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Vol 63 No 4

Published 17th February 2022


Fishing giant's dirty tricks

Leaked emails reveal the underhand methods used by a European fishing company against critics of its Namibian business

Icelandic fishing company Samherji plotted dirty tricks against a senior employee in Namibia, before he went on to blow the whistle on corruption, leaked documents seen by Africa Confidential reveal. Jóhannes Stefánsson's revelations would trigger the scandal known as Fishrot, which has rocked the country's political elite (AC Vol 63 No 3, High noon for Fishrot perpetrators).

Emails leaked from an Icelandic police investigation into Samherji show how a former police officer hired by Samherji sought to have Stefánsson committed to a hospital in Iceland against his will, for supposed excessive drinking. The emails also show how Samherji moved to secure its relations with corrupt Namibian middlemen, after Stefánsson gave notice of his resignation in the mid-July 2016. 

Although Samherji has sought to blame all bribery in Namibia on Stefánsson, payments to the middlemen continued for years after he eventually left the company at the end of 2016. Earlier evidence of dirty tricks by Samherji against journalists – including producing videos to smear a critical reporter – was revealed in Icelandic and Faroe Islands media last year.

The emails obtained by the Icelandic police show how Samherji reacted after Stefánsson made clear that he would leave the company. On 15 July 2016, the head of Samherji's Africa operations, Adalstein Helgason, emailed company CEO Thorsteinn Már Baldvinsson to say he was sending staff and contractors from Iceland headquarters to take control of the situation. Among those sent to Namibia was a private investigator, Jón Óttar Ólafsson.

A week later, Ólafsson sent an email to Iceland's Vogur 'detoxification hospital', which treats people for drug and alcohol abuse. He asked if they would be willing to take Stefánsson in immediately, as he has 'been drinking uncontrollably in a city in Africa for the last two weeks'. Ólafsson said he was writing on behalf of Samherji, and that the company could pay for six weeks of treatment for Stefánsson. 'I know this is rude of us , but we are helpless if this situation continues,' Ólafsson told the hospital.

'I honestly do not know what they were trying with this but assume it was part of their agenda to get me out of Africa,' Stefánsson told Africa Confidential, 'They were doing all they could to damage me. I am not a drug addict and not an alcoholic.' Stefánsson said the moves to get him committed were carried out entirely without his knowledge. Samherji said it was unable to reply to questions from Africa Confidential by our publication deadline.

Stefánsson gave notification of his resignation – which became effective once a settlement agreement was signed in December 2016 – on the basis that Samherji was failing to meet its social obligations in Namibia, including in relation to local jobs and investment. His complaints had led to disputes with senior management, including the CEO Baldvinsson, and a breakdown of trust. It was only years later, in 2019, that Stefánsson would go public with the tens of thousands of emails and documents he had collected, detailing Samherji's – and Stefánsson's own – involvement in bribery (AC Vol 60 No 23, SWAPO stumbles).

While Ólafsson was trying to get Stefánsson committed, moves were also underway to ensure that Samherji's middlemen, known as the 'sharks', were kept on side. The sharks reportedly handled Samherji's bribes for cheap fishing quotas, which allowed the company to gain control of 30% of Namibia's valuable horse mackerel exports. Chief among them were prominent Namibian businessman James Hatuikulipi, his cousin Tamson 'Fitty' Hatuikulipi and Sacky Shanghala, who rose in the Namibian government ranks after first becoming involved with Samherji, reaching the position of justice minister. 

The three sharks have been in jail since their arrest in late 2019, with their trial – along with seven other suspects – expected to take place later this year. They all protest their innocence, and claim the evidence against them is unreliable.  

Bribery  spreadsheet
In the 15 July 2016 email to the CEO, Samherji manager Adalstein said Ólafsson and a colleague would make sure that 'James and co are on our side' – a reference to Hatuikulipi. Among the documents leaked from the Icelandic police investigation is an Excel sheet titled 'Bribe payments Samherji 2012-19', listing US$15.6m of payments by the firm to the sharks' shell companies, running years after Stefánsson's departure. This runs counter to Samherji's insistence that Stefánsson alone was responsible for the bribery.

Ólafsson's role in the dirty tricks campaign stretches back several years. After resigning from the police force in 2012, he began working for Samherji, gathering information to help the company fight off an official investigation into transfer mispricing. He contacted Seljan on another pretext, without disclosing he was working for Samherji, and secretly recorded the conversation. In 2020, the recording was selectively edited to make it look like Seljan had misleadingly altered documents, and posted on Samherji's YouTube channel to malign the journalist.

Several more videos were produced attacking Seljan, from autumn 2020 onwards, published on Samherji's website and YouTube channel, all as part of the company's fightback against the Fishrot scandal. In addition to this, Samherji produced a video featuring a secret recording of Stefánsson, purportedly showing him planning to set up a new business and steal away Samherji's partners. That recording was also made by Ólafsson. 

The team at Samherji producing these videos were themselves the subject of a damaging leak of internal emails in May last year, when Icelandic newspaper Stundin detailed their aggressive tactics. In the emails, the team refers to itself as the 'guerrilla unit' or the 'shadow department'. Several Samherji employees were involved with it alongside Ólafsson, including in-house lawyer Arna Bryndis McClure.

The email exchanges were not a good look for Samherji. In a 29 March 2021 email, two colleagues at the guerrilla unit discuss how they will attack the reputation of Stefánsson, the whistleblower. 'Hopefully TMB [Thorsteinn Mar Baldvinsson] will sharpen the knives and go on to slaughter Jóhannes,' says one of the guerrillas. 'Yes, I know. I want to stab, turn and sprinkle salt into the wound,' says another.

The revelations of the guerrilla unit's activities sparked condemnation in Iceland and internationally. 

'Such behavior is unbearable, unnatural and should not be tolerated in a democratic society,' said Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, in a parliamentary debate shortly after the publication of the guerrilla unit documents. Jakobsdóttir's critical comments marked a sharp change in the government's approach. When the Fishrot scandal first broke, Iceland's Fisheries Minister Kristján Thór Júliusson – a former Samherji chairman – said he had 'called Thorsteinn Mar and I asked him how he was feeling', adding that he was 'worried for the company'. The comments sparked public outrage, with thousands taking to the streets of Reykjavik, demanding Júliusson's resignation.

Samherji ceased publishing its smear videos after the guerrilla unit's emails were made public, and the company issued a caveated apology. 'When professional integrity is questioned in an unfair manner in a public space, it can be hard not to react,' said Samherji. 'That does not change, though, that the wording and the conversation that took place there were unfortunate… It is clear that those reactions have gone too far. For these reasons, Samherji would like to apologise for its behaviour.' Samherji has denied, however, that it or Ólafsson – whom it acknowledges having contracted - have harassed journalists.

Fishrot implicates senior Icelandic business figures

Icelandic police have been investigating several of the most senior figures at Samherji, the country's largest fishing company, over the Namibian bribery scandal known as Fishrot. Media has reported that eight top Samherji managers – including CEO Thorsteinn Már Baldvinsson and the in-house lawyer – are considered as suspects in the case.

Leaked emails indicate that Baldvinsson had close involvement with the middlemen at the heart of Fishrot. From 2012 to 2016 Baldvinsson attended at least six meetings with three middlemen known as the 'sharks' or their key government contact, Fisheries Minister Bernhard Esau, in Iceland, Belgium and even at Esau's personal ranch in Namibia. On three different occasions, in 2013, 2014 and 2016, the sharks were Samherji's guests in Iceland.

On one of these occasions, leaked documents show, it was agreed that Samherji should benefit from a horse mackerel quota under an eventual bilateral fisheries agreement between Namibia and Angola. James Hatuikulipi refers to this in an 8 March 2014 email to Jóhannes Stefánsson – in which the CEO's secretary was copied - as 'the strategy we put in place in the Samherji boardroom'. 

'We have both Ministers in Angola and Namibia working to ensure we gain access to these fishing grounds,' wrote Hatuikulipi. Samherji paid one of the sharks' companies – Erongo Clearing & Forwarding – N$10 million ($937,000) in 2014 to help facilitate this deal, according to the company's leaked internal documents.

The evidence shows that there was free talk about bribery within the inner circle of Samherji for years, including in an email of 16 December 2011, when Samherji was about to enter the Namibian fishing sector. Adalstein Helgason, head of Samherji's African operations, wrote to chief accounting officer Ingvar Juliusson: 'At some stage it may be important to bribe some of these leaders.'

In a June 2021 press release, Baldvinsson said any bribery in Namibia was due solely to Stefánsson, and in no way to the company as a whole: 'It is my and Samherji's firm position that no criminal offences were committed in Namibia by companies on our behalf or their employees, apart from the conduct that the former managing director [Stefánsson] has directly confessed to.'

'I am very sorry that this happened, and I sincerely apologize to all those involved, both personally and on behalf of the company,' he said.

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