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Namibia slipping into endemic corruption

President's daughter named among those that may be benefiting, but anti-graft agency chief says there is no evidence.

Last updated: 02 Sep 2014 17:13
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Despite widespread reports of corruption, the ACC has managed to prosecute only one person [John Grobler/Al Jazeera]

Windhoek, Namibia - Looking out through the boardroom windows of the Namibian Anti-Corruption Commission's gleaming head office, its director Paulus Noa admitted that legal loopholes are sometimes abused but told Al Jazeera that many graft cases filed were in fact bogus.

High-level corruption cases have been reported by local media, he said, but a lack of evidence is making it difficult for Noa to convict the alleged culprits, he said.

"There's a lot of talk, but many times we find that people making allegations are just being envious … because someone is driving a new car," he said dismissively.

Many of the news reports detailing allegations of high-level corruption, influence-peddling, and mismanagement were either misinformed or the result of hidden agendas, he told Al Jazeera.

This was particularly true of a string of local news reports that detailed how President Hifikepunye Pohamba's beauty-queen daughter Kaupumhote Pohamba and her female partner managed to land a $1.5m construction tender for low-cost housing, Noa said.

Personal connections count for Namibia's 2.1 million people. Local businessmen with the right political connections speak privately of how political groups within the ruling party lobby through the party's structures for a share of lucrative state contracts.

The state - whose expenditure amounted to 48 percent of GDP in 2012/2013 - required any business to include previously disadvantaged partners as a condition for doing business with the government.

And with the government having pumped N$1.4bn ($140m) into local procurement under racially preferential policies over the past three years in a bid to stimulate the flagging economy, opportunities for those with the right connections have bloomed, judging by the number of Bentleys, BMWs and Mercedes-Benz vehicles on Namibia's roads.

Trouble in high places

Local media has reported that Pohamba, a former database administrator for a local bank with no real construction company except on paper, won a deal to build 71 houses for the National Housing Enterprise (NHE), the state housing construction company.

Pohamba and her partner - the daughter of Johannes Gawaxab, managing director for Old Mutual Africa, the largest South African insurance company - then obtained a loan from the state-owned Development Bank, and sub-contracted another company to complete the work, it was reported by weekly tabloid Confidenté
Neither have responded to requests for interviews. 

To some extent, this has led to a situation whereby state resources - in the form of contracts, licences and concessions - are seen as up for grabs to those who are politically well-connected rather than being allocated according to fair, competitive processes.

- Graham Hopwood, director of the Public Policy Research Institute. 

None of this constituted corruption or was indicative of a lack of political will in the Namibian government to combat corruption, Noa insisted. While this might have constituted a practice known as "fronting", there was no law against it, he added.

The war that President Pohamba had declared on corruption in 2006 was being won, said Noa, even though the Anti-Corruption Commission's conviction rate was less than one percent of cases appearing before a court. 

Over the past eight years, the ACC's biggest scalp was that of a tourism deputy director, sentenced to eight years in June 2010 after being tried on 46 charges of corruption and fraud.

After serving jail time for only about two years, he was quietly released although officials deny this. 
As a regular pro-SWAPO (South West Africa People organisation Party, the ruling party since 1990) commentator in his free time on national television, he clearly had friends in the right places, said a government lawyer previously involved in the case. He declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter. 

Access to the right cliques around the right official or politician has become a matter of economic survival, a white businessman, who declined to be named because he does business with the ruling class, admitted. "If you want to get things done, you got to make a deal with them," he shrugged. "There's no other way. You have to play it their way or you starve."

As far as Noa was concerned, a far bigger problem was public servants doing business with the government. While there were only 72 ministers in parliament, there were hundreds of civil servants in positions where they could take advantage of inside knowledge and set themselves up in business in advance of lucrative state tenders, he pointed out.

"If you do not have strict conflict of interest legislation [that prevents civil servants from doing business with their employer], you cannot fight corruption," he said.

That virtually all of Namibia's senior civil servants were prominent members of the ruling party seemed to not bother Noa.

"I believe that all people in positions of making decisions on this have been hand-picked in order not to rock the boat."

The boat, in this case, is ruling party SWAPO's patronage machine. SWAPO has dominated politically since independence in 1990, having won the past three elections with 75 percent of the vote - "a remarkably consistent performance", in spite of two political breakaways from the ruling party in 1999 and 2008, said Graham Hopwood, director of the Public Policy Research Institute. 

State and party 

This total dominance has made the line between state and party totally blurred in some areas, Hopwood said. "Hence, we no longer talk of government but of the SWAPO Party government," a term repeatedly used by President Pohamba in public speeches.

It did emerge recently that Namibia was running short of medicine such as anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS because of mismanagement at the government's central medical stores. 

There's a lot of talk, but many times we find that people making allegations are just being envious … because someone is driving a new car.

- Paulus Noa, head of the Namibian Anti-Corruption Commission

Health Minister Richard Kamwi admitted the problem was caused by Health Ministry Secretary Andrew Ndishishi for transferring all the experienced staff away from the medical stores and appointing new, inexperienced staff in their stead.

By not dismissing Ndishishi, Kamwi was turning a blind-eye to the source of corruption in his own ministry and raising question about who really was in charge, The Namibian newspaper said in a front-page editorial.

Official undertakings to reform the country's public procurement system and introduce freedom of information legislation so far have amounted to nothing, IPPR's Hopwood said.

In the mining industry, Namibia's main source of foreign income, the Ministry of Mines and Energy recommended a carried local BEE shareholding of 10-15 percent for any foreign investor in the sector.

But like all policies pertaining to economic empowerment, it remains an unwritten one - and thus subject to non-transparent executive discretion, veteran lawyer Peter Koep pointed out. 

"BEE is not regulated and therefore continues to be abused by those in decision-making positions," he said. 
"There's just no political will to deal with the real problem." 

Driver of corruption 

The contrary may be true: SWAPO's blurring the line between the state and the party was deliberate and public policy.

Public speeches by all top officials refer to the state as "the SWAPO Party Government" like a mantra.

This blurring of political and public interest, combined with their political dominance, made this the single largest driver of corruption, Hopwood explained. 

"To some extent, this has led to a situation whereby state resources - in the form of contracts, licences and concessions - are seen as up for grabs to those who are politically well-connected rather than being allocated according to fair, competitive processes," said Hopwood.

A lack of effective laws and systems to deal with corruption, a lack of political will on the party of key government figures, and the weakness of the anti-corruption agency have compounded this problem.

"As a result Namibia is at a tipping point - with endemic corruption inevitable if stern action is not taken in the near future," he said.

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Al Jazeera
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