Scarcely a week after a scandal of a massive kickback scheme involving Chinese scanners broke in local media, the chief of the Namibian Defence Force, Lieutenant General Martin Shalli, was suddenly suspended for allegedly taking a $250 000 kickback on a Chinese arms deal.
The announcement by Minister for Presidential Affairs Dr Albert Kawana came on the same day last week as more embarrassing details of financial gouging by a Chinese state company emerged in local media.
Its timing was, however, not lost on the local media: “Shalli Shafted”, shouted the Namibian newspaper’s headlines last Friday.
Kawana’s announcement on behalf of the Security Commission stated it was to allow for “unhindered investigation into alleged irregularities” by the very popular Shalli, generally seen as straight arrow in an increasingly polarised Namibian Defence Force (NDF).
The news was not received well among the lower ranks of the NDF, with reports coming from all over the country of soldiers refusing to attend parade the next morning. This prompted the government to issue another statement calling upon the media not to sensationalise the incident and to refrain from irresponsible discussions of the subject.
But details emerged immediately: Shalli was accused of taking a $250 000 kickback from Chinese arms dealers while on an official visit to China a month ago; other senior officers accompanying him also received a further $100 000 in palm-grease, two other local newspapers reported.
Why the other officers were not also charged remains a secret. Minister of Defence Charles Namholoh appeared as mystified by the sudden suspension as anyone else. Questions immediately also surfaced whether the Security Commission was properly constituted, and if the suspension order was signed by President Hifikepunye Pohamba as required under the Defence Act.
It is, however, no secret that Shalli, generally considered a “soldier’s soldier” by his peers, is widely distrusted by the ascendant hardliner wing in the ruling party for being sympathetic to former presidential challenger Hidipo Hamutenya.
Shortly after former president Sam Nujoma summarily fired Hamutenya in 2004, Shalli — who was the NDF chief of staff — was suddenly sent to Lusaka as Namibia’s high commissioner. No explanation was ever given for this strange posting for a career soldier — but the message was clear.
But in 2006, Pohamba brought Shalli back and reinstated him as chief of the defence force after his predecessor, Lieutenant General Diimo Hamaambo, died after a long illness.
Shalli’s return did wonders for the rank-and-file morale — but his outspoken opposition to Swapo plans to put all national security matters into a shadowy party-controlled security committee’s hands made him no friends among hardliners aligned to Nujoma, still the deux ex-machina of Namibian politics.
Just how this kickback was supposed to happen is now the subject of an investigation by the Office of the President, Kawana said, but declined to say who would serve on this panel. Shalli has denied all accusations — and welcomed the probe, which he said he would fully cooperate with.
The only money he had received was for rent of a house he owned (an amount of R100 000 was mentioned), but there are rumours swirling of another mysterious R500 000 that found its way into Shalli’s bank accounts.
The alleged kickback was supposedly channelled through a bank account of an employee at the Namibian High Commission in Lusaka, who is now reported to be under 24-hour guard. But Namibian High Commissioner Salomon Witbooi said he knew nothing of the investigation that supposedly preceded this. “I only read about it the newspapers,” he said a few days later from Lusaka.
The subtext to Shalli’s suspension is twofold. This was the first time such drastic action was taken, even though there is an ongoing investigation at the NDF into R3-million that went missing in an earlier arms deal. Secondly — and more importantly — Shalli’s position was taken over by another Swapo hardliner, Major General Peter Nambundungu. Although lacking in military credentials, he is a director of both Swapo-owned Kalahari Holdings and the NDF’s commercial arm, the August 26company.
And just how any major arms deals with the Chinese avoided dealing with either Kalahari or August 26 still remains to be seen.