President Hage Geingob has come under fire for his recent comments warning locals not to interfere in the Hyphen Hydrogen Energy green hydrogen project.
The Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) says his comments made last Friday at State House suggest the government is willing to use its power to silence dissent, rather than to engage citizens and address their valid concerns in a democratic and transparent manner.
"The president's warning sends a chilling and worrying message to those who may have concerns about the environmental impact of the project, or who feel their voices are not being heard," the director of the LAC, Tony Hancox, says.
During the signing of the feasibility and implementation agreement for the Hyphen project on Friday, Geingob drew attention to the pitfalls experienced with previous developmental projects, cautioning against excessive local interference.
"We learned a lesson from Kunene, where we were trying to have an Epupa. That project died because we listened to the local people. Therefore the area is still poor," Geingob said.
He said the public must allow him and his team to fulfil their mandate to create jobs.
Hancox said the comments suggest that he is willing to disregard the value of a democratic nation in order to push through a controversial project that could have a massive impact on the citizens of the country.
Hancox said Geingob's warning against local interference comes amid serious questions about the environmental and economic viability of the green hydrogen project.
The government is currently pondering the acquisition of a 24% equity stake in Hyphen Hydrogen Energy as it grapples with concerns about the venture's economic feasibility.
The share offered to the government has sparked scepticism, with some asking whether it would commit to the project or withdraw and leave it under the operation of foreign investors.
Hancox says this is a crucial time when citizens should be allowed to express their views and engage in an open and honest debate about the project.
"We urgently call on the president to retract his statement and to commit to upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of all citizens - regardless of their views on the green hydrogen project," she says.
Hyphen has been awarded preferred bidder status on 4 000km2 of land within Tsau //Khaeb National Park for the development of Namibia's first fully vertically integrated scale green hydrogen project.
"We strongly believe a truly democratic society requires open and honest debate, especially on a matter of such enormity, and that citizens should be allowed to express their views without fear, favour or retribution," Hancox says.
She says Geingob's comments regarding the current state of poverty in the Kunene region are regrettable.
"We also note the regrettable comments made in relation to the Epupa project, by suggesting that the challenges faced by the community are of their own making. We trust that this was not the intention," Hancox says.
Over the past years, the government has been a strong advocate for harnessing the potential benefits of green hydrogen, particularly through the Hyphen project, to revitalise the country's struggling economy.
According to the government, the project is expected to create up to 3 000 permanent jobs during its operation, aiming for 90% of these jobs to be performed by Namibians, and 20% by young people.
The project also wants to source up to 30% of its procurement of goods, services and materials during the construction and operational phases from local small and medium enterprises and businesses.
Local businesses would benefit an equivalent of N$60 billion from the procurement of goods and services, according to the government.