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Screenshot from Kveikur (RÚV)
Photo: Screenshot from Kveikur (RÚV).

Samherji Accused of Tax Evasion and Bribery in Namibia

Companies owned by the Icelandic fishing company Samherji are alleged to have paid high-ranking officials in Namibia – and individuals connected to them – more than ISK one billion since 2012 to ensure access to horse-mackerel fishing quotas in the country. This was reported by the investigative journalism programme Kveikur (produced in collaboration with Stundin and Al Jazeera Investigates) on RÚV yesterday. During the programme, former Samherji employee Jóhannes Stefánsson blew the whistle on the company’s activities. In addition to allegations of bribery, Samherji is also accused of transferring money to offshore tax havens.

One of Iceland’s Biggest Fishing Companies

Samherji, one of Iceland’s biggest fishing companies, is owned largely by cousins Kristján Vilhelmsson and Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson. The company operates dozens of vessels around the world. Over the past few years, Samherji has made substantial profits in Africa, most notably from horse-mackerel fishing off the coast of Namibia.

The Icelandic government spent just under ISK two billion at present value in developmental aid for Namibia between 1990 and 2011, chiefly in support of the local fishing industry. Shortly after the government’s formal aid to Namibia came to an end, Samherjii endeavoured to secure access to fishing quotas in the country. This proved difficult, owing to restrictions on foreign investment in the Namibian fishing industry. The restrictions aimed to ensure that Namibians, and especially the impoverished, enjoyed the fruits of the fishing industry.

Bribes to High-Ranking Officials in Namibia

According to documents leaked to Wikileaks, and which Kveikur investigated, Samherji solicited the aid of three high-ranking officials in Namibia, all of whom are closely connected to Namibia’s Minister of Fisheries, Bernhard Esau (who is said to have accepted bribes as well): 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. Payments were also made to Mike Nghipunya, CEO of Fischor.

The documents suggest that Samherji paid these individuals, mostly through companies in Namibia and Dubai, approximately ISK 1.5 billion at present value. The payments were frequently made simultaneously with Samherji’s negotiation of quota agreements with the Namibian government, agreements that rarely seemed to have been in the government’s best interest.

“It looks like bribery,” Daniel Balint-Kurti, head investigator for the anti-organisation Global Witness, said. “I think that Samherji has some tough questions to answer.”

As reported by Kveikur, the leaked documents show how Samherji profited from a quota treaty that Namibia signed with its neighbour Angola in 2014. The treaty seems tailored to Samherji’s interests.

The Whistleblower

Jóhannes Stefánsson, the former general manager of Samherji’s operations in Namibia – and who mediated some of the aforementioned payments – blew the whistle on Samherji’s alleged offenses, as well as his own, to anti-corruption authorities in Namibia and other countries.

“The orders came from Þorsteinn Már and Aðalsteinn [Aðalsteinn Helgason, Jóhannes’ superior in Afirca]. 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.”

Samherji Responds

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 (based in Norway) to investigate the allegations. The statement also quotes Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson, who questions Jóhannes Stefánsson’s role in the investigation:

“All of the operations of Samherji and connected companies were subject to extensive investigations for a period of 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.”

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