By Tileni Mongudhi, Shinovene Immanuel and Mathias Haufiku | 15 August 2019
ENVIRONMENT minister Pohamba Shifeta says the government cannot pronounce itself on whether it will allow phosphate mining until an ongoing court case against the proposed seabed mining is finalised.
Shifeta made these remarks in a letter sent to president Hage Geingob on 19 June 2019.
His comments are opposite to Geingob’s latest promise to a phosphate investor that the government will soon make a decion after a meeting this month.
Details about Shifeta’s letter come at a time when Geingob is accused of applying pressure on ministers to decide whether Namibia will accommodate phosphate mining for fertiliser production.
Shifeta confirmed writing the letter to Geingob, but denied suggestions that the head of state was putting pressure on him.
He instead pointed fingers at private investors for applying pressure on the government.
“We will not be pressured by investors on how to do our work,” he stressed.
Shifeta responded to Geingob’s 13 June 2019 letter, where the head of state had asked the environment minister to explain Namibia’s indecisiveness on phosphate mining.
The environment minister said his role in this matter was concluded in 2018 when he conducted a hearing on 28 June that year.
“Thereafter, I set aside [cancelled] the environmental clearance certificate, and ordered the environmental commission to conduct another six-months consultation process for any party [especially the fishing industry] in need of more time to give their input,” he said.
Shifeta added that the environmental commissioner concluded the consultation process in December last year.
“However, this process has been disrupted by another court application, which is challenging the procedure that was followed for the mining licence. Both the environmental commissioner and the minister of environment are cited as first and second respondents in this matter,” the minister stated.
He added that since the matter is sub judice [under judicial consideration and therefore prohibited from public discussion elsewhere], the environmental commissioner – who is cited as first respondent – may not take a decision concerning the matter before court.
“Your excellency, the environmental commissioner is still waiting for the pending court case to be finalised,” Shifeta said.
Shifeta said phosphate proponents tried to pressure him into approving the controversial seabed mining that is considered toxic by environmental activists.
The proponents are Namibia Marine Phosphate, which is owned by Omani billionaire Mohammed Al Barwani, and his partner, Knowledge Katti.
“They wrote to me, asking about the status of the project, and I told them that this matter is sub judice. Next thing I hear is that they wrote to the president asking for help. It seems they were not happy with my answer. I gave the president the same answer I gave Namibia Marine Phosphate, and he understood,” Shifeta explained.
Al Barwani wrote to Geingob in March this year, insisting that he did not agree with Shifeta’s view that the matter was sub judice, and that the finalisation of the appeal process must be postponed until the outcome of the fishing association’s legal challenge to the NMP licence.
“Our legal team has advised that the two matters are not connected in law. The minister has no legal grounds, therefore, to defer his decision, and that NMP should proceed with further action against the minister if the minister insists on delaying the appeal outcome,” Al Barwani said.
He added: “We would prefer not to take additional action, but given the legal advice, and that we have followed the minister’s rigorous process, we feel we have no alternative but to seek your advice on how best to deal with the matter.”
The billionaire claimed that his company has to far invested over N$1,1 billion in both project development acquisition and holding costs. The Namibian could not verify that amount.
Geingob promised Al Barwani that the government will make a decision. This is despite a warning from his environment minister that the government cannot intervene in the matter.
Documents show that Geingob wrote to Al Barwani on 15 July 2019, saying that the main public opposition to phosphate mining is coming from the fishing industry, which is against the issuance of the phosphate environment certificate. He said they had concerns about the “unknown impacts of the proposed operation on the marine environment, and are advocating that precaution be applied”.
“Given the widespread opposition to the issuance of the environmental clearance certificate and public concerns regarding the impact of the operations on the marine environment, an independent external reviewer was appointed to review the process surrounding the NMP application as well as issues raised by various interest groups, and to submit recommendations to the government,” the president said.
Geingob appears to be determined to push ahead with a decision.
He said a meeting with the attorney general must be convened this month. A final decision will be made by the government afterwords, Geingob promised.
“I wish to assure you that I will remain committed to promoting Namibia as the preferred investment destination, that the rule of law is upheld, and that processes, systems and institutions are functional and transparent,” the president told the billionaire.
Katti and NMP lawyers ENSafrica declined to comment yesterday, saying the case was before court.
COLLEAGUES DID NOT KNOW
Shifeta admitted in an interview with The Namibian that the “government does not have an official position on offshore phosphate mining”, and also questioned the wisdom to award Namibia Marine Phosphate with a phosphate mining licence without probing the implications of the proposed mine.
The fishing sector – representated by firebrand lawyer Sisa Namandje – dragged the government to court to block the controversial project.
Shifeta said: “My hands are tied until the court pronounces itself. My actions in this matter are dictated by the law; investors must just be patient until the law runs its course”.
He also raised concerns over the mines ministry’s decision to issue prospective phosphate exploration licences.
“It seems the colleagues back then did not know the implications of marine phosphate, especially considering the fact that we do not have an official position as a government when it comes to phosphate,” he noted.
Shifeta said allegations of Geingob’s interference in the phosphate saga were trumped-up.
“President never pressured me to do anything, he merely asked for an update. As a minister, I am by default his adviser on matters relating to my ministry, hence I always tell him what he must hear, not what he wants to hear. If he was interfering and pressuring us, like people are saying, I am sure he would have summoned me and instructed me to immediately take a decision. This was not the case,” added the minister.
Shifeta was blasted two years ago when he appeared to defend phosphate mining.
The environment minister said the public should trust in the ministry’s judegement.
“What I can assure the public is that nothing is going to influence our decision. We are here to protect the environment. We cannot sacrifice the environment,” he reiterated.
Geingob’s actions in the phosphate saga are being watched closely, especially since he brought the Omani billionaire to Namibia six years ago.
In fact, Katti – the Namibian partner of the Omani billionaire– paid N$200 000 towards Geingob’s medical bills and air fares previously.
The Omani business people have since Geingob’s ascendancy to the Presidency received special treatment, such as red carpet treatment when Geingob was inaugurated as president in 2015.