Why is a Namibian fishing scandal raising a stink in Europe?

EU has not acted against Iceland's biggest fishing firm despite evidence of its corrupt deals in Namibia
It was a fishy fishing fiasco.
It was a fishy fishing fiasco.
Photo: Simon Akam (Reuters)
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The European Union’s (EU) inability to act against an Icelandic company following its involvement in one of Africa’s biggest scandals has rendered hollow its fight against corruption.

In the $20 millionFishrot Scheme” scam unearthed in 2019, the Akureyri, Iceland-based Samherji was accused of illegitimate trawling in Namibia’s waters. For this, the company, one of the world’s largest, allegedly bribed Namibian government officials and embezzled funds, besides intimidating its critics.

The racket, carried out in Namibia, Iceland, and Norway, also reportedly involved some Angolan nationals.

While the accused in Namibia have been apprehended and prosecuted, those in Iceland still have no charges framed against them. This is in the face of the EU’s tough stance against corruption and illegal and unregulated fishing.

The EU’s 2008 binding policy (pdf) states: “Member states shall impose a maximum sanction of at least five times the value of the fishery products obtained by committing the serious infringement. In case of a repeated serious infringement within a five-year period, the member states shall impose a maximum sanction of at least eight times the value of the fishery products obtained by committing the serious infringement.”

Inside the Fishrot scandal

Wikileaks released the Fishrot files in 2019 highlighting one of the largest scams to ever rock Namibia.

It involved the diversion of the country’s fishing quotas to Samherji. State-run Fishcor was accused of transferring these allocations from private Namibian companies to other local firms linked to the Icelandic firm and in which politicians had a stake.

The firms that gained these quotas allegedly paid $10 million in bribes to leaders of Namibia’s ruling party in return. Besides several high-ranking government officials, even president Hage Geingob was implicated in the scam.

The Fishrot scam was unearthed at a time when Namibia was grappling with the covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. It led to the collapse of the fishing industry, wiping out jobs and livelihoods.

Fishing is one of Namibia’s key industries, thanks to the country’s 1,000-mile-long southern Atlantic coastline. It contributes 3% to the desert country’s GDP and 20% to its export earnings.

Samherji, which was also accused of tax evasion in Namibia, exited the country in 2020. A year later, it absolved itself of all allegations.

None of Samherji’s directors was prosecuted in connection with Fishrot. Now, a trial is scheduled in October 2023, with whistleblower Jóhannes Stefánsson expected to testify. He was the then managing director for Samherji Namibia.