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Growing Clouds of Corruption Threaten Namibia's Progress

If you want an ecotourism contract or want to supply limos for embassies, it helps to have government `friends'

AFTER four years of independence, Namibia can no longer call itself blemish free.

Until relatively recently, Namibia seemed a strong, secure, upright, wisely focused model for the new Africa, particularly for neighboring South Africa. Now there are well-placed allegations of spreading corruption and mismanagement, especially in the sensitive realm of ecotourism, and too little concern about it at the upper levels of government.

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The auditor-general, a Namibian who reports to parliament, recently accused the government of ``sweeping corruption under the carpet.''

Namibia's most significant exports are diamonds, uranium oxide, and copper. Fish, especially sardines, pilchards, and hake, are growing in importance. Likewise, high-quality ecotourism is another economic mainstay, as well as a hope for the future. It is in the field of ecotourism that Namibia's government may be attempting to secure short-term national and personal gains at the expense of the long-term national interest.

Early this year, and despite local court opinions, the Namibian government lifted a longtime ecotourism concession to the famed Skeleton Coast from its local white pioneer and gave the exclusive rights to tourism along that remote part of Namibia's beautiful Atlantic shores to a German promoter.

The German firm had no comparable experience in Namibia, had been criticized for its tourism schemes elsewhere, but was known to have friends in the Namibian government.

Another foreign firm is building an unusually large lodge for tourists at the entrance to Sossusvlei National Park, which contains the highest natural sand dunes in the world. Ecologists in Namibia question the ability of the red-, rust-, orange-, blond-, and other subtle-colored dune areas to sustain a surge of visitors, even on foot. The unique, fragile area is at risk, but the Namibian government has opted for foreign investment over protection of the environment.

There are persistent allegations of a deal having been made for Namibia to receive toxic wastes from Europe, but the country's minister of the environment strenuously denies them.

In addition, allegations have surfaced about ministers receiving government fishing-concession grants and subsequently selling or sharing them for great personal gain. So far, neither the nation's ombudsman nor the auditor-general have revealed the extent of their investigations in this area.

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They have, however, reported to parliament on other improprieties without parliament or the government having taken action. The Namibian Constitution is one of the most liberal and forthright in the world. It provides for an independent auditor-general and an independent ombudsman.

To the credit of the government, President Sam Nujoma appointed two independently minded Namibians to those posts, and he and his Cabinet ministers have not publicly interfered with the work of either. But neither have they embraced and acted on their findings, or even published the reports of a separate commission established to investigate corruption.

The ombudsman has completed at least one startling investigation. After newspaper allegations last year, the ombudsman uncovered an expensive scam in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Instead of buying large Mercedes cars for its many new embassies overseas from the factory in Stuttgart, Germany, or from the local distributor of Mercedes in Windhoek, Namibia's capital, the contract was given to a French-connected firm in Windhoek, and the Mercedes were ordered, at higher prices, through Paris. The wife of a senior employee in the ministry works for that local French-connected company.

The auditor-general revealed that a well-connected official had used government funds and employees to fence off large farms in the north and dig deep wells. The official was dismissed, but has not yet been prosecuted.

Likewise, nothing has happened to the employees who over-invoiced for myriad government vehicle tires, or who claimed per diems for stays in a long-defunct hotel.

But when the auditor-general initiated in March the arrest of the finance director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, allegedly for defrauding the government of R200,000 (US $65,000), the auditor-general was publicly castigated by the minister of foreign affairs himself, who called the auditor-general ``unprofessional and unprocedural.''

Namibians go the polls in December to elect a president and members of the National Assembly. Everyone expects President Nujoma to be reelected easily and for the ruling party, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), to increase its 10-seat majority over others in the Assembly. The black-led opposition seems fragmented, and unwilling or unable to capitalize on the allegations of corruption and mismanagement that have begun to threaten Namibia's reputation as a clean African democracy. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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