It is not hard to spot the successful rhino poachers in Okahao: at a time when everyone else in Namibia was suffering the effects of a crippling, four-year-long drought, they were building new houses, buying more cattle and driving fancy new cars.
Some occasionally do get arrested for rhino poaching, but then get bailed out again and carry on like nothing has happened, said my local guide, pointing at one of the new properties in the main road owned by a local rhino-preneur, those well-dressed middlemen who make the real killing.
“When the police searched that boy’s place, they found nearly a million dollars in cash hidden in a bag or something. When the police questioned him, he claimed it belonged to his father, but his father said he knew nothing of that money,” my guide said.
Okahao is small (2011 census: 1 635 inhabitants) and nothing stays secret for very long. It may have some tarred roads and two ATMs at the local bank, but it has remained a village. It is famous for being the birth-place of founding President Sam Nujoma, but not much more.
It is also emerging as the epicentre of rhino poaching in Namibia that has quietly all but decimated Namibia’s critically-endangered black rhino population, including the last handful of desert-adapted southwestern black rhinos in southern Kunene.
Situated about 80 kilometres north of the Etosha Park, Okahao is the closest town to where most of the poaching inside the park has occurred. Its tiny courtroom, part of the local police station, is also where 22 suspects arrested a year ago will make their appearance formally plead on charges of rhino poaching.
Most of the suspects are Hai//Om San, mostly arrested at the villages of Onamatanga and Uutsatsima and often use the names of the Ogandjera families they have assimilated with after pushed out of the park in 1954.
Some come from other, nearby places, like Petrus Shipena, believed by the police to be the main organiser of the poachers. He was arrested in Omakange, which lies west of Okahao at the cross-roads between Opuwo, Okahao and Uutapi.
The remaining suspects are from prominent local families scattered throughout Omusati: Ashipala, Haimbondi, Ekandjo, Amunyela. One, Phineas Awene, was arrested in Walvis Bay where he is employed as a deputy director of the Works Ministry’s maritime directorate.
All of them have been released two months after their arrest on bail ranging from R5 000 to R15 000, and four of them have been re-arrested again for illegal possession of rhino horn. One of those were the owner of the flashy new bar in Okahao’s main street, court records confirmed.
A second group of five suspects, including the national soccer team’s former team doctor Gerson Kandji, are to appear for trial on July 27. Kandji, arrested 20 November 2014, obtained bail two months later, only to be arrested again in late February 2015, this time for murder of German industrialist Reinhard Schmidt on his game farm 200 km south of Windhoek.
Schmidt, his former farm manager confirmed, was to take custodianship of several black rhinos under the state-run breeding program shortly before he was ambushed by Kandji in his farm house. The perpetrators after ransacking the house for cash, tied him up and taped up his mouth and nose shut, leaving him to suffocate slowly, police sources said.
Bringing Namibia’s rhino poaching syndicates to justice was a slow process. After at least five years of resurgent poaching in Etosha and Kunene, only one poacher has so far been convicted. His alleged boss, a businessman from Uutapi who he initially fingered as the buyer for the rhino horns, walked away after Tjiuure Tjiuanda recanted his statement to the police in court.
The biggest obstacle to prosecuting suspects and opposing bail for them was a lack of ballistic evidence, said Chief Prosecutor Phineas Mpofu of the Uutapi Regional Court. Because he could not yet show that the rifle confiscated from Kandji’s cousin and co-suspect David Nghidinua, bail was also granted to the other suspects.
The bail register and receipts show that all 22 suspects in the first group had paid bail ranging from R5 000 to R15 000. Petrus Shipena, a Ha//Om San believed by the police to be the main organiser among the poachers had while in jail somehow managed to scrape R10 000 together.
How impoverished and deeply rural persons obtained that kind of cash raised interesting questions, said Duncan Gilchrist, a former Etosha game warden and legendary local guide of 35 years’ experience.
No Hai//Om hunter would normally shoot a rhino just for its horn, and anyone of them walking into town looking to sell one was going to get either robbed or arrested very quickly, he pointed out. Someone, he said, was sending them in – and then collecting the horn later.
And those sending the Hai//Om into Etosha were the main ringleaders – this Gilchrist and every other investigator, both state and private, agree upon. Several prominent people’s names – current former Ministers and their business associates – are routinely mentioned.
With poaching teams believed to earn R15 000 per rhino, the greatest profit lay between the poachers’ middleman and the buyers’ middleman, and how that was split up. A set of rhino horns can be sold for up to R5 million, or up to USD$60 000 per kilogram, depending the middleman’s influence in the larger syndicates.
One such possible middleman is Tangi “Mox” Namwandi, arrested 14 June in a police sting operation in Windhoek with four black rhino horns in his black German sports car that he hoped to sell. He and his accomplice were granted bail – without any opposition by the state prosecutor, who in fact proposed bail – of R50 000 each, paid soon after.
Namwandi is noteworthy for a very specific reason: he is the cousin of Lazarus Shaduka, another Uutapi native and former manager of the Windhoek municipality’s property department in 2008 to 2011.
His very profitable rule over sought-after property deals came to an end after he was convicted of murdering his wife in 2012, fleeing across the Angolan border a few hours after the Supreme Court made its ruling. Shaduka is, in spite of a R50 000 reward offered for his arrest, still at large in either Angola or Zimbabwe.
“Mox [Namwandi] manages his uncle’s businesses in Windhoek,” said a source who knows both personally. More significantly, he is part of an elite that all claim family or tribal connections to founding President Nujoma – like the Awenes, Ashipalas, Haimbondis, Ekandjos, and Amunyelas.
How all these names were connected would depend on how the Okahao prosecutors could link the evidence they have on hand with the people in the dock. But without ballistic tests linking specific guns to specific carcasses, the case was a non-starter.
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