Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Lesotho crisis could cost Botswana dearly

The current political turmoil in Lesotho comes at a time when Botswana is exploring the possibility of importing water from the mountain kingdom.

Alongside South Africa, Namibia and Lesotho, Botswana is part of the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM) which the governments of all four countries formalised in 2000. ORASECOM is the first commission to be established following the regional ratification of the SADC Protocol on Shared Water Course Systems.

A trans-boundary water resource covers large portions of South Africa and Lesotho as well as southern regions of Botswana and Namibia, the Orange-Senqu River basin is the largest river basin in Africa south of the Zambezi River basin. It covers an area of 1 000 000 km┬▓, 7.9 percent of which is in Botswana. The basin incorporates the central part of South Africa, which represents nearly half of the surface area of the RSA, the whole of Lesotho (where the main river is known as the Senqu), reaches to the southern part of Botswana, and drains most of the southern half of Namibia.

South Africa already benefits from this basin through the multi-billion-dollar, five-dam Lesotho Highlands Water Project which started in 1986. As Africa’s largest water transfer scheme, this project is designed to capture, store, and transfer water from the Orange River system to South Africa’s Free State and greater Johannesburg area, which features a large concentration of South African industry, population, and agriculture. Water sales from this project are the country’s single largest source of foreign exchange, and account for 75 percent of the country’s budget. Now, as at any one point in human history, militaristic campaigns are largely waged on the basis of economic interest and the primary reason that South Africa intervened militarily in Lesotho in 1998 was to secure its economic interests in respect of this project.

In his last state-of-the-nation address, President Ian Khama revealed that a study will be undertaken under ORASECOM to establish the feasibility of Botswana getting water from the Lesotho Highlands.

“Negotiations for additional water from Lesotho Highlands are ongoing, with Lesotho, South Africa and ourselves having signed a tripartite agreement in March 2013 under the auspices of the Orange-Senqu River Commission. A study will be undertaken under this MOU to establish the feasibility of Botswana getting water from the Lesotho Highlands,” Khama said.

ORASECOM is currently consolidating a 10-year Integrated Water Resources Management Plan for the basin. The draft plan is expected by the third quarter of 2014.

The Botswana Democratic Party government is not the only one eyeing the Orange River. In its election manifesto, the Umbrella for Democratic Change lays out an ambitious plan to establish a “multi-tiered water sector.” The party says it will “ensure the large quantities of water demanded in the future for coal mining and industrial development are sustainably provided, and if need be, import additional water from Lesotho.”┬á

A government source says that this project would cost at least four times Botswana’s current annual budget.

However, since gaining independence from Britain in 1966, the tiny mountain kingdom has always been troubled by big political problems. It has experienced eight major incidents of instability brought about by the use of the armed forces. The longest period of stability that the country has enjoyed (16 years of no AK47 being fired in anger) was between 1970 and 1986. This unrest has been largely a result of authoritarian rule, a tradition of constitutional crises, fragile civil-military relations and a deterioration of the rule of law.

Regarding the recent chaos, tension began to simmer in March this year when opposition MPs unsuccessfully demanded that Parliament should put aside budget allocations to discuss their motion of no-confidence in the government. At this time riot police had been deployed in the capital, Maseru. The dynamic changed over the past weekend when the military disarmed police in Maseru alleging that the latter were planning to supply arms for protest marchers. Prime Minister Thomas Thabane saw this as a coup attempt and fled to South Africa which is just a few minutes drive away from Maseru. Following SADC’s intervention, Thabane is back home but the situation remains fluid. Buried somewhere in that fluidity could be the fate of Botswana’s plans to import water from Lesotho.

In at least three instances, the political turmoil in Lesotho has come at tremendous financial cost to Botswana. A year after the second coup (1975), Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan decided to nationalise the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS) without doing so much as consulting partners in the university project. Jonathan’s unilateral decision effectively meant that Batswana and Swati students were expelled from UBLS. This is how the University of Botswana came to be established, the first seed for the project being conceived at drinking session in Bontleng where then Gaborone MP, Wellie Seboni, was among those knocking back a few.┬á

Jonathan’s actions were both an issue of grave concern to Batswana and a topic of conversation in 1976. Thus it was then that the issue came up at the Bontleng session. Seboni had gone there to update his constituents about the UBLS situation. A man whom history only remembers as McKenzie suggested that since Botswana was a cattle-rearing country, its citizens could be encouraged to donate cattle towards the construction of the country’s own university.

Seboni later refined the “motho le motho kgomo” (one man one beast) idea and brought it before Parliament in the form of a motion. President Sir Seretse Khama was himself so thrilled with it idea that he wasted no time in doing all that was necessary ensure it succeeded. That included donating 30 cows.

Subsequent to the motion being passed, parliament passed a bill to establish the University of Botswana. Here at home, the situation was full of promise but down in Lesotho, some 150 Batswana students were stranded and experiencing a nightmare they had not been mentally prepared for. Two buses were hired to repatriate Batswana students from Maseru to Botswana at a total cost of R3000.

In 1998, a political crisis in Lesotho prompted a largely unprepared Southern African Development Community (SADC) military force to intervene and prevent a possible coup d’etat through the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) and South African National Defence Force (SANDF). As the latter’s commander, General Siphiwe Nyanda, would later tell a joint committee of the South African parliament two months later, the SADC task force entered Lesotho under the most adverse of conditions. The first sign of disaster was probably when an SANDF military intelligence computer selected a nonsensical name for the campaign – “Operation Boleas.”

Nyanda told South African MPs that there was limited intelligence liaison with BDF, that intelligence was so outdated that a 1971 aerial photograph had to be used, that the taskforce had no powers of arrest and that it had had no time to study the laws of Lesotho. Two years later, South Africa’s defence minister, Mosiioa Lekota revealed that the seven month-long Operation Boleas had cost the country R57.3 million and that Botswana had to pay its own costs. It is unclear how much the total cost for BDF was but it would have been quite substantial.

At a time that there is realisation that SADC countries should seek foreign direct investment not individual countries but as a bloc, Lesotho’s flare-ups are anything but helpful for purposes of attracting that commodity. Except through the Southern African Customs Union, Botswana and Lesotho don’t do much trade but according to the analysis of a Zimbabwean economist at the University of Zimbabwe, the unrealised trade potential between the two countries is 22.2 percent.┬á


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