Namibia: Geingob, Namandje Skate Around Conflict of Interest

11 December 2018

"EVERYONE HAS personal interests and people to whom they are close. It is inevitable that, from time to time, these interests will come into conflict with their work decisions or actions."

This was a statement in a 2000 report by global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International about elements of a national integrity system, including dealing with conflicts of interest by public officials.

This statement is pertinent in the wake of the publicised and criticised inaugurating of a building owned by lawyer Sisa Namandje by president Hage Geingob on Friday, 7 December 2018.

While much of the criticism has been rather inarticulate, they centre around whether the president's officiating at the event was appropriate and constituted a conflict of interest.

And for the most part, the criticisms are well-founded, for just on the face of it, the incident smacks of a conflict of interest, not to mention influence peddling, given the proximity of Namandje to the president, the ruling party and the government, all of whom he has represented in legal matters in recent times.

That there's a blurring of ethical conduct lines in this instance is clear, for the protagonists - Namandje and Geingob - seem unable to distinguish between what is appropriate and ethical in this instance, judging by the statements in response to the criticisms.

Namandje seems to argue that because other presidents have seemingly acted unethically in the past, this makes it OK for Geingob to do the same now, along with very narrowly arguing within the Namibian context, despite the literature on conflict of interest for a long time cautioning against such incidents as the one of last Friday.

In fact, in 2011, this writer and a colleague wrote a lengthy briefing paper (Google: 'Nothin to disclose: Critiquing Namibia's passive approach to conflict of interest') on the topic for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), in which we spotlighted similar ethical lapses and pointed to the extensive body of literature, and how such conflicts of interest and borderline or similar incidents should be guarded against and handled when they occur.

That people, like Namandje and those surrounding Geingob, who should be aware of appropriate ethical conduct and presidential decorum best practices appear oblivious to measures which have enjoyed wide international discussion and consensus, says something (not positive) in and of itself.

Namibian politicians and government officials have long excused or brushed aside, as in this case, conflict of interest situations and instances because there are no comprehensive legal guidelines to mitigate such conduct, even as international instruments, such as the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), obligate Namibia to come up with such guidelines.

Coincidentally, on the day that Geingob opened Namandje's swanky new offices - and as finance minister Calle Schlettwein was supposedly being 'honoured' for Namibia's anti-corruption efforts - Namibia officially marked International Anti-corruption Day with a joint event by the IPPR and the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). International Anti-corruption Day was globally commemorated on Sunday, 9 December 2018.

That said, in the 2011 paper, we stated: "Drawing a clear line of demarcation between the public and private spheres in the execution of official duties by those entrusted with public offices is always a challenge, especially in the absence of clear regulatory frameworks."

And we quoted research by the U4 Anti-corruption Resource Centre, which argued that "conflict of interest arises when an individual with a formal responsibility to serve the public participates in an activity that jeopardises his or her professional judgement, objectivity and independence. Often, this activity (such as a private business venture) primarily serves personal interests, and can potentially influence the objective exercise of the individual's official duties".

This speaks to Article 42 of the Namibian Constitution, which states that political office-bearers must not "expose themselves to any situation which carries with it the risk of a conflict developing between their interests as ministers and their private interests".

In this regard, in 2011, we warned: "Needless to say, conflict of interest is an intimate bedfellow of various corrupt practices, and therefore dealing with the latter requires a holistic approach that addresses the former."

Against this backdrop, it is appropriate here to also draw attention to the fact that Namibia is a signatory to the Charter for the Public Service in Africa, of 2001, which also deals with conflict of interest in its article 24, and speaks to the conduct of public officials and political office holders, including the president.

Ultimately, what this latest event underscores is that it is way past time that Namibia adopts an executive ethics framework to guide political office holders, such as the president, in appropriate and ethical conduct.

And we do not have to start from scratch, as once again, in case those in power don't know, there's much out there already we can and should look to for guidance.

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