Of all people in need of help, students dependent on grants must be among the most vulnerable. So, when someone is alleged to have stolen from the fund that underwrites students’ studies and their living expenses, the resulting case ought to cause more than usual interest and curiosity.
That’s exactly what is happening in Namibia where judge Boas Usiku has been considering whether the civil trial of Tomas Amehaiti Konghola should continue. The Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF) says Konghola was responsible for fraudulent payments to someone who was not entitled to anything from the fund and the fund wants the money back.
At the trial, the NSFAF called two witnesses and at the end of their evidence Konghola applied for absolution from the instance.
Judge Usiku, who refused the application, said that Konghola had been a payments officer in the payments division of the NSFAF until March 2021, when he resigned. According to the fund, Konghola fraudulently caused payments from the fund, totalling N$529 250, to be paid into the account of Nelson Ndeitunga Sheefeni, someone who was not entitled to that payment.
In the wake of those payments, the fund is now suing Konghola to have the money returned, although Konghola denies having done anything unlawful or fraudulent.
The fund’s first witness, David Nathinge, acting senior manage of the fund’s operations, explained that every payments officer was allocated the portfolios of certain students, and manages the funds of those students.
Nathinge explained the quite complicated process followed in making these payments, and told the court that between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2019, Konghola prepared several fraudulent payment requisitions resulting in N$529 250 being unlawfully paid into the account of Sheefeni. But this Sheefeni was not a student funded by NSFAF, and was entitled to any financial help from it.
How had he done it? According to Nathinge, Konghola recorded the personal particulars on the list of students, but changed the bank account numbers, replacing them with the bank account numbers belonging to Sheefeni.
The second witness of NSFAF was Harris Ntema, an expert witness. He’s employed as an internal auditor by the fund, and his job includes investigating alleged fraud by employees.
He found that between October 106 and April 2019, Konghola prepared and processed payment in favour of Sheefeni. To cover his tracks, he recorded the personal particulars of different students’ lists but in each case, captured Sheefeni’s account numbers at various banks.
He concluded from his investigations, that, once the payments had actually gone through the relevant bank, Konghola would delete the bank numbers of Sheefeni from the payments database, and this would conceal the fraud.
The next information from Ntema concerned Konghola’s own financial status. He had made a formal declaration that he has ‘no outside interests’ from which he received any additional income. In that case, however, the figures didn’t add up.
During his period of employ, Konghola was paid a total of N$1 379 744.40 Yet the total transfers and cash deposits into his bank accounts for that period amount in all to N$3 945 778.57
The difference between those deposits and the salary paid to Konghola amounted to N$2 566 034.17 and on that basis, Ntema recommended disciplinary action against Konghola, with a civil claim and criminal charges.
Though the recommended disciplinary action was initiated, it couldn’t be completed because Konghola resigned before any conclusion.
At the end of Ntema’s evidence, Konghola applied for absolution from the instance, saying that Sheefeni was never found. Among other things, this meant Sheefeni couldn’t be questioned on the basis for receiving the payments and to see if he knew Konghola.
For these and other reasons, there was no ‘reasonable possibility’ that the court might ultimately find in favour of the fund.
The fund disagreed, saying it had led evidence that Konghola had prepared and initiated several payment requisition documents used by the fund’s bank to make payments to Sheefeni.
When Konghola completed these payment requisition documents he knew that these representations were false and wrong, that Sheefeni was not a student legitimately funded by NSFAF, and that he wasn’t eligible to receive any financial help from the fund.
Judge Usiku found that the fund had placed evidence before the court of which it could not be said that it was so inherently improbable or unsatisfactory as to be rejected out of hand.
Some of the grounds raised by Konghola in his application for absolution from the instance weren’t decisive at this point, when the real question was there was enough evidence on which the court ‘could or might’ find for the fund.
‘Having assessed the evidence led by and on behalf of the [fund], I am of the opinion that there is evidence upon which a court, applying its mind reasonably to such evidence, could find for the [fund],’ the judge concluded, finding that Konghola was to pay the costs for the application, and that the case was postponed to the following month for further trial dates.