Sunday, June 23, 2024

Water project delivers poetic justice for Khato Civil

Simbi Phiri can expect a warm applause when he hands over the 100-kilometer Masama-Mmamashia Water pipeline to Botswana government in a few weeks.

It will be a stark contrast to the hostile reception he faced up to after beating eleven of Botswana construction industry turf toughies for the multi-million Pula contract three years ago.

Khato Civils Chairman muscled in on the lucrative, highly corruptible and sewn up Botswana construction industry, armed with a sack full of cash and state of the art equipment.

Like a swashbuckling new cowboy in town, he must have known that his presence would trigger a turf war.

“Khato Civils is a black owned company in a field that is dominated by whites and other races from outside Africa” he said last week while taking journalists on a guided tour of the pipeline. This line came up numerous times during the tour. Phiri never passes up an opportunity to beat the Afrocentric war drum.

But Botswana’s most vilified businessman is still nursing battle scars from the vicious pushback as industry big boys tried to run him out of town.

With the pipeline award coming on the eve of the 2019 elections, the turf war was exploited for political gains.

Khato Civils found itself stumbling along an extraordinarily rocky road, fending off accusations of corruption and connections to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). For most of the 2019 election campaign, conversation about the project was skewed by a hostile political narrative.

Weeks before the General elections, Parliament rejected a supplementary budget proposal by the then Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Kenneth Matambo to finance the water pipeline.

This was after the Chairman of the Parliamentary Finance and Estimates Committee Ignatius Moswaane lied to the nation about funding of the 100-kilometer (km) Masama-Mmamashia pipeline.

The Member of Parliament (MP) for Francistown West lied that the 100km pipeline from Masama wellfields to Mmamashia was not urgent, was conceptualised by Khato Civils (Pty) Ltd and would be used as a stalking horse for Botswana Democratic Party-political funding.

“It’s a pity that Moswaane, being a senior government employee, can be so bold as to peddle such untruths about a government initiative aimed at addressing a looming national crisis,” said the then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), Gasennelwe Senai.

Vice President Slumber Tsogwane tendered a plausible explanation for Moswaane’s lies. During the debate Tsogwane lashed out at fellow MPs accusing them of being captured by commercial interests. 

He said the debate shed light on how legislators can neglect their parliamentary duties just to fight tender wars in Parliament on behalf of certain interests other than their constituencies’.

At the time, thousands of Batswana had to make do with rationed water. Greater Gaborone, which includes Thamaga, Ramotswa, Moshopa Tlokweng and Molepolole needed 179 million litres of water per day but WUC could only supply 130 million litres. The Masama-Mmamashia 100km pipeline project was the only immediate solution for the 49 million litters daily deficit.

By then, politicians and the media had shaped a venomous narrative around the water project, how it was awarded to Khato Civil and why.  In the heat of the electioneering mayhem, partisan affiliation became the strongest single predicator of attitudes towards the project, even more powerful than the country’s water crisis.

Official records however reveal that the project was conceptualized in 2006 after the National Water Master Plan was reviewed. Following the review, WUC was mandated to take over water services in both urban and rural areas.

Before the review, the North South Water Carrier catered for Gaborone to the exclusion of the capital’s peripheral areas. When Gaborone Dam dried up in 2015, the water crisis forced WUC to connect Greater Gaborone (surrounding areas) to the North-South Water Carrier. The pipeline was however overwhelmed by the increased demand.

The 2006 National Water Master Plan review identified two unconventional resources to augment the Greater Gaborone area: Use of high yield wellfields at Masama and reclamation of waste water for portable consumption.

WUC needed to find ways to implement the projects. A team of experts was sent to South Africa by the minister responsible for water to identify and explore opportunities for accelerated implementation of the projects. A bureaucratic back-and-forth ensued at the ministry for the funding of the project.

This was because the Masama-Mmamashia project was not in the National Development Plan. It needed to be funded from elsewhere. At some point it was agreed that funding should instead go to towards the North-South Carrier 2 (NSC2) and the Mmamashia Water Treatment Plant expansion which were in NDP 11.” But NSC2 would take years.

President Lt Gen Ian Khama’s administration gave WUC the green light for pre-investment (tender management up to a point of award). Closer to the end of 2017, WUC got a resolution for award of expansion of the Mmamashia Water Treatment Plant.

WUC dusted off documents of the 100km pipeline from Masama to Mmamashia and proceeded to the board to seek an award of the project which was going to take only 12 months, unlike NSC2 that would take seven years.

In May 2018 weeks after Masisi took over as president, the WUC board resolved to go ahead with the project, subject to funding. In July WUC was advised to prepare a Cab Memo to seek cabinet approvall. On the basis of the approval, WUC went ahead and awarded the tender to Khato Civil.

The award was administered in an open tender where 12 companies participated and passed the compliance stage. At technical stage, only three companies were shortlisted, being China Jiangsu, Khato Civils and China Estate. At financial evaluation, Khato Civils, the new kid on the block was found to be the lowest bidder and most technically sound.

Moswaane was unhappy with the project adjudication. He then lied that Khato was going to be paid P900 million although the project was estimated at P400 million. In fact, the correct figure on the tender documents was P750 million. The tender was however ultimately awarded at P781 million because of delays, which was P31 million above budget. This was still the lowest bid because the second lowest bid was still P200 million higher.

The MP also lied that WUC floated and awarded the tender to Khato Civils before it was authorised by Cabinet or Parliament. 

Moswaane further lied that part of the P900 million requested in Parliament would be used to finance the BDP in kickbacks.

“We at WUC are the ones who requested P900 million,” the then WUC chief executive officer Gasennelwe Senai explained. “We requested P900 million because we had to cater for cost escalations and other unforeseen costs. It did not mean that Khato Civil would be paid P900 million. No! Khato was going to be paid P781 million as per their bid”.

The alleged corruption in the award of the tender came to dominate and distort Botswana politics – exactly according to the script established by Moswaane and opposition MPs who whipped up an anti- pipeline mob. The MP’s lies consolidated and gave credence to a political coding that would shape everything that came after: the hostile environment and the alleged political corruption – deploying a narrative in which part of the money from the project was passed to the ruling BDP under the table for its election campaign. As the debate focused on the alleged Khato Civil political corruption, Phiri found himself carrying the heavy responsibility of vindicating WUC and government on his hunched shoulders. The Khato Civil boss had a lot to prove.  “To be frank I was scared”, Phiri told journalist last week about how delays by suppliers gave him the jitters. The contractor also had to contend with restrictive Covid-19 lockdowns. As if that was not enough, Phiri tested positive to the virus “at a critical time on the project when my guidance and support to my staff was most needed”, he says.

The completion of the project almost 12 months ahead of schedule however offers a moving piece of poetic justice for the businessman who was used as a whipping boy to further the anti-Masisi agenda. But it is much more than that. Khato Civils might be considered to have made one of the most striking business debuts in Botswana in recent times.

Ntshambiwa Moatlhodi, the Water Utilities Executive Director Technical Services said the project has been “completed in the shortest possible time.”

In an industry where project delays and attendant cost overruns hemorrhage the public coffers of hundreds of millions of Pula every year, the Masama-Mmamashia water project is arguably the outstanding construction industry event of 2021, if not the decade. By comparison, all other construction projects look almost humdrum. And its effect on the construction industry promises to be seismic. Moatlhodi told journalists last week that seeing that such a project was completed in have the scheduled time, they way have to review their timelines going forward. “after this project you will see very short timelines” he said.

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