By Shinovene Immanuel | 17 March 2019
THE state-owned Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park in north-eastern Namibia, which has already gobbled up N$180 million in taxpayers’ money, could cost an additional N$35 million to reopen.
The government shut the tourist centre, set on 21 000 hectares along the Zambezi River at Katima Mulilo in the Zambezi region, in 2016 after allegations of rampant maladministration and corruption surfaced.
A government investigation last year found that around N$50 million of the N$180 million splashed on the project cannot be accounted for. No one has yet been held accountable.
The government now appears to be struggling to revive the waterfront, which is a parastatal on its own, and has a board.
Insight Magazine reported in 2014 that the waterfront contains, among others, 35 bungalows, 13 VIP campsites, braai areas, an administration block, kitchen, and bar area.
Documents show that senior government officials met on 3 April 2019 to discuss strategies on how to revive the tourism centre.
The gathering was attended by public enterprises minister Leon Jooste, environment minister Pohamba Shifeta, deputy environment minister Bernadette Jagger, now suspended managing director of Namibia Wildlife Resorts Zelna Hengari, Namibia Tourism Board (NTB) chief executive officer Digu //Naobeb and other high-ranking officials.
During the meeting, deputy minister Jagger asked what the Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park board have been doing while the faculty lay dormant.
According to minutes of the meeting, the board responded that they have been dealing with a number of old issues facing the company, such as a forensics investigation by Ernest and Young, and talking to 17 staff members.
A question was also raised on how much it would cost to revive the facility.
NWR said the final costing on getting the park ready for reopening has not yet been done.
“However, initial estimates indicate that N$27 million for phase 1 upgrading, and N$8 million for phase 2 will be required for the structural cost,” the meeting was told.
The N$35 million excludes operational costs, the minutes showed.
The meeting was also told that things are falling apart at the resort, despite the millions that were pumped into it. Electrical units, sewers, geysers, and air conditioners are not working, while the laundry machine was washed away.
NTB, which controls tourism establishments across the country, said at that meeting that the tourism facility cannot reopen because basic items – such as tables, stoves, bedding, televisions and crockery – are broken, cracked or missing.
//Naobeb said the facility needed major renovations.
“//Naobeb recommended that the facility be partly reopened as a self-catering establishment without a restaurant or kitchen,” the minutes noted. This proposal was supported by Shifeta.
During the meeting, Jooste asked if there had been progress on a Cabinet decision that the government partners with a private company to run the park.
He also asked why the parastatal had not been transferred to NWR, as decided by Cabinet.
“NWR responded that it will not be able to spend its operational money on the Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park as it will be a costly exercise,” read the minutes, adding that NWR had requested an audited financial statement of the company for the past five years to assist in making an informed decision.
The statement is yet to be submitted, NWR said.
NWR, which runs state recreational facilitates across the country, appears to feel that it is being arm-twisted into taking on the flopped project.
“Cabinet has taken a decision, and NWR cannot say no. NWR was under the impression that all improvements would be financed by the government,” the parastatal’s representatives told the meeting, minutes show.
NWR said the transaction cannot go ahead unless the land on which the tourism centre is built is transferred from the Katima Mulilo Town Council to the project.
The project was started under the finance ministry, but treasury shifted it to the environment ministry after spending N$100 million on it.
Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park board member Sikongo Haihambo told the meeting that there were talks with the finance ministry on partnering a private company after companies such as the United Africa Group and Legacy Hotels showed interest.
“When Cabinet decided in 2018 that the Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park should go to NWR, the board abandoned all efforts to engage private sector investment,” the board said.
The meeting proposed that a committee comprising officials from the environment ministry, public enterprises and NWR and the Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park be formed immediately.
“Task team is to draft the budget for the reopening of the facility for self-catering,” the minutes showed.
NWR was directed to include the Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park on its marketing platforms, while the environment ministry was tasked with engaging the attorney general to finalise the land transfer from the Katima Mulilo Town Council.
Environment minister Shifeta questioned the motive and manner in which this project was started, saying “some people introduce projects to make money”.
“It’s a lesson for the government. Does the government really need to build projects like these, or should we allow agencies like NWR and the private sector to be at the forefront?”, he remarked to The Namibian yesterday.
The minister said forensic auditors were appointed to trace the culprits who might have benefited from the project. Shifeta said the Zambezi Water Front Tourism Park would have cost around N$30 million at the time the idea was floated, but the costs have ballooned.
“Somehow – when the project was started – some people were not honest,” he said.
Asked whether the government will provide the N$35 million needed to revive the project, Shifeta said he opposes the idea.
According to him, the tourism centre should operate on its own without being bailed out. The other alternative is for them to form a joint venture.
Shifeta said there are talks with NWR to provide managerial expertise to the company.