22 March 2019

Namibia: Geingob Trashes Independence Day Critics

PRESIDENT Hage Geingob yesterday hit out at Independence Day critics, saying such people were not around 50 years ago.

Geingob said people should also not be misled by those who hold the view that "there was nothing to celebrate" because the government has not done enough to improve the lives of the people since independence.

He said those criticising the government for spending heavily on Independence Day were not grateful and were not there 50 years ago.

The president made these remarks during the celebration of Namibia's 29th Independence Day yesterday in Windhoek. At the poorly attended event, Geingob said despite the socio-economic challenges faced by the country, Namibians should not stop celebrating their independence because there was so much to celebrate.

Allegations are that the state had no legal basis for upgrading Nujoma's house.

The Former Presidents' Pension and Other Benefits Act gives an outgoing head of state the privilege to choose between a multimillion-dollar state-funded house or cash on leaving office.

The law states that a retired president must be accorded "a furnished official residence at any place in Windhoek or at the request of the former president such housing allowance as may be determined by the Cabinet in lieu thereof, including an allowance for telephone expenses and water and electricity charges in respect of a residence other than an official residence".

Senior personal assistant to Nujoma, John Nauta told The Namibian in 2013 that the former president declined a new house offer and opted to have his farmhouse upgraded.

"He did not want a new house. He preferred to stay in the house that was given to him by Swapo," Nauta said at the time.

Senior government officials said Nujoma indeed declined a house offer when he stepped down as president in 2005 and opted for a cash payout.

Although the amount he got was not made public, sources said it was equivalent to the value of a president's retirement house - a five-bedroom residence on a 5 000 square metre plot.

Senior government officials have over the years refused to provide the cost of presidential houses.

In most cases, the cost is hidden under the president's budget.

Former president Hifikepunye Pohamba got a retirement house built for about N$35 million before he stepped down in 2015.

The Namibian understands that when Nujoma's supporters began complaining that Nujoma was living in deplorable conditions, a characterisation some viewed as false, the government reportedly then demolished the former president's house and built a new one for N$70 million, more than triple the N$20 million said would cost the upgrades.

The sources said this was illegal, as Nujoma was not supposed to benefit from both a payout and a residence built directly from public funds.

The executive director in the Office of President, Grace Uushona, told The Namibian in December last year that Cabinet had directed that a new house be built for Nujoma at an identified place after he retired.

"But he refused to get a new house that time because he had an existing house where he was staying," Uushona, said adding that it was then resolved that the existing house should be renovated in line with a security assessment.

"A consultant who was contracted to do the security assessment concluded that the house was not fit to be renovated but should be demolished and a new one constructed on the same premises," Uushona said.

She said Nujoma played no role in the process.

Asked whether the government will ask Nujoma to pay back the money he received as a cash payout when he retired, Uushona responded saying "Cabinet decided to build him a house, not him".

The Namibian sent follow-up questions to Uushona in January this year asking her to explain whether Cabinet had broken the law by allowing Nujoma to double-dip. She did not respond.

The questions were sent to her again this week. She responded that she could not answer them this week as she was part of a team of government officials preparing Independence Day celebrations.

Questions sent to Nujoma's office were not answered.

POISONED CHALICE

The issue of Nujoma's retirement house has divided opinion in the government and pitted Geingob against the former president's supporters.

The Namibian understands that some of Geingob's backers blame Nujoma's inner circle for portraying the current president as uncaring towards the former head of state. They allege that the real motive is to push through expensive house upgrades for their (Nujoma supporters) benefit.

Some people suspect part of the N$70 million went into certain state officials' pockets.

Now some senior officials are calling for Nujoma to pay back the money he received after stepping down in 2005 because it will set a dangerous precedent for future heads of state when they leave office.

A person with direct knowledge said: "Pohamba approved the construction of Nujoma's house. But he should not have done so, as Nujoma took cash, absolving the state from providing him a house. Technically, he should repay the cash he received.

"Geingob did not like it, but by the time he got into office, it was already done."

Namibian law stipulates that irregular spending should be paid back to the government.

Nujoma's close officials and supporters painted a picture in the media of an abandoned former national leader.

The Namibian reported in 2017 that Nujoma rejected an offer to stay in a state-owned house in Klein Windhoek.

Instead, he opted to stay in an N$8 million house in Windhoek owned by well-known business people Martha Namundjebo-Tilahun and her husband Haddis Tilahun.

The couple bought that house specifically to accommodate Nujoma but Geingob's supporters point to this transaction as another way by Nujoma's inner circle to milk the government.

The Windhoek Observer reported last year that state officials accused the United Africa Group of profiteering from its links with Nujoma after it demanded N$3,7 million from State House for accommodating Nujoma for about three years while his N$70 million house was being upgraded.

Pressed on their demand, Namundjebo-Tilahun claimed in that article that the invoice they had submitted was a mistake.

"The invoice was an error, and we have communicated to them about that. Nujoma is a father for everyone and should be treated with respect," she said at the time.

Meanwhile, the government could end up spending more than N$90 million on Nujoma's retirement property, as N$21,6 million was spent on constructing his offices in Windhoek in 2008.

The amount spent on ex-presidents could be more than N$125 million if Pohamba's mansion is included.

The Namibian could not establish the exact features of Nujoma's house, but Pohamba's Chinese-built mansion includes four garages, three guest rooms, and a dining area for 30 people, the main guest lounge, as well as a private lounge, kitchen and laundry room, bar and braai area, a double volume lobby, a library and an office.

The top floor has three family bedrooms, accommodation for staff, another two bedrooms, a family lounge, gym and a helicopter pad.

It is unclear whether Geingob will opt for a cash payout or a retirement house when he steps down. The decision will be made during his second term of office, which he is likely to begin serving next year.

In addition to the benefits mentioned above, Nujoma was granted a salary for life. During the first year after he handed over the reins to Pohamba in 2005, he also received an additional tax-exempt gratuity equal to one year's salary of N$421 000 plus three cars - a Mercedes-Benz S500, a four-wheel-drive station wagon and a light truck.

He was assigned 10 security personnel, three drivers, two private secretaries, two personal assistants, two office attendants, three domestic workers, three gardeners, two cooks, two waiters and two laundry persons for his household.

*This article was produced by The Namibian's investigative unit. Send us story tips via your secure email to investigations@namibian.com.na

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