The Icelandic fisherman who fought the sharks – and won

This is a story about horse mackerel, and sharks.

The horse mackerel are real. They swim in enormous schools in the cold Atlantic waters off Africa’s southwest coast. Most adult fish are about the size of a ruler by the time they are scooped into the vast nets of fishing trawlers, then flash-frozen, gutted, and packaged in plastic wrap to be sold as far away as Scandinavia and Japan. They are delicious roasted whole, with lemon and rosemary, or sliced raw with rice, ginger and soy sauce. Although there are plenty of horse mackerel in the sea, they are a finite resource, and strict regulations govern how much can be fished at any one time.

But the sharks want more than they can eat.

The sharks, in this story, are not those who swim in the ocean — but, as far as the horse mackerel are concerned, these sharks are an even more dangerous predator. They are a very small group of very senior Namibian government officials and businessmen. The sharks are in jail, awaiting trial, thanks to the man who gave them their nickname: Johannes Stefansson.

“I have a lot of code names,” said Stefansson. “Obviously our phones and computers are at risk. People keep trying to break in. I’ve pushed the enemy too far.”

The man on the ground

Johannes Stefansson was born in a small town in Iceland 46 years ago. His father was a fisherman, and Stefansson junior happily followed in his old man’s wake. For a decade he sailed the high seas, on trawlers in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, before moving into more senior positions on land. He worked in a fish factory, eventually becoming foreman, and then started travelling the world with Iceland’s biggest fishing company: Samherji.

Part of Stefansson’s job was to look for new markets. In 2011, he found a major opportunity in Namibia, where fishing quotas for horse mackerel were being reallocated. As a foreign company, Samherji could not bid for these quotas directly, but the successful local bidders could sell their rights on. Stefansson was sent to Walvis Bay to manage these negotiations and then, after successfully signing deals with three quota-holders, to manage the business.

Walvis Bay is a harbour town in the middle of Namibia’s long coastline. There’s not a lot else going on there. For several years, Stefansson did little more than work, sleep and run. Business was booming. It helped that Samherji had worked out how to pay almost no tax in Namibia, which Stefansson says he was a little unsure about, but he apparently thought that this was how big multinational companies do things and he did not ask questions. “Make no mistake, at that time I was still working to find ways to channel the money out of Namibia,” he said, speaking to the Mail & Guardian from Iceland on an encrypted phone line.

Other things made Stefansson uneasy. Part of the deal with the Namibian quota-holders was that the Icelandic company would build a processing plant on Namibian soil, in the process creating jobs and stimulating the local economy. But the company kept finding reasons to delay construction, putting Stefansson in an awkward position: he was the man who had to keep explaining why the company was not keeping its promises — promises that Stefansson had made, in person.

At the same time, Stefansson started having doubts about his Namibian counterparts in government, especially the then-justice minister Sakeus Shanghala and fisheries minister Bernardt Esau. He thought that they were his friends. He was wrong. They were sharks.

Along with two senior executives of South Africa’s Investec, a financial services firm, Shanghala and Esau cooked up a scheme to enrich both themselves and Samherji. As Stefansson tells it, the sharks exploited a forgotten bilateral treaty between Namibia and Angola and offered to increase Samherji’s horse mackerel quota by tens of thousands of tonnes. In return, they demanded an old-fashioned bribe of N$100-million (R100 million, $6.8-million).

Stefansson says he knows the bribe happened — because he helped to pay it. “I was the man on the ground.”

Shanghala, Esau and their co-accused deny all the allegations against them. So does Samherji.

Where the bodies are buried

There was no epiphany, no single moment when Stefansson realised that what he was doing was wrong. Instead the feelings of guilt and shame grew stronger, until he could no longer ignore them. In 2016, on a short business trip to Cape Town, he finally made the decision to quit Samherji. He was smart: while negotiating the terms of his exit, he recruited an IT specialist to help him download thousands of emails from his work account, and documents from a shared dropbox account. Just in case. It took two days.

By that time, Stefansson had established himself as a major figure in Africa’s fishing industry. He knew everyone’s secrets and where the bodies were buried. Now on the outside, he was a potential threat and many people were interested in shutting him up.

Rumours spread that he was an alcoholic and addicted to drugs — false rumours, Stefansson clarifies — and he claims he received threats from senior Cape Town gangsters who are deeply enmeshed in the illegal fishing industry.

For protection, he teamed up with a Congolese bouncer, whom he credits with saving his life on several occasions. But his security was not watertight. In late 2016, he believes his food was laced with a slow-acting poison that continues to affect his health today.

The threats to Stefansson’s physical safety — and of his documents — were credible enough that he was taken on as a client by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa. Known by their French acronym, PPLAAF also represented the whistleblowers behind the Gupta leaks, which exposed state capture in South Africa, and the Luanda Leaks, which detailed the corruption underpinning the $2.2-billion business empire of Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of former Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos.

PPLAAF helped Stefansson figure out what to do with all the information he had gathered. Working with Wikileaks, Al Jazeera and two Icelandic media outlets, they prepared a story that would go off like a depth charge in the middle of Namibia’s 2019 general election campaign.

‘Just another African country?’

Fishrot, as the scandal has been dubbed, is the biggest corruption scandal in Namibia’s history. Not only has it caused the downfall of two Cabinet ministers, but it also punctured the sense of exceptionalism which has been always been a feature of politics in Namibia.

“The fishrot saga may have gripped the attention of most Namibians, alerting even the most naive of citizens to the fact that corruption may run deeper than thought before. But, as dramatic as its impact has been, the fishing scandal should not blind us to the signs that the country has been falling behind in key social and economic aspects for a while now,” wrote The Namibian in an editorial. “Which begs the question: Has Namibia become ‘just another African country’?”

Samherji’s image has taken a battering. After the bribery allegations were revealed, Icelandic authorities launched an investigation into the company’s actions. Chief executive Thorsteinn Mar Baldvinsson has stepped aside until the investigation is complete. Two weeks ago, Samherji announced that it would be ending its operations in Namibia.

Stefansson, at home in Iceland, is watching the developments closely. Blowing the whistle has upended his life. He is still worried about his safety, because he says his documents are only the tip of a rotten iceberg — there is yet more wrongdoing that he is planning to expose.

He doesn’t go out much, and rarely socialises for fear of being recognised. “I’ve tried to focus on being alone and not bring weak links into my life because they [people close to him] could suffer.”

He is in constant pain. Doctors have identified a foreign substance in his body, from the alleged poisoning attempt, but they can’t say what it is. For a while he could not see properly, and when the pain is bad it feels like a scaling knife is scraping his insides. But he has no regrets.

“It’s a funny thing. I somehow always expected that I would get in trouble, because I considered myself quite an honest and fair person. Most of these bigger companies want to oppress people, and I am not them.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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