Namibia: Govt Flouts Land Law - PDM

A typical cattle farm near Gobabis.

The government flouted its own laws to favour a foreign national at the expense of locals when it leased four farms to a Russian billionaire for 99 years, says Nico Smit of the Popular Democratic Movement.

Smit made the remarks at a media briefing in Windhoek yesterday, at which he urged president Hage Geingob to suspend land reform minister Utoni Nujoma over the issue.

The opposition politician said the government, specifically the land reform ministry, disregarded the Agricultural Act of 1995, which prohibits foreigners from leasing agricultural land in Namibia for more than 10 years.

The government recently leased four farms for 99 years to a company, Comsar Properties SA, owned by Russian billionaire Rashid Sardarov.

The farms, valued at N$43 million and measuring a combined 17 000 hectares, were paid for by the Russian, and registered as state property by the land reform ministry.

The transaction was done two days before the second national land conference, which took place early this month.

The PDM last week said it will challenge the government in court over the transaction, and seek the cancellation of the deal because it was not in the national interest.

The Affirmative Repositioning (AR) movement and other opposition parties have also condemned the deal, and threatened to approach the Anti-Corruption Commission and the ombudsman to investigate the circumstances of the transaction.

Documents show that Nujoma was involved in the transaction, and that he signed the title deeds for the farms on behalf of the government.

The minister has, however, since denied any involvement in the transaction, and has claimed that his signature on the title deeds was forged.

Smit said the Agricultural Act of 1995 prohibited foreign ownership of agricultural land "without the prior written consent of the minister".

He added that the law also prohibited foreigners from entering lease agreements of more than 10 years, or for an indefinite period. Agreements can only be for a period of less than 10 years, "which is renewable from time to time".

"The period of the lease to any foreign national shall not exceed a period of 10 years in total," he stressed.

He added that the law did not permit the minister to lease land for the development of hotels and other establishments.

According to him, the government flouted the law because it acquired the land as a nominee on behalf of the Russian, which he said was prohibited under the Agricultural Act.

"If a foreign national acquired land in contravention of the law, the person who otherwise disposed of the agricultural land to the foreign national or nominee shall be guilty of an offence, and may be fined an amount not exceeding N$100 000, or a term of imprisonment," he charged.

However, Smit said the PDM case will no longer be heard on an urgent basis "as advised by our lawyers", but the party will file an application "soon" in the High Court to halt "the envisaged massive developments" on the farms until the case was heard.

"We are obliged to approach the court to stop the envisaged massive development on the farms because the lease agreement and the deed of sale and transfer of the farms are all void ab initio, and liable to be declared as such by a competent court," he stated.

Human rights lawyer Norman Tjombe yesterday said the land deal was illegal because it was "a simulated agreement", which was designed to avoid the restrictions and prohibitions on the foreign ownership of commercial agricultural land.

He added that the deal showed that the Namibian state had been reduced to holding the land on behalf of the foreign national in conflict of Namibian laws.

"What has been done here is for the foreigner to buy the land, have it registered in a Namibian's name (in this case, the state), and then [for him to] occupy the farm," Tjombe explained.

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