Avoid suspicion, be transparent and face the music

The stories capturing headlines about an ‘oil exploration deal’ involving Recon Africa, a Canadian gas and oil company, are disturbing. The area targeted for drilling is one of the most environmentally sensitive conservation and wildlife areas in the country. More must be revealed about this story; there are many unanswered questions. Decision-makers seem to be caught up yet again in their unattainable obsession for secrecy. When will they learn to face the public with their plans and tackle issues directly?

Namibia is reeling from COVID-19 and financial hardship. Fishrot and other corruption scandals have made the public distrust politicians and top government officials. There is an endless housing crisis, super high unemployment and families are uncertain about tomorrow. The nation needs to know without a doubt, that their government is working on their behalf in every business deal they sign.

As of now, the public does not have that confidence. The overall sentiment is scepticism about government motives.

If the entire effort was legitimate, why didn’t government announce this deal when Cabinet first approved it? Elections are right around the corner. Such a “wonderful benefit” for Namibia should be a campaign flag-waving point. Instead, the Minister of Mines and Energy Tom Alweendo steps up to downplay the deal only when it appeared in the newspapers.

The way the government handled this issue is unfortunate. It creates smoke that makes people think there is fire. If Cabinet has decided that the desperate financial situation means that all resources could be sold or auctioned for cash, then own up to it. Those opposed will still try to block the drilling; that is their right. But, at least some in the general public might see this oil deal as something other than a phosphate-style ‘deal’ for ‘connected’ businessmen and foreign companies.

Those who approved oil drilling in a Transfrontier Conservation Area knew that their decision was controversial. Is that the reason it was done so quietly? If that is the case, then it shows an embarrassing lack of understanding of the resilience and determination of the conservation, tourism and wildlife community in Namibia and worldwide. Whether those opposed to such drilling knew about it from the start or when it was already underway, they would clap back. What, then, was saved by the secrecy?

A consultative meeting with the communities affected should have been held. It should have announced the inclination to grant an oil drilling permit and given the reasons why. That meeting would have been difficult. But, it was the right thing to do. Taking the ‘top-down’ approach will cause more negative blowback than was necessary.

We recall that the offshore phosphate mining environmental clearance certificate from a few years ago was initially granted in quiet meetings. Then, it was withdrawn once the light of day was shown about the destructive and horrific ‘deal’ in that case. Here we are again.

Justified or not, the questions asked will include: Which of the politically connected tenderpreneurs is the Namibian partner of Recon Africa for this deal? Minister Alweendo said that an environmental clearance certificate had already been issued. On what basis was it granted without public opportunities to present an alternative case? Minister of Environment, Forestry and Tourism, Pohamba Shifeta can clarify this situation.

Most importantly, what are the local benefits of the proposed drilling?

Recall Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria. This heroic activist argued that oil production had devastated his region’s environment while bringing no benefit to its people. His government executed him for his position.

In Nigeria, oil drilling turned what was once an area of unspoiled natural beauty into nasty oil slick where nothing grows. Oil from leaking pipelines and pumping stations seeped into the soil and destroyed it. Is that the future for us as well?

Namibia is notorious for signing poor contracts. Often, we give away the farm and get little in return. Look at what is earned from fishing quotas vs what was earned at open auction. Recall public concerns about amounts received for Namibia diamonds sold at market. Look at huge parcels of land sold to Russian and Spanish businesses. We barely were able to cancel a strange N$7 billion airport renovation deal some years back. Many contracts are unilaterally cancelled (and we get sued) because the terms of the deal favoured the other side. Those brokering these kinds of deals get their percentages and are not interested in making sure Namibia ‘wins’ in the process. Is this Recon deal more of the same?

Much more will be revealed about this oil drilling deal in the days and weeks to come. The government must face the music. This issue must be debated publicly and not pushed through behind closed doors.

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