One of the biggest news stories to break last year alleged that one of Iceland’s largest seafood companies, Samherji, had bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds, while also taking advantage of international loopholes to avoid taxes. The story was reported collaboratively by Kveikur, Stundin Newspaper, and Al Jazeera Investigates, after months of investigations sparked by the confessions of whistleblower Jóhannes Stefánsson, a former project manager for Samherji in Namibia. The following report is based on their extensive research.
Lucrative horse-mackerel quotas
Samherji, owned by cousins Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson and Kristján Vilhelmsson, operates dozens of vessels around the world. After losing fishing rights in Morocco and Mauritania – as former employee and whistleblower Jóhannes told reporters – Samherji looked to Namibia, where quota for horse mackerel was abundant. Obtaining the quotas at the low prices Samherji was after proved difficult. In November 2011, however, higher-ups in the company, including Jóhannes, met with the son-in-law of Namibian minister of fisheries in Windhoek (the capital of Namibia). In emails and documents published on Wikileaks, Samherji executives described their relationship with Tamson Hatuikulipi (or Fitty) and, subsequently, his father in law, as “very valuable, since quota allocations are political” in Namibia. Bribes are also mentioned. “Corruption is rampant in this country,” and it isn’t considered unnatural to, “pay people for help finishing matters – a so-called ‘facilitation fee.’”
Bribing the ‘sharks’
As revealed by documents leaked to Wikileaks, Samherji subsequently solicited the aid of three high-ranking officials in Namibia, all of whom are closely connected to Namibia’s Minister of Fisheries, Bernhard Esau; Tamson Hatuikulipi, Esau’s son in law; James Hatuikulipi, Tamson’s cousin and Chairman of the Board of the National Fishing Corporation of Namibia (Fishcor); and Sacky Shangala, the current Minister of Justice. The men were known as the Sharks. Payments were also made to Mike Nghipunya, CEO of Fischor.
The Wikileaks files suggest that with the aid of Esau and his partners, Jóhannes and other Samherji employees established a Namibian company as a front for Samherji (since Namibian laws give precedence to Namibians in terms of fishing rights). According to leaked memos, the Minister of Fisheries was co-owner of the company, although on paper the company was owned by front men. Jóhannes handled payments to the ministers in person, at one point bringing them $60,000 (€54,000) in a gym bag. According to Jóhannes, however, the lion’s share of the bribes was paid according to invoices for nominal services.
Moving on to Angola
In 2013, Samherji expanded its operations. According to reports, in November of that year Sacky Shanghala introduced a scheme affording access to quotas off the coast of Angola, as well. The plot involved a treaty between Namibia and Angola that seemed tailor-made to Samherji and the sharks’ interests. It required significant payments, which, according to Jóhannes, were all made with the knowledge of Þorsteinn Már, Samherji CEO. It should be noted that bribery is illegal in Iceland and in Namibia. Any Icelander who bribes or attempts to bribe a foreign government or government official is risking five years in jail.
Namibian laws are designed to keep foreign companies from exploiting the country’s natural resources. According to what the reporters pieced together from the Wikileaks files, Samherji, however, spent considerable energy diverting profits to Iceland. Most of the money passed through a complicated chain of inter-company transactions, moving through companies nominally based in countries as far apart as Cyprus and Mauritius in order to take advantage of various tax-law loopholes. On paper, the tiny island of Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is home to extensive Samherji operations – which isn’t the case, of course; as noted by Kveikur, these are familiar methods employed to abuse double taxation treaties. To make things even more complicated, most of Samherji’s financial transactions were mediated by the Norwegian state-run bank DNB.
Jóhannes Stefánsson, the former general manager of Samherji’s operations in Namibia – who mediated some of the payments – contacted Kristinn Hrafnsson, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, in October 2018 to tell him he had files and emails corroborating his story of Samherji wrongdoings, which prompted the news coverage. He blew the whistle on Samherji’s alleged offenses, as well as his own, to anti-corruption authorities in Namibia and other countries. Jóhannes, who joined Samherji in 2007, had high hopes for Samherji’s operations in Namibia, believing that to the company could, ultimately, empower the country’s fishing industry to become sustainable and profitable for the sake of the Namibian people. Upon observing that Samherji’s operations were having the exact opposite effect, he began wondering how his colleagues slept at night, as he was finding it increasingly difficult.
“The orders came from Þorsteinn Már and Aðalsteinn [Aðalsteinn Helgason, Jóhannes’ superior in Africa]. Every obstacle was to be surmounted, to obtain the highest possible quota,” Jóhannes stated. Asked whether bribery was involved, he responded in the affirmative: “Yes, bribes were not an issue for Samherji.”
Reporters from Kveikur and Stundin newspaper spent months reviewing the files, in cooperation with investigative reporters from Al Jazeera. The Al Jazeera team spent three months undercover posing as foreign investors looking to exploit the lucrative Namibian fishing industry. In their documentary Anatomy of a Bribe, recordings of the country’s Minister of Fisheries show that he was willing to use a front company to accept a $200,000 (€181,000) “donation” to help facilitate a scheme similar to Samherji’s.
In a statement released by Samherji following the premiere of Kveikur, the company stated that it took these allegations seriously and that it had solicited the aid of the international law firm Wikborg Rein, which is based in Norway, to investigate (the law firm is also employed to protect Samherji’s financial interests in the country). The statement quoted Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson, who questioned Jóhannes Stefánsson’s role in the investigation:
“All of the operations of Samherji and connected companies were subject to extensive investigations for many years without any punishable offense being discovered. All of our books, emails, and other documents were thoroughly reviewed, including those of the companies operating fishing vessels off the coasts of Africa from 2007. Just like before, we will not put up with the false and misleading accusations of a former employee, which are, once again, being served up by the same parties within the media and the Central Bank.”
According to Stundin newspaper, Samherji’s refutations seem circular. The company initially blamed whistleblower Jóhannes and launched an internal investigation. When it was revealed that the bribes had continued long after Jóhannes left the company, Samherji changed tactics and shrouded itself in silence. A month later, Samherji turned defence into offence, attacking details in the media coverage. In January 2020, the company announced that, owing to their “experience from Namibia,” it would institute a new management and rule-keeping system, seeming to shoulder some responsibility.
In Namibia, the repercussions were swift. The Namibian Minister of Fisheries, Bernhardt Esau, and Minister of Justice, Sacky Shangala, resigned, but were later arrested and charged with accepting bribes, along with James and Tamson ‘Fitty’ Hatuikulipi and two others who had participated in the scheme.
On the Icelandic front, Samherji announced that CEO Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson would step aside indefinitely pending an internal investigation into the company’s subsidiaries’, “alleged wrongdoing in Namibia.” He also resigned from several positions as a board member of various international fishing companies in the weeks following the news. Þorsteinn’s return to the position of Samherji CEO is contingent upon the Wikborg Rein report absolving him of blame, the interim CEO recently told IntraFish. Samherji’s business operations are currently being investigated in Iceland, Namibia, and Norway on the grounds of corrupt business practices, including bribery, money laundering, and tax avoidance.
It wasn’t only the Namibian Minister of Fisheries, and his partners, who found himself in hot water, but also his Icelandic counterpart Kristján Þór Júlíusson. In the Samherji files released on Wikileaks, it was alleged that a good relationship with the Icelandic government, specifically with the Minister of Fisheries, was key to the company’s success. This revelation has cast a shadow over Kristján’s position as minister. Kristján has denied accusations of corruption, claiming that his only relationship with Samherji is his decades-long acquaintanceship with Þorsteinn Már. Kristján recused himself from Samherji-related cases as minister but has not resigned from his position. Iceland’s Constitutional and Supervisory Committee has launched an investigation into his competence.
Iceland’s Commissioner of the Inland Revenue in cooperation with a district public prosecutor is also investigating Samherji’s profits from Namibia. The investigation is complicated and time-consuming. Meanwhile, the Namibian state-run company Fishcor was recently forced to sell horse mackerel quota to finance staff salaries in December and January. Samherji are currently de-investing in Namibia, but the process is complicated and will take time.