Herbert Moyo | Ntsebeng Motsoeli
FORMER Energy and Meteorology Minister, Mokoto Hloaele, has denied receiving a M400 million bribe along with former First Lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane and others to facilitate a grossly inflated M2, 8 billion deal with a Chinese contractor for the construction of a 70-megawatt (MW) solar power generation project at Ramarothole, Mafeteng.
In an interview with the Lesotho Times this week, Mr Hloaele denied any wrong-doing, saying his hands were clean. He instead challenged Development Planning Minister Selibe Mochoboroane to explain how Lesotho agreed to the deal, saying it was Mr Mochoboroane and not him who signed the cooperation agreement for the project with the Chinese contractor, Sinoma Tbea Consortium.
He said the solar power deal was initially agreed with the Sinoma Tbea during the tenure of the Pakalitha Mosisili-led seven parties’ government when Mr Mochoboroane was Energy and Meteorology minister in 2016.
He said a financing agreement for the project was agreed during the time of the previous Thomas Thabane administration when Dr Majoro was still finance minister.
Even though financing agreement by Dr Majoro, he was merely approving figures which had been suggested by Mr Mochoboroane, he said.
Therefore, Mr Mochoboroane is better placed to explain why the project cost that staggering, he said. He disputed the M2, 8 billion amount, saying to the best of his knowledge, it would only cost M1, 8 billion. He said this could be verified with the energy ministry.
He also said the project was necessary given that Lesotho was importing power at a huge cost.
Therefore, Mr Mochoboroane was better placed to explain why the project cost a staggering amount, he said.
Mr Hloaele’s remarks come against the background of last week’s exposé by the Lesotho Times of a massive scandal in which the previous Thomas Thabane administration is said to have agreed to a grossly inflated M2, 8 billion deal with Sinoma Tbea for the construction of a 70-megawatt (MW) solar power generation project at Ramarothole, Mafeteng.
The project, which is likely to plunge the country into years of unnecessary debt, has now been inherited by the current Majoro-led government after the collapse of the Thabane administration in May this year.
Despite its inflated cost, the project is set to begin anytime from now.
Well-placed sources in the solar power generation industry last week told this publication that it costs US$1 million (about M16, 29 million) for the infrastructure to produce 1MW of solar power yet the government had agreed to an inflated cost of US$2,5 million per 1MW. This means instead of paying US$70 million (about M1, 1 billion) for the Ramarothole project to produce 70 MW of electricity, the government will in the end pay US$175 million (about M2,8 billion), a humungous rip off of poor Basotho.
According to ‘Mathabo Mahahabisa, the chief accounting officer of the newly formed Lesotho Electricity Generation Company (LEGCO), which is overseeing the project, the government will pay US$70 million for phase 1 of the project which is expected to produce only 30 MW of electricity. She said the costs of the second phase of the project, which will generate an additional 40 MW, will be determined “taking into consideration current trends in solar generation environments”.
However, the well-placed sources said the government had already agreed to pay M2, 8 billion for the whole project. They said the government will be forced to pay through the teeth and leave behind a huge legacy debt for future generations all because the contractor, Sinoma Tbea Consortium, allegedly made underhand payments to then Energy and Meteorology Minister, Mokoto Hloaele, who facilitated the deal. Former First Lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane is also said to have been part of the underhand deal, owing to her connections to one David Chen, who was fronting the project as well as former Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC) chairman, Refiloe Matekane.
Mr Hloaele served as energy minister in the previous government from 2017 until February 2019 when then Prime Minister Thomas Thabane reshuffled him to the Home Affairs ministry.
But Mr Hloaele insists his hands are clean. He even disowned the project, saying it was Mr Mochoboroane’s “baby” as the latter was the one who negotiated it with the Chinese government and Sinoma Tbea when he was still energy minister in 2016.
“I was not the energy minister when this deal was negotiated and a cooperation agreement signed in 2016. Mr Mochoboroane was the energy minister at the time.
“I was development planning minister and Mr Mochoboroane came to my office with his then principal secretary to inform about the need for a solar project to increase local power generation since Lesotho was importing a huge chunk of its power (from South Africa and Mozambique),” Mr Hloaele told the Lesotho Times this week.
He said at the time he was a member of the Prime Minister Mosisili’s ruling Democratic Congress (DC) party but resigned his post as development planning minister after ditching the party together with then DC deputy leader, Monyane Moleleki, and others to form the Alliance of Democrats (AD) in 2016.
“I returned to government as energy minister after the collapse of the Mosisili government and the advent of the Thabane-led four parties’ coalition in June 2017.
“By then there was already a cooperation agreement signed by Mr Mochoboroane and the contractor for the solar project. It is something that I inherited. The project was one of the major projects which would be financed through loans from the China EXIM Bank under the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
“Other projects to be funded by the Chinese include the construction of the Mpiti-Sehlabathebe Road, the Maseru Hospital and Eye Clinic (to replace Queen Elizabeth II Hospital) and the Hlotse multi-purpose dam.
“The claims in your newspaper that I received bribes for this project are false. It is also not true what has been claimed in your newspaper that the project was agreed at my insistence despite opposition by then Chinese Ambassador to Lesotho, Sun Xinghua, who allegedly warned that the project was too expensive. However, it is surprising that your paper doesn’t say anything about Lesotho’s ambassador to China, Lebohang Ntšinyi, because she was the contact between Lesotho and China.
“In fact, I and officials from other ministries even went on site visits to see the projects being done by the contractor, Sinoma Tbea in China. My visits to China would not have happened if he was against the project as claimed in your story last week.”
Asked whether he accepted that the projected was highly inflated, Mr Hloaele concurred. He said he had raised the issue of the huge project cost during one of his visits to China and he was informed that the costs were not just for the construction of the solar plant and generation of electricity but also for the rehabilitation of the power grid as it would have to take in power and transmit generated at the plant in addition to the power generated at the Muela Hydropower Station.
He denied responsibility for the grossly inflated deal with Sinoma Tbea saying even though deals were initiated by the relevant ministries, financing agreements were signed on behalf of the government by the finance ministry. He referred all questions to Dr Majoro who was finance minister at the time. Dr Majoro was not reachable on his mobile phone for comment yesterday.
Meanwhile, Mr Mochoboroane, who is back in government as development planning minister, yesterday admitted signing the cooperation agreement for the project in 2016.
He however, said the cooperation agreement was merely for Sinoma Tbea to conduct feasibility studies and this did not explain why the Thabane administration eventually signed a grossly inflated financing deal for the project.
“It is true that I signed a cooperation agreement but this was only to enable Sinoma Tbea to conduct feasibility studies for the project,” Mr Mochoboroane told this publication yesterday.
Last month Mr Mochoboroane told the Sunday Express that the solar project was one of the projects which were “ill-conceived and politically motivated”, hence the delays in implementing them.
“The Maseru Hospital and Eye Clinic and Ramarothole solar projects have been included in the last three financial budgets. But I have realised that some of these projects were politically motivated hence they are taking longer to be implemented because of their top-down approach.
“Funding was sourced prematurely without following the proper procedures. These two are some of the many overdue projects but I hope they will soon be implemented,” Mr Mochoboroane said.