The embarrassment over the fish auction

The happy dances being done some weeks ago about N$628 million supposedly ‘earned’ in a government fish auction were grossly premature. There were statements made that “now we know the value of our fish stocks.” Comparisons to the over-played investor conferences that generated similar glowingly huge numbers of investments “received” (but were not), are apt. No matter how embarrassing it all has been, it is not the whole story.

The first win on this, the egg-on-the-face notwithstanding, is that auctioning the fisheries quotas is a good idea. It should be done permanently. The rules for such auctions, however, must change. Reports imply that government held the auction without accepting advice from those who had professional information. If this is the case, it is a cause of the egg bath.

Government has a history of listening only to internal voices. It is believable that homework was not done on how other countries hold such auctions quite successfully. People bidding were obviously throwing out figures they had no power to turn over. These bidders were maliciously playing games, overly optimistic about their cash flow or clueless about the nature of a serious national auction.

But, the idea of auctioning fish stocks is a good one. Sustainably selling natural resources has to be an option given the dire financial straits the country faces. These are not ideal options, but the situation is serious. We need to get our auction/bidding systems and procedures to a world class level using best practices.

The N$628 million figure that was supposed to represent the value of our fish stocks is now unreliable. Since less than N$10 million was actually received to date, the bloated figure is a fake number. Apparently, the bidders were actually chancers.

Those who bid but did not pay should be fined after the fact. If necessary, let the Attorney General scour the criminal code and definitions of fraud. Charges might be able to be brought against those most egregious.

Of course, the bad guys may not respect such a fine (particularly international bidders). Still, some businesses who may want to bid in the future may well wish to pay the fine to keep their options open.

The names of the individuals and companies that bid and did not pay must be published. We must challenge their participation in any business in any sector in Namibia in the future. They must be branded as unreliable until they prove differently.

With these unused fish quotas now available, what is the plan?

Those quotas are an asset. Government needs the money. We cannot afford for officials responsible for the mess to feel so embarrassed that they afraid to move on. What’s done is done. What is Plan B?

The Opposition is correct to demand accountability. This should not be seen as a penalty. It should be seen as a professional post mortem. Cut it open and see what went wrong, document it, give training to any staff that made matters worse. Learn for the next time.

One part of Plan B should be to learn that government should never cackle until the egg is in the nest. Sometimes those around powerful leaders want to throw around big figures so they look more successful than they actually are. Perhaps the leaders have created an atmosphere of demanding this. Both sides need to question themselves.

In the investor conferences in Namibia the organizers shouted loudly about billions supposedly ‘pledged’ by dodgy businesses and unconfirmed sources. Billion dollar numbers were tossed around. The organizers of those conferences played fast-and-loose with headlines as if the tail wags the dog.

From this point forward, we must be clear about the meaning of bids and pledges and stop pretending that they mean money in the bank.

If these kinds of things continue to happen, we will have a international reputation of being easy to fool. That is never a good look for a serious sovereign nation.

Embarrassment over the fish auction must not be allowed to define us. Government should shake-it off, develop a functional Plan B and let’s get it right for round two.

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