A sensational trial that threatened to lay bare secret dealings between Namibia’s ruling party and the Chinese Communist Party’s former leadership is in danger of getting lost in Namibia’s prosecutor-general’s in-tray.
Namibians Teckla Lameck and Jerobeam Mokaxwa, as well as Chinese national Yang Fan — business partners in the Teko Trading company — are being tried in the high court for allegedly defrauding the finance ministry of 120m Namibian dollars in 2009.
Lameck is Namibia’s former public service commissioner.
The accused lodged an appeal in the supreme court after a lower court dismissed their application to have acting high court judge Maphios Cheda removed from the case.
Lameck, Mokaxwa and Yang were unhappy with a ruling that Cheda delivered in their trial in June. They have demanded that he recuse himself and asked all the proceedings that have taken place so far to be cast aside.
Some say the supreme court’s ruling — expected this month — will be a "political" decision, taken in the interests of the accused and their friends in government.
The defence has a very clear upper hand. Defence lawyer advocate Raymond Heathcote has never lost a supreme court case.
Legal proceedings started with bail applications in 2009 but stalled in 2013. The defence succeeded in having the original search warrants set aside.
Asked if the defence would agree to a new trial, should the supreme court rule in its favour, Heathcote said this would be strongly opposed.
Yang worked for Nuctech, a technology company whose political secretary was Hu Haifeng, son of former Chinese president Hu Jintao.
Lameck, Mokoxwa and Yang face 18 charges ranging from fraud to corruption and money laundering. Following the publication of an article in The New York Times in September 2009, the case led China to block any reference to Namibia on the Internet at the time .
To understand the significance of what has been dubbed the "Teko trio trial", one has to go back to February 2007, when Hu senior travelled to Windhoek as part of a brief tour of seven African countries. He offered Namibia a US$100m line of credit and a standing invitation to shop in China using that money. His visit lasted less than 13 hours, but he found time to meet Namibia’s founding president, Sam Nujoma, for an hour before his departure from Windhoek’s Eros Airport.
Nujoma’s influence and iron-fisted hold over the ruling party, exerted via party leaders and businessmen from Namibia’s Omusati region, was strong , even though he retired in 2007. His influence waned only after Hage Geingob’s election in 2015.
Known collectively as "The Omusati Clique" or "Triple Fs" ("Friends of Founding Father"), the group remains the dominant political influence in the political heartland of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo).
Lameck and her husband Festus (former chairman of the state rail company, which spent millions on Chinese locomotives, rolling stock and steel), are also from Omusati. She was a regional organiser for Swapo in the Khomas region — a key position for brokering deals.
"They are what you’d call a ‘politically important’ Swapo family," a source who knows the Lamecks said. The key to their power is patronage, dispensed via lucrative state contracts such as the one Teko Trading landed with the finance ministry.
The relationship between Namibia and Chinese leaders would grow. Later in 2007, Nujoma’s successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba, led a 60-strong entourage to China. The delegation included Teckla Lameck and it toured Nuctech parent company Tsinghua University’s Beijing headquarters.
Little about Namibia’s plan for the $100m credit facility was discussed at the time.
Then, in March 2009, the secretary of Namibia’s finance ministry, Carl-Hermann Schlettwein, received a call from a Bank Windhoek official, saying Teko Trading had received a US$4m payment from Citibank in New York. Teko had claimed the money was a commission fee on a deal conducted with the ministry; did Schlettwein know the company, the bank official wanted to know.
"I had never heard of such a company, so I told them to investigate immediately," Schlettwein said in an interview a few months later.
That phone call led the bank and Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) investigators to uncover what was apparently a huge kick-back scheme in the procurement of industrial X-ray scanners.
Lameck and her partners were adamant that the deal was above board and produced a contract with Nuctech that offered Teko a commission of $12.8m on a $55m deal to facilitate the sale of Nuctech’s scanners.
The investigators found that the fee nearly matched an amount the finance ministry had deposited with Bank Windhoek two years earlier — and seemingly had forgotten about.
Public records further show that cabinet had in late 2008 approved a deal proposed by finance minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila to pay $12.8m as its contribution to the $55.3m purchase from Nuctech. The balance was to be financed using the $100m line of credit Hu had offered in 2007.
However, records submitted during the bail application showed that Lameck had entered into these negotiations on behalf of Namibia Contract Haulage (NCH), a Swapo-owned transport company, where she was employed as MD and on whose behalf she had accompanied Pohamba to China in 2007.
Lameck later registered Teko Trading, listing herself and NCH’s accountant Mokoxwa as its owners. In January 2009, she hired Nuctech’s Africa manager, Yang, as Teko’s marketing manager.
Copies of bank records show the finance ministry authorised the $12.8m transfer to an account the Chinese held with Citibank in New York. It was later transferred to JPMorgan’s New York branch, from where $4m was transferred to Teko Trading’s Bank Windhoek account.
The bank records of Lameck and Mokoxwa show that they then embarked on a spending spree . They bought vehicles, properties and clothes , and also shared their spoils with friends and associates.
Yang was a little more careful: after purchasing a property on a Cape Town golf estate, he deposited the balance in a high-yield bank account.
How the balance of $8.8m would be shared remains a subject of speculation.
The ACC seized documents and files and found an e-mail on Yang’s laptop detailing intended payments to Namibia’s political elite. It is those documents that the Teko trio wanted to keep out of the court at all costs, investigators close to the case say.
The ACC ascribed its legal setbacks to lack of experience. The agency was formally established in 2006 and mistakes were made in how search warrants were dealt with, a senior official admitted.
It is not the only such case before the Namibian courts. Two other criminal investigations stand out. One is that of the allegedly organised looting of the state pension fund in 1999-2002; about R660m is said to have been embezzled. The other is the case of an investment firm named Avid, which reportedly embezzled R30m from the Social Security Commission, Namibia’s unemployment insurance agency, in 2004.
Seven forensic audits have been conducted at the Government Institutions Pension Fund, the fattest piggy-bank in Namibia with over R50bn in assets. But the prosecutor-general has not instituted legal proceedings against any of the suspects.
The main suspect — Aaron Mushimba, Nujoma’s late brother-in-law — died two years ago. Mushimba was also the main suspect in the near collapse in 2005 of Namibia’s Agribank, the country’s oldest bank, as a result of unsecured loans in excess of R120m to an ill-fated abattoir that Mushimba had built to promote beef exports.
The other main suspect, Nujoma’s former son-in-law, lawyer David Imbili, has had several close legal scrapes but has so far emerged unscathed.
The Avid case was perhaps the most controversial: The main suspect, Lazarus Kandara, died of a gunshot wound to the heart in front of the Windhoek Central Police Station after Heathcote — then acting judge — ordered his arrest during an inquiry into Avid’s collapse.
Kandara’s co-accused, all ranking members of Swapo and including former brigadier Matheus Shigwedha, who at the time was MD of the secretive state arms trader called August 26, are now on trial.
Oscar Sheehama, the former commander of the Serious Crime Unit, who handled Kandara’s arrest — and in whose arms Kandara supposedly committed suicide just as he was about to enter the police station — has since retired.
The Teko trio case remains the most politically significant, however, because of what it illustrates about Chinese "aid". It exploits the ambitions of Namibia’s political elite in order to advance Chinese interests at the expense of Namibia’s.
It illustrates the effect of state capture on Namibia’s political system. Swapo members control both state machinery and the private companies that do business with it.
However, none of this will matter in the event that the supreme court rules in Teko’s favour to force Judge Cheda out. Supreme court rulings sometimes take years, which may mean that Teko Trading’s political secrets will remain just that for the foreseeable future.
* This article is supported by the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting and the Web Foundation