there are laws and agreements which come to play when such sensitive projects are implemented. Breach of such contracts and laws can result in very serious consequences for such companies. In any event, we are already using Microsoft and other systems on mobile phones. We use these daily to store up our most private and personal details without worrying who could be privy to such information. We remain calm because we know that the developers know about the privacy policies.