In 2014 the stench of corruption began to rise from the operations of Icelandic fishing company Samherji in Namibia, and its former MD Jóhannes Stefánsson noticed. Two years later, he left his job to expose an extensive cash-for-quota scandal through a trove of 30 000 documents and e-mail correspondence handed over to WikiLeaks, who made the documents publicly available. They are now known as the Fishrot Files.

WikiLeaks also asked Al Jazeera to investigate the matter, which the Qatar-based broadcaster did. It published its exposė in December 2019.

Samherji allegedly secured access to Namibian horse mackerel quotas – which had already been allocated to other fisheries – by bribing politicians and businessmen between 2012 and 2018. Through state-owned Den norske Bank (DnB), Norway’s biggest financial institution, the company also laundered millions in profits to tax havens, shell companies and other Samherji branches in Mauritius and Cyprus, among others, in an attempt to lessen its tax liability and transfer the proceeds of its Namibian operations out of the country.

Six Namibian suspects, two of them former government ministers, have been in custody since November 2019. A seventh was arrested in February 2020. The charges against them range from fraud and money laundering to improperly using their office for personal gain, and contravening the country’s Anti-Corruption Act.

A further six current and former Samherji employees have the status of suspects, said Stefánsson.

As a result of the government connection, the coffers of Namibian governing party SWAPO were said to have been bolstered by Fishrot contributions. However, in a media briefing in July this year, Namibian president Hage Geingob denied that this was the case.

The life of a whistle-blower

Stefánsson belongs to a courageous group of people who have made the ethical choice to expose corruption, whether their intentions were noble or self-serving. Some have done it because their own morality couldn’t allow them to let it go unpunished. Others have come clean because they were involved, but were taking orders from their superiors and were unaware that they were enabling corruption. Yet others were consciously involved but wanted to save their own skins from the fall that was sure to come.

The former MD, who claims to belong to the middle group, was speaking on 21 October at the fourth Making Transparency Possible Conference, held online at the Oslo Metropolitan University in Norway. The theme was Follow the money and the focus was on uncovering money laundering.

The cost of blowing the whistle has been high for Stefánsson, he said.

“In Iceland there is no whistle-blower protection and only just recently there was a law agreed on which will be implemented next year but it doesn’t apply to me.  In my case, I came forward two years after I left Samherji and in those two years some of the suspects or associates tried to silence me several times.”

The new Icelandic law, known as Act No. 40/2020, comes into effect on 1 January 2021 and does not apply retroactively.

As a result, Stefánsson has had bodyguard protection for the past four years. “It was clear that they didn’t want me to have the opportunity to come forward, so the physical protection is a priority. “

He faces a tough time when the case goes to trial in Namibia. “There are going to be challenges with the law in Namibia when I have to go and testify but we will deal with that when it happens.”

Whistle-blower protection is not negotiable

Stefánsson said Iceland’s whistle-blower protection system is lagging far behind that of other countries. “I don’t have a strong belief in the system. I think it’s very behind in dealing with white-collar crimes and corruption and I think it really needs to step up on these matters. But I came forward in Iceland too and I will just have to deal with the consequences as they come. If I go to prison here or not, time will tell.”

Union Bank of Switzerland whistle-blower Bradley Birkenfeld, also speaking about his personal experience at the Oslo conference, said whistle-blower protection and incentivisation should be standard practise in every country. In his case he was protected by US legislation, and for exposing the far-reaching tax evasion scheme involving a top Swiss bank and rich Americans stashing their money offshore in a bid to cheat the revenue service, he famously received the largest ever whistle-blower reward, a staggering US$104-million  or R1.6-billion.

“This is why there must be whistle-blower protection laws and incentivisation,” Birkenfeld said, commenting after Stefánsson’s presentation. “The fear for one’s life, having bodyguards, the emotional and economic strain that Johannes is enduring – that’s why paying a whistle-blower can possibly compensate him for having to give up his job, help him support his family, pay legal costs, pay security guards. Everyone should have protection and compensation for doing the right thing.”

When Stefánsson blew the whistle, it was with the knowledge that he had only himself to rely on for protection.

“I accepted this life a long time ago. Thankfully I have good protectors with me and they’re with me because they believe in what I’m doing and they want to see changes for the benefit of the Namibian people. Hopefully it will lead to similar changes in other African countries. It’s just a way of living.”

He is vigilant about what he does and where he does it. “I take my steps very carefully and keep a low profile. I travel with protectors, who are very professional and well trained, and we have gone through big obstacles. We know we’re up against superpowers, but it’s a way of living.”

Stefánsson is, however, receiving support from the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa. 

Compelled to do the right thing

After a decade-long career as a fisherman on Icelandic trawlers and then land-based fishery positions, Stefánsson moved into middle and upper management. He joined Samherji Namibia in 2012, and in 2014 he began to suspect something was not right. He came forward, he said, because he owed it to the Namibian people. “I was not going to live with this on my shoulders.”

Asked why he was a part of the Fishrot scheme, and if he knew it was wrong, Stefansson said he was drawn so gradually into the corruption that at first he thought that was the way business was done, until he realised it was not. “It starts small. You’re working for this big company and you want to try to do well, but the bells were ringing in my head as this was happening. You just get dragged into it mentally, and I thought this is just how people do it.”

Once the enormity of the scheme was exposed, Stefánsson had to come to terms with his actions at Samherji. “It was a process to understand what I had been part of and what I helped create.”

Challenging the whistle-blower

After the Fishrot Files were leaked, Samherji issued a statement accusing Stefánsson of being the mastermind and sole perpetrator, in response to his allegations that Samherji’s CEO and biggest shareholder, Thorsteinn Már Baldvinsson, was aware of and authorised the bribe payments. But Stefánsson says the Fishrot Files tell the true story and in any case, the corruption and white-collar crimes continued after he left in mid-2014 .

“There is quite a good trail of documents to show who was involved and there are e-mails from some of the financial people explaining what we should do to avoid taxes. These documents were published on WikiLeaks.”

Samherji has continued to deny liability in a handful of statements refuting various claims in the media, and to challenge Stefánsson’s allegations. The whistle-blower is conducting a targeted campaign against Samherji, according to co-CEO Bjorgolfur Johannsson.

However, the Al Jazeera investigation of the Fishrot Files found that the company “conducted their operations in Namibia with full knowledge of the prevailing corruption”. And memos written in Icelandic for Samherji’s senior management attest to the powerful role played by the so-called strategic group of Namibian officials.

Samherji has conducted its own internal investigation, in which, it said, Stefánsson declined to participate. The company currently has the final report but has not made it public. Baldvinsson stepped aside for the duration of the investigation and has now returned as co-CEO alongside Johannsson, who was the interim CEO.

Stefánsson defends himself by saying that he was only a small cog in a big international money laundering machine. “I was only responsible for the company that paid a small portion of the bribes, because I had no control over Cyprus and other branches. I just did what was asked of me. After a while you just get used to the environment.”

For the bigger context, don’t miss part two of our mini Fishrot series, in which Stefánsson lays out the intricate mechanisms by which Samherji almost got away with it.