SME Bank: Robbing Peter to pay Paul

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Namibian Financial Institutions Union (Nafinu) general-secretary Asnath Zamuee discusses with Toivo Ndjebela her fight to avoid job losses at the embattled SME Bank. She also reiterated calls for criminal charges to be brought against those responsible for the alleged looting at the bank, which is owned 65 percent by the Namibian government, in partnership with minority private investors from Zimbabwe.

Toivo Ndjebela (TN): You led a demonstration at SME Bank on Tuesday. What were your demands?

Asnath Zamuee (AZ): The aim was to give our petition to the minister [of industrialisation, trade and SME development], in which we requested that employees must not be left jobless and that alternatives must be looked at. We expressed our dismay at government’s decision to close down the bank. They did not oppose the application to shut down the bank, yet they are the main shareholder. It was pretty clear they were going to close it down because the bank doesn’t have money.

TN: But if you admit that the bank doesn’t have money, how do you propose that it continues to exist?

AZ: Our position is that government should assist the bank, just like they do with Air Namibia, NBC and other public enterprises. Any developing country needs this kind of bank. It has not fulfilled its mandate, because it had the wrong guys. When you have foreigners at the top, they will not look after your interests. They’ll give money to their own people – and this is exactly what has happened. We felt that before you close down the bank, government needed to restructure the bank, and get the right people to run it – because it can be profitable.

TN: Are you then saying that government did not exhaust all avenues before arriving at the decision to shut down the bank?

AZ: They have not. Government, in our view, wants to get rid of the Zimbabweans. The technical agreement that gave birth to the bank gives too much power to the Zimbabweans and the easy way out of that arrangement is to close down the bank – and maybe start all over again. How can foreigners have so much power in your own country? And now they are sacrificing their own [Namibian] citizens who are employed there. What is sad is that they are protecting people who created the mess.

TN: How do you suggest government deals with those responsible for that ‘mess’?

AZ: We feel that when you’re a board member you have specific responsibilities to ensure that the institution is properly run. When money disappears in the manner it did, it’s gross negligence. In terms of the Company Act, such people can be held personally liable. That is what we want to see. They did not take their duties seriously. The money disappeared on their watch.

TN: Do you feel that non-management employees are the sacrificial lambs in this whole web?

AZ: Our members are not part of management. The whole of Exco (executive committee) was essentially comprised of Zimbabweans. Our members have no decision-making powers, yet they are the ones who would be left jobless.

TN: What messages are your members getting from management in terms of their jobs and future at the bank?

AZ: They are meeting with the liquidators on Thursday [yesterday]. We’ll hear what the liquidators have to say.

TN: How is the mood among your members?

AZ: They are very frustrated and angry. They feel they are innocent. To make matte worse, we alerted government to the situation at the bank. In 2014, we went to see [former SME Bank board chairman Frans] Kapofi to tell him that things were not well. They ignored us, but they were alerted to what was happening. Today, our members have to pay the price and it’s not fair. Our members will only accept being jobless if those responsible went to jail.

TN: What is your view of the ACC’s deafening silence on the matter?

AZ: We’re not surprised at all. It’s a pity because they should have been leading the investigations into this. It’s a lot of money involved. To simply keep quiet is unacceptable.

TN: Why are Zimbabweans targeted for blame when there are Namibians too working at the bank?
AZ: All strategic positions, except human resources, were occupied by Zimbabweans. What could a human resource manager possibly have to do with the disappearance of funds? Government simply messed up. They are the majority shareholder yet allowed all strategic positions to be occupied by foreigners.

TN: Media reports this week also suggested that you were angry at Job Muniaro, the NUNW secretary-general, for publicly supporting the closure of the bank.

AZ: Muniaro simply stood up and said the bank must be closed. When you are a trade union leader, your primary responsibility is to look after the interest of the workers. His statement was highly irresponsible, because closing down the bank would mean these people would become jobless.

He doesn’t even propose an alternative, but what disappointed me most is that he did not contact us [Nafinu] , who are directly involved in the matter. What he should have done was to talk to us and whatever we say should have been his position. He doesn’t have the mandate.

TN: Do you in principle support the Bank of Namibia’s step to protect depositors’ money?

AZ: What they did – from a regulatory point of view – was fair. There are certain things that all banking institutions must comply with. An insolvent bank cannot be allowed. But what they did when they took over the bank was that they gave employees false hopes. They said their involvement was to get the bank back on its feet and that no jobs would be lost. Months later, they led the charge to close down the bank. This is what employees are angry about.

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