Lesotho: M1, 8 Billion Road Project Leaves Sour Taste in Locals' Mouths

11 January 2021

The securing of investment for a large-scale project is usually a cause for celebration in most African countries as they are often starved of meaningful infrastructural developments to provide much needed services to ordinary people.

Sod-turning events for such projects are usually attended by presidents, prime ministers, foreign investors and other well-heeled officials who never miss the opportunity to tell host communities how fortunate they are to be chosen to host such large-scale projects of national importance.

Pomp and fanfare characterised the December 2018 sod-turning ceremony to mark the start of the construction of the M1, 8 billion Mpiti to Sehlabathebe Road.

The road is one of the key infrastructure projects being undertaken as a collaborative effort between the Government of Lesotho and Government of China, facilitated through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

Other FOCAC projects are the Maseru Hospital and Eye Clinic to replace Queen Elizabeth II Hospital and the construction of the Hlotse multi-purpose dam among others.

The Export-Import (EXIM) Bank of China provided a concessional loan of M1, 3 billion to fund the Mpiti to Sehlabathebe project. The Lesotho government injected an additional M500 million to bring the total cost of the project to M1, 8 billion.

When complete, the 91 km road will become a 7-meter-wide double-lane road, shortening the driving time from Mpiti to Sehlabathebe from 4 hours to about 1,5 hours.

Villagers' transport woes would be solved and tourism in the picturesque area would also be boosted by the construction of the wide-tarred road, the villagers were told by government officials and the Chinese contractor, Qingjing Group.

There was every reason to look forward to the project with joy but barely two years later, the host communities in the Qacha's Nek district are up in arms with the government and the contractor.

They are singing what has become a familiar refrain in virtually every nook and cranny of Lesotho which has been chosen as a site for a large-scale project.

It is a song of pain and grief over broken promises to compensate them for the loss of their land, houses, pastures and livelihood.

It is also a lamentation about the contractor's failure to prioritise the recruitment of locals for unskilled menial jobs.

For Donkey Nyakiso, an 86-year-old woman from Ha Mosoeu village, the situation is even more poignant because at her age, the loss of her fields means the source of her livelihood. She cannot begin to learn a new trade to get by.

It also represents a setback in the fight to emancipate women who have fought so hard and continue fighting for equal access to resources such as land.

She was born and raised in the scenic Ha Mosoeu valley. Viewed from the dizzying heights of the mountaintops, her village strikes one as a beautiful journey into the belly of the giant mountains of the area.

When the Lesotho Times crew visited the area over the weekend, they found Ms Nyakiso looking forlorn as she shielded her eyes from the bright sunlight while scanning the horizon as if searching for answers as to what the future holds in store for her.

They say lightning does not strike twice but it is clearly a case of double jeopardy in her case. Her fields, which for years gave her decent maize yields enough to sell the surplus, are among those which were expropriated as part of the road construction project. It is a déjà vu feeling for her because many years ago, her family was also forcibly moved from their original Kampong, Qacha's Nek, home to make way for the establishment of a Roman Catholic Church mission.

"I was born in Kampong where my father operated a dairy business. The government expelled us to make way for the establishment of a Roman Catholic Church mission. My father had been running the dairy business from 1949 to 1960 when we were expelled," Ms Nyakiso said.

However, back then the situation was ameliorated by the fact that the church ensured that they were compensated with land in Ha Mosoeu which enabled Ms Nyakiso's father to make a fresh start, this time as a grain farmer.

"I remember my father saying the three fields we had been allocated were my inheritance and no one would ever take them away from me."

For decades, Ms Nyakiso said the fields have given her bountiful yields of as much as 80 bags of maize each.

Such harvests enabled the family to sell the surplus to a miller in the Qacha's Nek town.

But all this has now become a painful thing of the past after her fields were expropriated by the state without prior warning to become part of the Mpiti to Sehlabathebe Road project.

"I was sitting here at my house when I saw people erecting poles on my field without informing me. The area chief never called us for a public gathering to inform us that our fields were going to be taken away from us. We are happy that there is a road development in our area but I am unhappy that my land has been taken away from me without my consent.

"I was only told that the chief had confirmed that I was the legitimate owner of the fields. I was told that they were going ahead with the road construction without compensating or even telling us how much we are going to get for the lost land. I am inconsolable because the land was a special gift from my late father. It was a precious gold that my father left for me," Ms Nyakiso said as she buried her head in hands to ensure the Lesotho Times crew would not see her tears.

Another woman, 'Malesia Pheko (57) is in a similar position. She is also angered by the decision to unilaterally grab her land without any consultations.

"They took my field without consulting me. It has been a year since they placed concrete pipes on my field and I have not been able to plant any crops. My family comprises of 12 individuals and we are largely dependent on farming. It is going to be really a tough year for us because of the disrespectful Chinese investor," Ms Pheko said. She said they would now be forced to divert funds meant for school fees for children and other concerns to buying maize meal now that they cannot farm their field.

"My husband retired from mine work in 2018. We sat down and agreed that we would sparingly use our money because we no longer have a stable income. We agreed not to use our money on things like maize meal and vegetables but because of this, we are now forced to buy maize meal. We are a big family of 12, so you can understand how much we will have to spend on maize meal alone," Ms Pheko said.

The women are not alone in their complaints. Even local business owners are crying foul over the contractor's insistence that they lower the asking price for their goods for it to procure supplies from them. They say this will drive them out of business.

Local hardware operators in Qacha's Nek said instead of boosting their businesses, Qingjing Group was sabotaging them by asking them to lower their prices, failing which they would procure goods elsewhere or even from local Chinese dealers who they claimed were not forced to lower their prices.

A businessman, Mpota Moiloa, said he had gone out of his way to protect Qingjing when it was sued by a local for quarrying sand on his site without a licence.

"I have been operating a hardware shop since 2000. I have also been mining sand since 1991.

"I am currently entangled in a lawsuit with a fellow local after Qingjing asked me to step in and assume responsibility on their behalf on the grounds that they would be penalised more as a foreign concern. They said they would repay me with favours when it came to the awarding of tenders.

"But when I asked to supply them with cement, they told me to join the queue of those who had applied to be tenderers. They said if they considered my tender, they would want me to sell them a bag of cement for only M95. Mind you we buy a bag of cement for M97 in Matatiele (across the border in South Africa). I refused and they said they would not do business with me.

"They now buy from local Chinese dealers and when they do not have any stock, they go to other Chinese dealers in Mohale's Hoek. We had hoped we would benefit from the road construction in our area but we are suffering. My business is falling apart," Mr Moiloa said.

On her part, local Chief 'Malireko Sehahle said Qingjing Group had not fulfilled any of the promises it made to the villagers when it began work on the project.

"When the construction work started, we sat down with the main contractor to discuss how the community would benefit or be compensated for the loss of fields.

"Among other things, the community wanted water tanks in exchange for quarrying by the Chinese contractor. I noticed that the contractor never objected to any of the community's demands and promised to fulfil them. But to date, they have not done anything to the benefit of the villagers.

"I think the problem is that we never asked them to sign any document where they committed to anything. It was just a verbal agreement. I am still hopeful that the community council will be able to solve the impasse. The contractor has now committed to start compensating villagers for the loss of the land from January next year," Chief Sehahle said. He could not say how much each villager would receive.

There is no clear compensation policy in Lesotho hence the conflicts which always ensue whenever a large-scale project is being implemented.

Section 56 of the 2010 Land Act merely states that "the person deprived of such property shall be entitled to compensation at market value".

"The obligation to compensate shall lie with the body conducting the expropriation.

"In assessing compensation, regard shall be had - (a) to the value of the property as certified by an odd number of valuers one of whom shall be the Government valuer, having regard to the present and replacement value; and (b) to the expenses incidental to any necessary change of residence or of place of business," the act further states.

This lack of clear compensation laws leave host communities at the mercy of the state and investors hence the never-ending conflicts.

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