…analysts warn full-on snooping on citizens could fuel human rights violations,
…and draw Lesotho deeper into the web of the China-US fight for geopolitical supremacy…
Lesotho’s US$87 million Safe City Project deal with Chinese technology giant, Huawei, has been touted by politicians as the panacea to the southern African nation’s alarmingly high crime rates which have seen it top Africa’s murder statistics ahead of far more unstable and war-ravaged countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique.
The deal, agreed in December 2021 by Huawei and the-then Moeketsi Majoro-led governing coalition, provides for full-on state surveillance in the capital, Maseru, and other parts of the country to help fight rampant crime in the country.
According to a document prepared for cabinet’s consideration by then Police and Public Safety Minister, Lepota Sekola, “the Safe City Project entails the deployment of surveillance systems and data management systems, the construction of a data management centre and command centre. It also entails the provision of digital communications equipment to the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS)”.
Phase one of the project is supposed to be implemented in the capital, Maseru, before being spread to other parts of the country.
It is one of several deals that current Prime Minister Sam Matekane’s government inherited when it came to power in the aftermath of the 7 October 2022 elections.
The project has been touted by its proponents, including Huawei and former Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Public Service, Retired Colonel (Rtd Col) Tanki Mothae, as the panacea to rampant crime in the southern African kingdom.
But some legal experts and analysts are wary of the envisaged project. They want Prime Minister Matekane’s fledgling government to cancel the deal. In separate interviews with this publication, they warned that in seeking to reduce Lesotho’s frighteningly high crime rates, the envisaged indiscriminate surveillance under the project could well open the floodgates to wholesale violations of rights and freedoms of citizens by politicians and the police.
Some analysts also warn implementation could also lead to a further erosion of Lesotho’s sovereignty and render it another pawn in the battle for geopolitical supremacy between China and western countries, particularly, the United States of America (USA).
Lesotho turned to Huawei in a bid to stem rampant crime which earned it the dubious distinction of Africa’s murder capital and sixth most homicidal nation in the world, according to a 2021 World Population Review report.
The global average murder rate is seven per 100 000 people but Lesotho had a rate almost six times higher at 41, 25 homicides. Only El Salvador (82.84 per 100,000 people), Honduras (56.52), Venezuela (56.33), Virgin Islands (49.26) and Jamaica (47.01) were ahead of Lesotho in the murder rankings.
Even strife-torn countries like the DRC and Mozambique fared better than Lesotho on the murder rankings. DRC had a homicide score of 13.55, and Mozambique 3.4.
Lesotho’s only neighbour, South Africa, had 33.97 murders per 100 000 people and was the only other southern African country in the top 10 for highest rates of murder.
Recently, a staggering 59 murder suspects were jailed in just nine days as the country reported several gun-related murders, including the killings of police officers.
Just last week, prominent radio presenter, Ralikonelo Joki, was gunned down shortly after knocking off from work. Mr Joki’s murder was swiftly followed by the imposition of an indefinite nationwide curfew by the police on 16 May.
According to Rtd Col Mothae, the ever-increasing murders and other violent crimes justify the introduction of a surveillance system like the one envisaged under the deal with Huawei.
Rtd Col Mothae was principal secretary in the Ministry of Police when the Safe City Project tender was awarded to Huawei.
He has called on the current administration to implement the deal, saying, “the previous governments were concerned about the high crime rate which was paralysing the nation and thought of the Safe City Project as a solution”.
“Lesotho is part of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Under FOCAC, different African countries pitch various projects they wish to implement with Chinese assistance. The Safe City project is one of several projects which Lesotho pitched at the 2014 FOCAC summit and it was approved.
“Our country ranks very high in terms of crime. On a daily basis, there are reports of murder, rape and robbery among others. This project will help end the heinous crimes. It will help the police to act swiftly in response to crime.
“The objective of the police force is to eradicate murders, stock theft, robberies and all sorts of crimes. We intend to eliminate or reduce crime as it is one of the issues contributing to instability in the country.
“We are at a point where every citizen feels the need to own a gun to feel safe. That should not be the case. This country should be a safe environment for everyone. This project will help us reduce the high crime rate because the cameras installed across the country will assist in capturing the crimes, thus, enabling the police to act swiftly,” Rtd Col Mothae said in a previous interview.
There has been widespread criticism of the proposed surveillance project with analysts saying it will violate citizens’ rights to privacy and it could be abused by Lesotho’s politicians and security agencies to spy on their opponents.
When this was put to Rtd Col Mothae, he said, “there should be a balance between privacy and public safety”.
“From a security point of view, our focus is on public safety and that of the protecting people’s property. There is nothing private about people’s property being stolen, or people being killed by unidentified criminals on a daily basis. We believe that the right to life and safety supersedes the right to privacy. We need a safe and peaceful Lesotho. We do not intend to spy on people but to keep the country safe,” he added.
However, analysts remain unconvinced that mass surveillance is the best way to address rampant crime.
According to Advocate Hlasoa Molapo, a human rights lawyer, “digital surveillance of the public flies in the face of sections 4 and 11 of the Lesotho constitution which both state that every person has a right to privacy and family life”.
“Right now there isn’t an enabling act to provide for digital surveillance. But even if one was to be enacted, it would still be a voidable law as it would contract the constitution which guarantees privacy among other rights. The constitution is the supreme law and any other law which contradicts it is void to the extent of that contradiction.
“In any event, public safety cannot be guaranteed by surveillance but the competence of the police in investigating crimes and arresting suspects. Lesotho is a relatively small country (of just 2, 1 million people). Surely, we cannot say it is difficult for the police to trace suspects or counter crime. The police just need to be equipped with necessary skills and tools for them to effectively do their work. The justice system wheels should also be seen to be turning in order to combat crime,” Adv Molapo said.
Another lawyer, Adv Fusi Sehapi concurred, saying, “surveillance would affect citizens’ freedoms and rights to privacy.
“As lawyers, we would find it difficult to do our job. As things stand, we are not on good terms with the police who accuse us of always fighting for criminals to go scot free. They (police) would certainly take advantage of the surveillance system to monitor our every move. Instead of protecting lives, surveillance could be abused to impinge on personal freedoms,” Adv Sehapi said.
On his part, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Lesotho chapter) chairperson, Kananelo Boloetse, said although video surveillance could help fight crime, “it poses a threat to privacy – a fundamental human right protected by the constitution”.
“Our police service is notorious for committing human rights violations at a shockingly frequent rate. Fears that rights to privacy, freedoms of movement, expression and association will all be violated are therefore legitimate and reasonable.
“Surveillance cameras can also be misused. The information recorded in those cameras can be used as a weapon in blackmailing journalists. Imagine you are writing a negative story about the police commissioner and you are then summoned to the police headquarters for an interview. Upon arrival, the police show you footage where you are buying sex from a sex worker. They use this to blackmail you into dropping your story about the commissioner. All I’m saying is that there are no guarantees that the technology will not be abused.
“Besides monitoring journalists’ movements and who they meet with, the government can misuse the cameras to spy on their political opponents. Compromising footages of opposition politicians could be leaked to destroy their political careers as data privacy laws in our country don’t offer adequate protection,” Mr Boloetse said.
In addition to fuelling rights abuses, surveillance could also draw Lesotho ever deeper into the web of the Sino-American fight for geopolitical supremacy, analysts further warn.
According to a Huawei report issued last year, its ‘smart cities solutions’ “currently serve over 700 cities across more than 40 countries and regions”.
Should the Safe City Project deal be consummated, Lesotho would join fellow SADC countries like Botswana, Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe as consumers of Huawei’s surveillance technology.
“Rather than solve rampant crime, surveillance powered by Huawei could have the unintended consequence of entrenching Lesotho’s dependency on China,” said Sello Sello, a political analyst.
“Worse still, this would simply draw our country deeper into China and the USA’s ongoing war for geopolitical supremacy. Huawei would have access to critical information about our people, our government and nation as a whole. It would simply pass on such information to the Chinese government. We are just pawns without anything to gain from that war,” Mr Sello said.
Although it has never been proven, Huawei has over the years faced accusations, mainly from western countries, of using its technologies to spy on behalf of China and assist the Asian giant’s alleged quest for world domination.
Despite such misgivings, Rtd Col Mothae insists the project represents Lesotho’s best hope of dealing with crime. He insists that Huawei will not be used as conduit by the Chinese government to advance its strategic interests in Lesotho.
“Of course, national security is a priority. However, we are not the first country to implement the Safe City project. Wherever such projects have been implemented particularly in Africa, this has been done by foreign companies.
“The track record of those companies is good. Besides, there are laws and agreements which come to play when such sensitive projects are implemented. Breach of such contracts and laws can result in very serious consequences for such companies. In any event, we are already using Microsoft and other systems on mobile phones. We use these daily to store up our most private and personal details without worrying who could be privy to such information. We remain calm because we know that the developers know about the privacy policies,” Rtd Col Mothae said in response to concerns about the potential threats to Lesotho’s sovereignty.
Not everyone is convinced by this explanation.
“The Huawei deal is part of government to government agreements under FOCAC and it is funded through a concessional loan by the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank) to the Lesotho government. This clearly shows that the Huawei deal is not just between Lesotho and an independent private entity. The Chinese government is clearly involved and it certainly has leverage on Lesotho through the loan extended by the Exim Bank. There is no saying how the Chinese could use this leverage as it competes with America and the West for geopolitical supremacy,” said one former cabinet minister who spoke on condition of anonymity due to what he said was the “sensitivity of the subject”.
Herbert Moyo is a journalist researching digital surveillance with support from the Media Policy & Democracy Project (MPDP) jointly run by the University of Johannesburg and Unisa.