Two ministers in Namibia have resigned and the chief executive of an Icelandic fishing group has temporarily stepped down over allegations the company paid bribes to trawl the southern African nation’s maritime waters.
The corruption scandal was exposed this week in a leak of thousands of corporate documents that investigative reporters said showed Iceland’s biggest fish company, Samherji, had paid at least $10m in kickbacks over several years in order to secure Namibian fishing quotas.
During a programme broadcast in Iceland, a former company employee turned whistleblower, Johannes Stefansson, outlined allegations of a complex international bribery scheme involving the transfer of funds through different offshore jurisdictions. Mr Stefansson said he had approved the payment bribes on behalf of Samherji, each time with a “green light” from the company. “Samherji does whatever it takes to get its hands on the natural resources of other nations,” he told Icelandic media.
Africa’s fishing waters have become highly coveted as global fish stocks have declined and Namibia is one of the continent’s most important producers by the value of catch.
Following the broadcast, Samherji said on Thursday that chief executive Thorsteinn Mar Baldvinsson had stepped down pending an internal company probe into its Namibian activities.
“We take this serious step to ensure and demonstrate the complete integrity of the ongoing investigation,” said Eirikur Johannsson, chairman of Samherji’s board.
Samherji declined to comment on the specific allegations in the scandal. Mr Stefansson could not immediately be reached for further comment.
Namibia’s president Hage Geingob said he had accepted the resignations of Bernhard Esau, the fisheries minister, and Sacky Shanghala, the justice minister “due to the severity of the allegations in the press”.
Mr Geingob’s ruling Swapo is battling to renew its 29-year post-independence grip on power in polls at the end of this month. The former ministers deny wrongdoing and Mr Esau has said that the allegations are part of a plot to unseat Swapo in the elections.
Namibia, a former German colony that was ruled by South Africa’s apartheid regime until 1990, has a sparse population and a sleepy reputation. Its best-known exports are uranium and diamonds but its fish stocks are particularly prized due to the resource-rich Benguela current that skirts Namibia’s Atlantic coast. In Namibia, Samherji was mainly fishing horse mackerel.
Namibian civic activists have alleged that fishing quotas are dispensed as a form of political patronage for the ruling party, claims that Swapo denies.
Last year a public register of Namibian lawmakers’ assets revealed that one in five owned shares in fishing companies.
This week’s revelations have infuriated ordinary Namibians, who live in one of the world’s most unequal societies and are enduring the country’s deepest post-independence recession this year.
The Namibian, one of the biggest national newspapers which helped to expose the scandal, has demanded action against “a coterie of well-heeled vampires that are sucking the sector dry”.
According to documents published by WikiLeaks and The Namibian and Icelandic media, Samherji paid bribes and recycled proceeds via a web of offshore companies and some of the money passed through DNB, Norway’s largest bank.
DNB, whose biggest shareholder is the Norwegian state, has said it will investigate the claims.