By Staff Reporter
MASERU — In a move likely to shake the coalition government’s foundation, Prime Minister Tom Thabane has taken control of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) from Water Affairs Minister Timothy Thahane.
Thabane is understood to have been unhappy with the implementation of the second phase of the water project jointly owned by Lesotho and South Africa.
He is likely to announce the decision in the next edition of the government gazette.
The project, whose main components are the construction of Polihali Dam in Mokhotlong and Kobong Power Station in Thaba-Tseka, is worth about M15 billion.
Polihali dam will supply water to South Africa while Kobong will generate power for Lesotho.
The project has however been hobbling due to delays which some in government have blamed on Thahane.
Thabane assumed control of the project on September 1 and is likely to announce the decision during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
There are fears that the move might strain relations between the coalition parties.
With Thahane’s ministry, the project was under the control of the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD).
Taking it to the prime minister’s office puts it under the control of the All Basotho Convention (ABC).
The decision can also be viewed as a tacit vote of no-confidence in Thahane who has been heavily criticised for the way he has handled the project.
It is likely to rattle the LCD which negotiated and signed the deal with South Africa when it was still the ruling party in 2011.
Thabane wants to move Emmanuel Lesoma, the principal secretary of the Ministry of Water Affairs, to his office to run the project. Lesoma is likely to be assisted by Masupha Sole, the chief technical advisor to the Lesotho delegation in the Lesotho Highlands Water Commission (LHWC), which supervises the project.
The Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA), whose responsibility is to implement the project, will also report to the prime minister’s office.
Thabane is reported to have written Attorney General Tsokolo Makhete KC and Government Secretary Motlatsi Ramafole late last month, instructing them to start the process to move the project to his office.
He wants the two to establish a team that will negotiate with South Africa on a new agreement for the project.
The two countries have already agreed that the 2011 agreement has to be amended.
The negotiations were supposed to have been completed in June but very little progress has been made so far.
This delay could have been the main reason why Thabane has taken over the project.
Thabane wants the attorney general and government secretary to come up with the issues that the negotiating teams will discuss and a time-table for the negotiations.
The Sunday Express has been reliably informed that Thabane is worried that international institutions like World Bank, European Union, European Investment Bank and African Development Bank are not involved in the project.
The first phase of the project which included the construction of Katse and Mohale Dams was strongly supported by international organisations.
Thahane told the Sunday Express on Friday that he was not aware of the decision to take away the project from his ministry.
“If there is something like that it will be announced formally.
“All I know is that I am still a chair of the sub-committee on the project,” Thahane said.
The subcommittee Thahane was referring to includes Home Affairs Minister Joang Molapo, Law Minister Haae Phoofolo, Foreign Affairs Minister Mohlabi Tsekoa, Development Planning Minister Moeketsi Majoro and Finance Minister Leketekete Ketso.
This paper understands that the prime minister wants to change this sub-committee as well.
Although the decision might come as a surprise to many this paper is aware that the prime minister has been considering putting the project under his control for the past six months.
Two weeks ago Thabane met ABC ministers to discuss the options.
In that long meeting at the State House, sources say, ABC ministers agreed that the prime minister should control the project.
In taking the decision Thabane seems to be drawing on the recommendation made by the World Bank in its report on the first phase of the water project.
The World Bank released the Implementation, Completion and Results Report on June 14, 2007.
The main subject of the report was the construction of Mohale Dam which is known as Phase 1B.
The report observed that “the process of internal control and approval retains a number of inefficiencies”.
“Planning such a high profile project, with national impact, under the office of the Prime Minister or under the Council of Ministers rather than the sectoral ministry may have facilitated greater ownership among the government and broader development opportunities,” the report said.
Since his appointment as Water Affairs Minister Thahane has come under a barrage of attack from some quarters that accuse him of dragging his feet on the implementation of the project.
The most vociferous of these critics has been a group of youths who have been clamouring for the minister’s dismissal.
Yesterday the group’s spokesperson Bokang Ramats’ella described the decision to move the project to the prime minister’s office as “a giant step forward for Lesotho”.
“If government has taken this step we would like to see a team of experts coming in to negotiate on behalf of Lesotho to rectify issues of the electricity generation component in the project and the management of the LHDA” Ramats’ella said.
“And we’d like to see Thabane hit the ground running and ensure Basotho benefit more from the project,” Ramats’ella said.
He said now that Thabane is in charge “we‘d hold our horses as the youth leagues forum and let him address all our demands on the project.”
“It should again be clear we do not want to be kept in the dark about the project anymore.”
Ramats’ella’s group has been pushing for a renegotiation of the 2011 which they say is titled in South Africa’s favour:
Some of their concerns include:
- The initial agreement does not guarantee the generation of electricity for Lesotho.
- The governance of the LWHC does not reflect that the project is owned by Lesotho.
- South Africa has been given a huge tax concession which they say is tantamount to Lesotho selling its water tax-free.