Govt forges ahead with controversial solar project

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Pascalinah Kabi

THE government is forging ahead with the grossly inflated M2, 8 billion project to build a 70-megawatt (MW) solar power generation plant at Ramarothole, Mafeteng.

This despite an ongoing investigation by the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO) to establish how the tender was awarded by the government to a Chinese contractor, Sinoma Tbea Consortium.

Inspite of the probe, the government is going ahead with the project and yesterday Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro officiated at a sod-turning ceremony at Ramarothole to mark the start of construction work.

Ministers Mohapi Mohapinyane (Energy and Meteorology), Thabo Sophonea (Finance), Professor Nqosa Mahao (Law and Justice), Nkaku Kabi (Water), Selibe Mochoboroane (Development Planning), Likeleli Tampane (Gender and Youth), Motlohi Maliehe (Forestry), Keketso Rantšo (Labour) and Maimane Maphathe (Deputy Public Works) attended the ceremony alongside Chinese ambassador Lei Kezhong, Likhoele Principal Chief Lerotholi Seeiso and Member of Parliament Molefi Phamotse, area chief Fako Seeiso and Councilor Sebofi Moeketsi.

The Lesotho Times also learned that the sod-turning ceremony was almost aborted at the 11th hour as angry villagers demanded a stop to the project until they had been compensated for the loss of their land which will be the site of the project. The ceremony only went ahead after Minister Mohapinyane met with Principal Chief Seeiso and promised to compensate the villagers in the next two weeks.

In an interview with this publication on the sidelines of the event, Finance Minister Sophonea said they were forging ahead with the project because as of now there were just allegations and no compelling evidence of any irregularities in the awarding of the tender to Sinoma Tbea.

“On our side we do not have any solid evidence of anything untoward, there are just allegations,” Mr Sophonea said.

“There is nothing concrete. The DCEO and other departments have not written to us to indicate that there is a corruption behind this project. Yes, the allegations are there but you cannot stop acting unless you have a direct order or evidence stopping you.

“It is their (DCEO) duty to investigate but then again we have to continue with the development of the country until the DCEO has something tangible to act on. It is their duty to investigate whatever they think has not been properly done but unless something solid can be brought to us, we cannot stop. We are happy they are continuing with the investigations but now we have to go ahead because we are already late in starting this project,” Mr Sophonea said.

The DCEO began probing the deal in the wake of last month’s exposé by the Lesotho Times of a massive scandal in which some senior officials in the Thabane administration, including former Energy Minister Mokoto Hloaele, are said to have agreed to the bloated deal with Sinoma Tbea in exchange for bribes.

Mr Hloaele is alleged to have received a sizeable bribe along with former First Lady ‘Maesaiah Thabane and others to facilitate the deal.

Mr Hloaele has since denied receiving any bribes. He has instead challenged current 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 Sinoma Tbea Consortium.

He said the solar power deal was initially agreed with Sinoma Tbea during the tenure of the Pakalitha Mosisili-led seven parties’ government when Mr Mochoboroane was energy minister in 2016.

He said a financing agreement for the project was agreed during the time of the Thabane administration when current premier Majoro was still finance minister.

Even though financing agreement was signed by Dr Majoro, he was merely approving figures which had been suggested by Mr Mochoboroane, Mr Hloaele said.

Therefore, Mr Mochoboroane should explain why the project cost that staggering amount, he said. He also disputed the M2, 8 billion amount, saying to the best of his knowledge, it would only cost M1, 8 billion.

Well-placed sources in the solar power generation industry last month 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).

It is such allegations that the DCEO is probing to ensure the deal was above board.

It has emerged that shortly after the publication of the Lesotho Times story last month, DCEO director general Mahlomola Manyokole wrote to Energy and Meteorology principal secretary, Themba Sopeng, asking him to furnish him with documents and other information pertaining to the deal as part of the anti-graft body’s probe

DCEO spokesperson ‘Matlhokomelo Senoko refused to shed light on the issue, saying, they no longer comment on any of their investigations.

Adv Manyokole was not reachable on his mobile phone for comment yesterday.

However, the Lesotho Times has seen a copy of a 30 November 2020 letter Mr Sopeng wrote to Adv Manyokole concerning his request for information about the solar deal.

It can be inferred from Mr Sopeng’s response that the DCEO boss wanted to know what role the energy ministry played in securing the deal, how the loan deal for the project was financed, how the government settled on Sinoma Tbea Consortium and if at all a feasibility study had been conducted before the project was agreed.

In his response to Adv Manyokole’s inquiries, Mr Sopeng states that the deal was approved by cabinet. Like Mr Hloaele, he says that the financing agreement was concluded by the finance ministry and not by the energy ministry.

Mr Sopeng explains that the Ministry of Development Planning’s role was to coordinate and monitor engagements with the Chinese government under FOCAC, while the Energy and Meteorology Ministry had the task of “housing and implementing the project”. He said the Ministry of Finance negotiated and concluded the financing agreement with EXIM Bank of China.

Mr Sopeng also states that a feasibility study was undertaken before the deal was concluded and he promised to provide the DCEO boss with a copy of the study in electronic format “due to its size”.

It also appears that Adv Manyokole put it to Mr Sopeng that his ministry went ahead with the project despite being advised against it.

In reply, Mr Sopeng states that, “The Ministry of Energy and Meteorology is not aware of such advice against this project”.

“The project was approved by the cabinet of the government of Lesotho and the approval included for negotiations and signing of the agreement between the government of Lesotho and EXIM Bank of China. Documents of relevant approvals will form part of the electronic documents provided (to the DCEO),” Mr Sopeng states.

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