The SWAPO party has enjoyed almost total control of Namibia since its independence in 1990, and many party members have become extremely rich at the same time. The party traces its roots to black Namibians’ fight against military occupation by Apartheid-era South Africa.
After independence, Iceland became a prominent Western development aid partner, helping Namibia set up a modern and profitable fishing industry in its waters that are among the richest in the world. After the Icelandic government wound up its work in Namibia, Samherji arrived in the country.
Namibia does not have a long history, though the history of the people who lived peacefully in nomadic communities in the country is much longer. The colonisation of the area by Europeans 150 years ago was based on their desire for natural resources.
After the First World War, South Africa took control of the country. Racial segregation was enshrined in law. Representatives of different tribes would later unite in an independence movement called SWAPO and started fighting the occupation.
Thousands were killed and tens of thousands were exiled during the battle for independence which ended in 1989. SWAPO registered as a political party and swept the country’s first parliamentary and presidential elections.
Namibians gained independence later than most of their neighbouring countries and this provided them with an opportunity to learn from their neighbours' bitter experiences.
The gap between rich and poor was greater in Namibia than anywhere else in the world, even though lying off the country's 1500 km coastline are some of the richest fishing grounds of the world. Decades of overexploitation by foreigners had depleted the resource, which until that time had not benefited the Namibian population.
Sigurður Bogason is one of the Icelanders who moved to Africa in the 1990s to work on Icelandic development assistance in Namibia.
“The United Nations had adopted the country and prepared a constitution which is in large part based on the constitution model of the Nordic welfare system. People were hopeful and wanted to succeed, to do everything they could to counteract corruption. This was supposed to be a guiding light for others,” he says.
Many Icelanders contributed, for instance by helping establish Fishcor, the fisheries company founded by the Namibian government. Sigurður was its first CEO.
“Trying to get everybody started. The goal was actually that the locals would gradually take control of the companies,” he says.
Sigurður left the country two years later. By that time Fishcor was becoming a big company, had two subsidiaries named Seaflower , a fleet of ships and a thousand people on its payroll.
The Icelandic government’s development aid officially ended in 2010. Sigurður was later tasked with examining the success of the endeavour, so he revisited the country and its people in November and December of 2013.
“Our total investment was well over a billion ISK. The education aid was important, also the maritime school. We were helping prepare their marine research institute and were involved in the operation of their marine research vessel, Benguela,” Sigurður says.
According to Sigurður’s report, the success of Namibia’s fisheries is almost a miracle. However, a few things raised eyebrows. For instance, Icelanders had spent tens of millions of ISK on IT systems supposed to guarantee transparency, as well as an overview of quota allocation and fishing in Namibia.
When Sigurður asked what had happened to this system he found out it had simply been turned off.
“It was a transparency system so people could see quickly and clearly what was happening in the fisheries. There was an Icelandic consultant who had worked at the ministry for over two years, as I recall, on building the system. Not having transparency makes it easy to say that things different to how they really are,” he explains.
According to Sigurður, he was finally told that the decision to stop gathering and releasing info was made by the minister of fisheries himself, Bernhard Esau.
“So this is an offence on the highest level, which is a problem. A system like this increases the risk of everything ending in the hands of a few,” he says.
Poverty still remains
Despite the success, the wealth from the sea and the mines has not greatly benefitted most of the population. Shantytowns like Tutaleni, Walvis Bay, are home to more than half the population of Namibia’s biggest cities. Poverty and unemployment are not the only reason for this.
It is simply the only type of housing available to ordinary working people who are the backbone of the country’s biggest industries. That is how weak the infrastructure is. Although the fisheries bring in billions every year for the port city of Walvis Bay, the revenue does not find its way to the community.
"We are having a lot of things in Namibia. Mines, agriculture, fishing, special fabric, we have a lot of things, but our government doesn’t know how to give us jobs, that's why you are struggling to much," says Eddy, who lives in and runs a store and carwash in Tutaleni. His wife is part of the crew of a Spanish trawler. Even though both of them are employed, they do not envision better housing for decades to come.
"I think there are 2.9 million people in the country, but our rich, have much more than the rest of us. The president and the ministers live like kings while we are struggling," says Eddy.
"The president and the ministers all take a share. If you don’t have family working in the government, then you suffer. They are corrupt. The authorities are corrupt.”
Out with aid, in with Samherji
When the Icelanders who worked on development cooperation left Namibia in 2010 others replaced them: employees of the fisheries company Samherji. In less than ten years, the company has managed to acquire and fish almost a third of Namibia’s horse mackerel quota.
Samherji’s activities in Namibia, counted in tons, represents close to 20% of the company’s total global catch. Samherji’s prominence in Namibia is contrary to conditions set by the local government.
The group of men who set these very conditions includes the men who have done most to facilitate Samherji’s activities and at the same time they have been paid more than a billion ISK from the Icelandic company. For years, Global Witness has investigated and exposed cases of corruption on a global level. Its investigators examined the case files and pointed out obvious signs of corruption and bribery.
“It’s hugely undermining for Iceland’s foreign policy aims. When a company comes in and bribes in order to get, to get its fish quota, they’re undermining the governance of an entire country. They’re depriving its budgets of revenues that the country desperately needs for health and education. Iceland’s foremost fishing company. It should be held to high standards, instead, they’re, they’re really behaving, like the lowest of the low,“ says Daniel Balint-Kurti, senior investigator at Global Witness.