By Innocent B. Ncube
The People’s Republic of China has fully financed the construction of at least 15 new African parliamentary buildings and refurbished and furnished several others on the continent. Its method of donating parliament buildings – controlling their design, construction and long-term maintenance – seems designed to embed its influence in parliamentary institutions in order to have recurrent access to dominant cross-party elites. Innocent Batsani-Ncube examines China’s delivery of one such building, in Lesotho.
China’s offer to build a new parliament for Lesotho can be understood as a bid to influence the soul of the Lesotho political system. The offer was first made during Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s trip to China in 2005, and remade during then-Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing’s visit to Lesotho in January 2006. It answered Lesotho’s need for a purpose-built parliament building, part of the parliamentary reform programme outlined by the government in 2004.
At the time of Mosisili’s visit to China in December 2005, he was also the incoming 2006-2007 Southern African Development Community (SADC) chairperson. In this role, he would later play an important role at the 2006 FOCAC Summit in Beijing. On behalf of SADC, he was given the opportunity to address the opening ceremony of the High-level Dialogue and the Second Conference of Chinese and African Entrepreneurs. The timing of the parliament building donation was possibly tied to the cumulative strategic importance of Lesotho at the time.
While the donation fulfilled an existing need in Lesotho, the mode of project execution indicates China’s intentions to leverage the gift for long term political influence in the parliamentary institution. Parliament is Lesotho’s most visible, enduring and central political institution. It consists of the King, the Senate and National Assembly. The King summons Parliament and formally approves legislation through royal assent. The executive is drawn from parliament and its leader, the Prime Minister has to command a majority in the National Assembly. In essence, parliament is the soul of the Lesotho political system.
In executing the parliament building project, China deliberately side-lined earlier plans developed by the Lesotho government’s multi-stakeholder steering committee. The steering committee that drew members from the Lesotho National Assembly, Senate, Ministry of Public Works’ Building Design Services (BDS), Maseru City Council and Ministry of Finance had produced a design template for the building in 2004.
Instead, China nominated the China Northeast Architectural Design and Research Institute to produce a separate design and appointed the Chinese Yanjian Group construction firm to construct the building. The firm employed Chinese artisans - such as carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and electricians – in key roles. Basotho artisans were employed as labourers at worst and trainees at best.
The net effect of China’s dominance in the design and implementation of the building project was that the final product reflected more the desires of the giver and less the wishes of the recipient. The contractor was supervised by a Chinese technical design team instead of the BDS. The role of the BDS was limited to monitoring the technical design team that was supervising the contractors. The Chinese construction firm applied Chinese construction standards and materials specification.
Chinese contractors have been maintaining the building since it was completed. They have established a semi-permanent work compound at the foot of the Mpilo Hill where the Parliament building is located. The compound precast wall is emblazoned with the words Chinese Technical Team, taking care of the new Lesotho Parliament building and a visible China aid logo at its gate. Lesotho government officials have conceded that they do not have the technical people to take care of the building and need to continuously extend the contract for the Chinese technical teams so that they assist in taking care of the building.
The octopus-like grip on the building’s value chain seems to have been deliberate and meant to guarantee China’s long-term presence in Lesotho. In constructing the building in this manner, China sought to make itself indispensable to the management and maintenance of the Lesotho parliament building. This would grant China continuous access to Lesotho’s political system and secure its long-term foreign policy interests.
China’s direct engagement in Lesotho’s parliament building has partly enabled it to maintain and consolidate relations with successive governments. When China offered to build the parliament of Lesotho, the Lesotho Congress of Democrats (LCD) and Pakalitha Mosisili were the governing party and Prime Minister respectively. At the time, the Thomas Thabane’s All Basotho Congress (ABC) was the official opposition. However, by the time the building was completed the roles had changed, the ABC was now the governing party with Thabane as the Prime Minister. They have also dealt with two more – the Moeketsi Majoro and Sam Matekane administrations.
In sum, China’s method of constructing the Lesotho parliament building point to a self-interested nature of its parliament development and indicates a stronger vested interest in domestic mutli-party political institutions than most commentators think. Instead of backing a single political player, China has adapted its strategy to hedge its bets. While political elites come and go, there have been two constants: China and the parliamentary institution.
This article is drawn from a longer article which is available free online: