Former press secretary for the Namibian Presidency, Albertus Aochamub, chats to Managing Editor Toivo Ndjebela about the transition from his old cushy job to taking over as acting CEO of the Namibia Airports Company (NAC), which is often embroiled in controversies.
Toivo Ndjebela (TN): How did your appointment as CEO (acting) of NAC come about?
Albertus Aochamub (AA): Since the last substantive CEO was suspended, the company had two different acting CEOs. The board started discussions to bring someone from outside the system. The conversation took place and I was made available. Part of my appointment is to allow the board enough time to appoint a substantive person and secondly there are urgent priorities in the Harambee Prosperity Plan that preferably must be implemented in 2018.
With all these speculations that I was pushed, I was chased and that people expected me to leave the presidency in 2016 already, people paint the President [Hage Geingob] as a monster administrator. Those of us who worked with him know he’s one of the best administrators the country has had. He’s one of the presidents who were ready for this assignment because he has paid his school fees and has gone through the apprenticeship for over 30 years, including in the UN systems.
TN: Speaking of speculation, there are talks that the fact that your permanent job in the presidency has been taken over by Dr Alfredo Hengari means you’ll be granted a five-year contract at NAC and that the whole ‘acting’ rhetoric is a smokescreen. What’s your comment?
AA: That’s not the contract I signed. This is a country of laws. When I was approached to come and act here, the final decision was still on me. This is a country of possibilities. I didn’t sacrifice my youth in the struggle through a structure such as the Swapo youth league to only become despondent at my current age. As such, I’m never too worried about where my family’s shelter will come from, whether we’ll eat or whether my children will still attend school. The problem with our people is that they often want others to do things for them. We have to take full control of our own destinies. I’m guaranteed income for the next 11 months and that’s a long time to work out something for myself.
TN: What are your best memories in the presidency?
In the fullness of time, I’d like to write about my time in the presidency as advisor working behind the scene. The most exciting thing was the belief of the leader that transparency, openness, trust and accountability are key in the political system. When someone says that and lives it, and you’re part and parcel of the machinery that gives substance to that, it is humbling. Also, the whole process of the formulation of the Harambee Prosperity Plan, where the President was personally involved from conceptualisation, proofreading from page to page until final approval, was a huge learning curve for me. He sat in town hall meetings, sometimes up to six hours, listening attentively to people’s issues. It’s a very demanding environment. If one is not careful, they could accumulate lifestyle diseases like high blood pressure, gout and so forth. Such is how demanding that environment is.
TN: As press secretary, you had an eagle’s eye view of the country’s media industry, having closely worked with it?
AA: It’s a mixed bunch. In full defence and appreciation of the Namibian media for the role that they continue to play in the entrenchment of basic rights and democracy, they are doing a commendable job. It’s because of actors in that space that we are ranked so highly in terms of media freedom. But also, there’s great need for further skills acquisition. Inexperience is evident in the work of some journalists, especially when it comes to verification of facts. Of course, the salaries and conditions of work are not very good and this drives the good journalists into corporate space as PROs, etc. But I’d like to see more journalists developing themselves and becoming subject experts in their respective beats. There’s so much obsession with government and politicians so much that the private sector is often left unscrutinised, yet there’s so much happening there too. But all in all, we have a good media industry.
TN: What were some of your first impressions of the NAC when you took over a month ago?
AA: I have seen many organisations in ICU, and NAC isn’t one of them. The company’s policies and procedures are incredibly impressive. There are pockets of good men and women here too. I think what has been lacking is leadership. The greatest opportunity here is to be able to, firstly, build an international airport of global standards. It’s a good problem to have. The current airport was built as a temporary structure in 1985, with a capacity to handle 250 people per annum. It now handles nearly one million people per annum, a far cry from the original capacity. We now have three major global airlines who have expressed interest to fly here. That would increase airport traffic, yet we already have congestion there [at Hosea Kutako]. What needs to be done now is to expand the current physical structure and deal with security issues at the airport. Secondly, we need to manage the landing slots better for these various airlines. The problem currently is that all airlines arrive almost at the same time then you have quiet periods throughout the day. We must build a new terminal and expand the airport. It’s a must-do because demand will not dwindle. All indicators are currently on the upswing. There are concerns about how some of the contracts were entered but this must be solved within the foreseeable feature.
TN: A lot of your employees, some of them executives, are on suspension. How are you handling this worrying situation?
AA: There’s an opportunity to bring those colleagues back. We need to treat them with dignity because they are not criminals and are innocent until they are proven guilty. In the coming weeks, we’ll be dealing with this expeditiously.
TN: What’s the status of the plans to expand the Hosea Kutako International Airport and what funding models is NAC contemplating?
AA: The best option right now is a PPP. We’re working on something that we’ll submit to the board soon, which will give it to Cabinet for deliberation. The World Bank is convinced this is a good model and there’s enough appetite for it. The straightforward option is for the government to take a loan to fund the project. Both options require us to prepare detailed designs, costing and scoping of the project. That’s already underway. Cabinet just needs to give us direction on the way forward. The company’s priorities for this year are very clear. We’ve had a lot of offers so far, but it is up to us to ensure that nobody takes us for a ride and that we do not mortgage the future generations with unnecessary debt burdens.
TN: The Eros Airport is in such a bad state that the President was advised to stop using it for safety reasons. What exactly is happening there?
AA: The runway at Eros airport, just like at Mpacha, has problems. These are facilities from the 1960s. A lot of work has gone into designing new runways and rehabilitate the current ones. The runway at Eros is just OK, but is not by any stretch compliant with the best prescriptions of a runway. So, that airport is also a priority. If all Air Namibia were to handle all their domestic flights from there, it would greatly benefit local travellers, especially corporate travellers.
TN: International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) expressed concern about the Hosea Kutako International Airport and threatened to downgrade it recently. Have the ICAO’s concerns been solved yet?
AA: All concerns raised by ICAO are related to the way the airport is at the moment. Look at the two screening points, they cause too much congestion. The congestion at the checking points is also massive and these are the things that concern ICAO. We are attending to this through other alternatives. We voluntarily conducted a security audit, which showed us where we stand. A safety audit was also conducted just recently. ICAO will come back for the major audit maybe later this year and we hope to be able to answer all the critical questions. However, the bottom line is that with the current airport and the amount of traffic it handles, there’s simply structural problems that will hamper our full compliance. What we don’t want is our airport to be the weakest link in the global aviation community. Airports using our airport could be blacklisted in Europe and elsewhere. No airline would allow itself to lose business because of a small airport such as ours. They’ll simply dump us, and this would have serious economic implications for the country.
TN: What happened to the airport apron shuttles/buses that were acquired to the tune of nearly N$6 million but are allegedly standing idle without use?
AA: The long and short of it is that, yes, it’s true the buses are parked. The intention of acquiring them was honourable. Last weekend some flights were delayed because passengers couldn’t be transported from the terminal building to the airplane. This also impacts safety and security at the airport. I haven’t been fully briefed on why the buses are not activated but I have a sense of it. Activating them is not an insurmountable task and we’re attending to it.