Panduleni Itula
Panduleni Itula

Namibia’s ruling party, Swapo, could be forgiven for thinking the gods have turned against it. The country is grappling with soaring unemployment and crippling national debt; its economy has been in recession since mid-2016; a five-year drought has taken a devastating toll; and three ministers have had to resign over corruption allegations — two of them just two weeks before this week’s national elections.

Add to this an independent presidential candidate who’s come from within Swapo’s own rank and file to divide the party, and you have the makings of the first interesting election since Swapo clinched a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 1995.

For three decades, Swapo has defied political gravity, its domination of the political landscape seemingly rooted in a neopatrimonial approach that has made party membership a requisite for any ranking position or lucrative government contract.

Since the early 1990s, trade unionists or political activists who challenged this power were dealt with in one of two ways: invited into the inner circle, or vilified and ostracised.

But the carrot-and-stick approach has started to catch up with the party.

In June, the Windhoek high court found former education minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa guilty of corruption for allocating government housing to her relatives while she was a regional governor. Fined R50,000 and forced to resign, Hanse-Himarwa remains on Swapo’s list as a prospective MP.

Then, two weeks ago, this Teflon-like culture of political impunity took a more serious dent when a burgeoning scandal over fishing quotas forced the resignation of fisheries minister and former trade unionist Bernhardt Esau, and justice minister Sacky Shanghala.

The so-called Fishrot Files, released by WikiLeaks, contain about 30,000 documents and e-mails from Icelandic fishing company Samherji.

A joint investigation by Icelandic, Norwegian and Namibian media has detailed how Samherji allegedly channelled bribes via Dubai and Cyprus to Tamson Hatuikulipi (Esau’s son-in-law), Shanghala, Investec Namibia MD James Hatuikulipi and asset manager Ricardo Gustavo.

As it was reported, the scheme took the guise of a joint fishing venture between state-owned Fishcor and an ostensibly state-owned Angolan company. Through it, up to R2.5bn is thought to have been channelled to various parties, including former Angolan fisheries minister Victória de Barros Neto and her son.

Angolan President João Lourenço fired Neto in January. And Investec, which manages a sizeable chunk of the Namibian civil servants’ pension fund, has since suspended James Hatuikulipi and Gustavo, and pledged its co-operation.

Esau and both Hatuikulipis have denied the allegations, while Shanghala has not commented (all but Esau are thought to have gone to ground in Cape Town). Esau was arrested on Saturday, but the high court threw the warrant out on Sunday.

Allegations of corruption in the fisheries sector are not new: the allocation of fishing quotas has since 1994 been seen as a key currency in Namibia’s patronage system.

What broke the camel’s back was the apparent brazenness of this scheme: it is alleged that the players effectively reallocated quotas from established fishing companies such as Bidvest-owned Namsov to themselves.

Worse, from Swapo’s point of view, was Shanghala’s admission a mere week before this that four of the electronic voting machines to be used for the first time in Wednesday’s elections had "fallen off the back of a trailer" while on loan to the Swapo Party Elders Council in 2017.

Hage Geingob
Hage Geingob

It’s all proved to be a major boost for independent presidential candidate Panduleni Itula, an Edinburgh-trained dentist who holds a master’s in law. Itula, who returned to Namibia from the UK in 2013, has seized on institutionalised corruption in Swapo to launch a low-key, guerrilla-like campaign against incumbent Hage Geingob.

In contrast to the flashy displays of wealth and expensive cars at Swapo rallies, Itula has parked his car on the outskirts of every town he’s visited and walked to the rally venue, with supporters joining him along the way like some latter-day Pied Piper.

It’s caused consternation in Swapo: being nominated as the party’s presidential candidate is a carefully managed process that involves aligning various factions’ interests and rewarding supporters with political office.

Itula’s candidacy has unsettled this system of arranged politics. He has another trump card: unlike Geingob, who is from the minority Damara tribe, Itula is an Aawambo, the country’s largest ethnic group and Swapo’s built-in voting majority — until now, perhaps.

How this will translate in Wednesday’s election was unclear at the time of writing. In the urban vote, Itula will likely benefit from the growing anger at Swapo’s economic mismanagement and perceptions of corruption. The divisions in Swapo could well cause the party’s traditional rural supporters to withhold their vote, or punish Geingob by supporting Itula. Should that happen, anything is possible.

What is clear, however, is that Swapo — and especially Geingob — can no longer take for granted an electorate desperate for change.