The ‘Fishrot’ corruption scandal engulfing Namibia seems set to choke the country’s legal profession as well: while the Law Society of Namibia tries to access the records of one of its prominent members, suspected of being involved in the scandal and to have used his trust account for money-laundering, it has become clear that a number of the society’s council members face problems of a conflict of interest in the matter. In fact, so many of the council are hampered in one way or another, that local media speculate the society’s attempts to investigate involvement by members of the profession in the scandal could be compromised.
As the ‘Fishrot’ scandal spreads the stench of corruption throughout Namibia, the watchdog for the country’s legal profession, the Law Society of Namibia, is desperately trying to carry out its duty and investigate allegations of trust fund abuse by some of its members.
But it is being stymied by one member in particular, the personal attorney to Namibia’s President. Sisa Namandje is refusing to cooperate by allowing the society access to his books and so the law society’s council has asked the court for a warrant to inspect and seize his trust fund account records.
But while that issue is being fought – the court has refused to grant an ex parte order and says that Namandje must first be heard on the issue - The Namibian reports that the law society’s council is itself implicated. That is because six council members are friends of attorneys who are under investigation, or represent suspected attorneys or are ‘close associates of legal practitioners whose clients are implicated’. Their conflict of interest means that only two of the eight council members have no links to the scandal or to players suspected of involvement in it.
The ‘Fishrot’ scandal concerns allegations that one of Iceland’s biggest fishing companies paid enormous bribe money to Namibian politicians and other highly-placed individuals for lucrative access to the country’s fishing waters.
While the stink cloud has covered Iceland, Greenland Mauritius, the United Arab Emerits and even Norway, one of whose banks is alleged to have been involved in the transfer of money for the bribes, it has also polluted public life in Namibia.
A number of people have been arrested, among them the former Ministers of Justice and of Fisheries, and they are now awaiting trial. Media and legal focus at the moment, however, lies with the legal profession itself. That’s because Namandje was caught in an on-camera sting set up by the media, in which he agreed to facilitate bribe payments. Several other law firms are also under investigation by the leaders of the profession, via the Law Society of Namibia, for alleged involvement in the bribery scam. Namandje, however, has proved the most elusive and the most unwilling to cooperate. He is the biggest legal name among the law firms under investigation by the society: he represents many high profile clients, among them all three of Namibia’s Presidents since independence and he is the personal lawyer of the current head of state, Hage Geingob.
In her founding affidavit to court, asking that the society be allowed access to Namandje’s financial records, the director of the law society, Margaretha Steinmann, says that the council has decided to apply for the records as part of its investigation into members allegedly involved in the scandal.
Steinmann refers to a documentary film in which Namandje was seen and heard agreeing to help payment of bribes using his trust account. Details provided by Namandje in the film have been checked by the society and appear to provide strong indication of his involvement. However, access to further records are now needed so that the society can carry out its function which includes ensuring that members maintain high standards of integrity.
Although there are a number of highly suspicious transactions that they have been able to detect, the society needs further information. Before it can finally conclude whether Namandje or any or his co-directors in the firm have been involved in money laundering via the firm’s trust account ‘it is imperative that an inspection be carried out’, she says.
One of the most sensational of the claims is that ‘Lemon Square Fishing’, an outfit allegedly involved in the money-laundering activities under investigation by the society, is linked to Namibia’s First Lady, Monica Geingos, formerly Monica Kalondo, and who is herself an attorney and entrepreneur.
Steinmann says an online search showed that Lemon Square is one of a number of companies in which the First Lady had interests, and from which she resigned as director when her husband was sworn in. All her shares seems to have been offloaded onto Namandje.
There appears to be a complex network between a group of fishing-related outfits including Lemon Square and Alumni Fishing, a special purpose vehicle for Lemon Square. Namandje is listed as a director of Lemon Square and Alumni Fishing. Against that background, payment into his legal firm’s trust account by Fishcor and Mermaria Seafood – both implicated in the bribery claims – suggest that he was ‘personally benefitting from these payments’, the society says.
‘Absent an explanation by Mr Namandje, it is impossible to discern whether he benefitted legitimately or otherwise from these transactions. I reiterate these transactions call for an inspection of the relevant client files and trust records to ascertain the true state of affairs.’
Namandje has responded to the law society’s request to inspect his trust account in a variety of ways, resisting efforts to access his books while at the same time protesting that he has nothing to hide.
Because he will not allow access to inspect his books, Steinmann asked the court to authorise a warrant to seize his records. Two of the other firms and legal practitioners suspected of involvement are cooperating with the society and have voluntarily opened their records and books for the auditors sent by the council, she said. A third firm has indicated that it will do so, a reaction that Steinmann said was to be expected ‘from a responsible legal practitioners in the circumstances.’
The scandal was having a ‘deeply negative impact’ on the reputation of the legal profession, with potential to erode the faith of the public and trust in the legal profession and by extension the administration of justice’.
‘Failure on the part of the Law Society to take decisive action will no doubt be perceived as the Law Society protecting its own over its duty to protect the public from errant legal practitioners.’ Unless the court intervened and allowed access, there would be a stalemate and the society would be unable to carry out its duty, she concluded.
Judge Herman Oosthuizen, who had to consider the council’s application, has however ordered that Namandje must be given a chance to be heard in court before a warrant will be issued. The hearing has been set down for May 7, although it is too early to tell whether restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic will affect the date.
Namibian lawyers, uninvolved in the case, have spoken about their concern for the taint of corruption that is spreading, particularly across the upper levels of Namibian society. It is like a ‘moral Covid-19’; ‘it infects everything’, one said.