Retrenched fishermen narrate ordeal

06 December 2019 | Fishing

“My car was repossessed by the bank as I could no longer honour my payment obligations,” Sylvester Mbadi, a former employee of Namsov, has told Namibian Sun.

He and about 400 others became sacrificial lambs in the fight between their employer and then minister of fisheries Bernhardt Esau.

In the end, Esau, who pushed through amendments to the Marine Resources Act to amass powers that allowed him to allocate fishing quotas as he wished, won the fight.

He stripped Namsov of the fishing quotas it had received from the government in the past.

Esau justified his actions by telling Namsov executives that they had failed to set up a land-based factory, as was required of all companies fishing in Namibian waters.

When Namsov said it was not the only company guilty of non-compliance with this requirement, boardroom doors were slammed in their faces – with Esau unwilling to accept any excuses.

Namsov started warning its seagoing employees of possible retrenchments. Without quotas, it could no longer sustain its fishing operations, the company told its workforce.

Shaken, the employees sought a meeting with Esau to open his eyes to the devastating consequences his decision would have for them and their families.

One laid-off Namsov worker recalls how they begged the minister to reconsider his decision.

“As employees at that time we organised ourselves to meet with the minister at the fisheries building [at Walvis Bay] to give him our side of the story and hear from him. “Most employees were growing tired of being told stories by the company about the minister cutting our [Namsov] quotas.

“In those meetings we even told him that two of our Namsov vessels, where over 200 employees worked, were grounded due to his decision to cut quotas.

“We advised him to allocate quotas to us as employees if he had a problem with Namsov as a company. Esau didn't say anything - not even a single word,” the fisherman told Namibian Sun.

With Esau unwilling to budge, Namsov had no option but to start selling its vessels to local and international fishing companies.

Every time it sold one, the workers on those vessels were retrenched.

Desperate to stay afloat, Namsov then started buying quotas from some local companies, but that was not enough to sustain all the jobs at the company.

Mbadi says: “In 2014 the company got fishing rights in Angola and I spent six months there.”

But Angola's waters are not as fish rich as Namibia's, so the voyage northwards did not last long.

“After returning from Angola, we were retrenched,” says Mbadi, who had joined the company in 2002 as a casual employee.

“I am lucky that I still have my house, although my car has been repossessed. Some people had their rental agreements terminated because they could no longer pay, and they went back to their villages.”

Another retrenched employee who attended meetings with Esau said: “Namsov was trying to fight but the minister was too strong for the company. Many people lost their jobs because of these greedy politicians.”

Esau, currently in police custody over allegations that he had seized fishing quotas from the likes of Namsov and channelled them to Icelandic company Samherji in exchange for handsome kickbacks, has been charged with corruption and money laundering, amongst other damning charges that he vehemently denies.

With the amended Marine Resources Act empowering him greatly, Esau shifted more quotas to state-owned fishing company Fishcor under the guise of 'Namibianising' the sector.

Contrary to that spirit, though, many quotas allocated to Fishcor ended up being funnelled to Samherji.

Esau then appointed James Hatuikulipi to chair the Fishcor board of directors, allegedly to ensure the free flow of quotas to Samherji. Hatuikulipi is a cousin of Tamson Hatuikulipi, Esau's son-in-law, who in return was appointed by Samherji as its 'local consultant' in Namibia, facilitating business between the Icelanders and Fishcor.

James and Tamson have been arrested too, while Fishcor CEO Mike Nghipunya was suspended. Also arrested were former justice minister Sacky Shanghala, Ricardo Gustavo and Pius Mwatelulo.

The six men allegedly received kickbacks amounting to more than N$100 million from Samherji, with Namibia losing fisheries revenue in the region of N$2.5 billion in the process.

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