Picture: Katrina Hanse-Himarwe
It is not common to read of a high court finding a government minister guilty of corruption but, this week, what might be unthinkable in many countries came to pass in Namibia: the Minister of Education, Arts and Culture was convicted under anti-corruption laws for actions taken when she was still a district Governor. Katrina Hanse-Himarwe has since resigned, getting in first as it became clear that President Hage Geingob planned to dismiss her.
When Namibia’s Minister of Education, Arts and Culture, Katrina Hanse-Himarwe, removed certain people from the list of those in line for new government houses and replaced them with nominees of her own, the Anti-Corruption Commission took note.
And alarm bells rang even more loudly with the discovery that the people she added to the list were relatives. After an official investigation by the commission, a docket was sent to the Prosecutor-General who decided to go ahead with prosecution using the commission’s findings as the basis for trial.
Three days ago, the high court gave its verdict: the minister was guilty of contravening the Anti-Corruption Act by ‘corruptly using office or position for gratification’.
Her initial reaction was to express shock and disappointment at the judgment, and to hint at an appeal. However, events have overtaken her. Convicted on 8 July, she resigned from her position later this week, apparently well-knowing that President Hage Geingob was planning to remove her.
Judge Christie Liebenberg’s decision begins with a firm re-statement of the principle of equal justice for all, stressing that judges must fearlessly administer justice without favour or prejudice.
The judge said his comments were prompted by opening remarks from counsel for Hanse-Himarwe about the role of the judiciary under the apartheid era in allowing injustices to occur in cases they heard. Judges in contemporary Namibia should not ‘become complacent’ because apartheid had ended, but had to be vigilant against perpetuating other kinds of injustice, said counsel.
Judge Liebenberg said these remarks made it necessary to explain his approach in dealing with the trial. ‘(T)he accused’s status and political affiliation as former Governor of the Hardap Region or currently as Minister of Education, Arts and Culture is inconsequential to the court’s approach when evaluating the evidence adduced by either the state or the defence. Because all persons are considered equal before the law, the personal circumstances of the accused at trial stage are of little or no consideration to the court when evaluating evidence adduced, except where relevant to the particulars of the charge.’
The judge dismissed Hanse-Himarwa’s claim that the investigation and subsequent decision to charge her was a witch hunt, saying he was satisfied with the way the investigating officer handled the matter. Although Hanse-Himarwa claimed there was a ‘concerted effort between state witnesses and the investigating officers to falsely implicate’ her, this was not borne out in evidence when the relevant witnesses were cross-examined.
According to the state, Hanse-Himarwa was Governor of the Hardap Region at a time when the government ran a programme through the Ministry of Regional and Local Government and Rural Development, aimed at providing state subsidized houses to low and middle-income earners. A special ceremony was scheduled to hand over 19 such houses to the selected beneficiaries in December 2014, with Hanse-Himarwa due to preside.
But a few days before, she used her official office as Governor to remove two proposed beneficiaries and replace them with her niece and her sister in law. Hanse-Himarwa simply denied all these charges and that she had acted corruptly.
The Permanent Secretary to the ministry dealing with the project said that shortly before the official handover he was called by two colleagues who said the governor was not satisfied with the selection process.
According to evidence by team leader Merrow Thaniseb, a courtesy meeting was held with the then-Governor, shortly before she was due to officiate at the ceremony and he explained to her the criteria used to finalise the list of beneficiaries. She ‘expressed her displeasure and questioned’ the list.
At a subsequent meeting in her office, Hanse-Himarwa indicated that the list had to be changed, and pointed out the two names to be removed as well as those who should replace them. Her only justification for the removals was to ask why people ‘who campaign against (the ruling party) SWAPO should be given houses.’
When he realised that one of those added to the list was a civil servant who already qualified for a housing subsidy. Thaniseb was unhappy and briefed the Permanent Secretary on the changes.
Other witnesses gave similar evidence, with one quoting Hanse-Himarwa as having said she knew the local people better than the team that drew up the list. Further, during during debate over the people she wanted removed, it was pointed out to her that this was a mass housing programme ‘intended for all Namibians and that the selection of beneficiaries should not be politicised.’ Witnesses said she replied that the ceremony would have to be suspended if the changes were not made, and the organisers then agreed that those she removed would be put on the next list for houses.
Hanse-Himarwa said she had been flooded with complaints from the community about the allocation of the new houses, though later evidence indicated just four people had contacted the office. She also claimed that she did not know at the time that one of the two people she had added to the list was a relative. She admitted, however, that the other one was married to her brother, though she denied that she had said this name should be put on the list.
Judge Liebenberg found that though Hanse-Himarwa denied any interference, ‘her actions, even on her own evidence, show otherwise.’ Likewise, the state witnesses, whose evidence he found credible, corroborated one another on key issues.
Her suggestion that the witnesses singled her out as a scapegoat for their own corrupt conduct was ‘preposterous’ and unsubstantiated.
In the view of the judge, Hanse-Himawwa had, as Governor, ‘clearly abused the power and authority vested in her office when she insisted that the list of housing beneficiaries should be changed to her satisfaction, thereby ensuring that ‘at least one of her family members (would) benefit directly from her actions.’ He thus found her guilty of corruptly using her office for gratification.