The Namibian prison warder who built an empire on state contracts

Vaino Nghipondoka is Namibia’s tender king. Originally a prison warder, he now presides over a business empire based four-square on state contracts that he has built up over less than 10 years.

Nghipondoka was recently in the news as a central figure in the row over the Namibian government’s failed N$4-billion (R4-billion) oil deal with Angola, as one of the connected businessmen who initially stood to cash in on it.

He has profited handsomely from partnerships with international companies that are targeting state contracts, particularly Chinese multinationals.

He is believed to lobby for business at the highest levels of government. There has been intense speculation about his relationship with the head of the Tender Board, Ericah Shafudah. 

He is also one of the circle of businessmen who was once clustered round President Hage Geingob, known as the “A-Team”.

He is connected to Swapo’s Oshikoto regional co-ordinator Armas Amukwiyu, a rising star in Swapo after he lent support to Geingob’s march to State House at the 2012 Swapo elective congress.

Nghipondoka appointed him to the boards of his companies, Profile Investments and Profile Investment Holdings, last year.

Up until 2012, when he had a public spat with the ministry of works and transport over a cancelled N$62-million rail supply contract, Nghipondoka was almost invisible.

“Tender king” Nghipondoka started his career as a prison official

In his early 40s, Nghipondoka is the third of nine children and hails from rural Okalongo in northern Namibia.

His first job was as a prisons official in Windhoek, when he pursued a diploma in business administration at the Polytechnic of Namibia. 

He then worked for two years in the security division of Namdeb, the joint diamond venture between the government and De Beers.

His business interests now range from retailing hardware and building materials to cattle farming, information technology, property, security and surveillance, debt collection, construction, accounting services and car rental.

His networking skills came to the fore with the launch of Profile Investments in 2009. 

Not romantically involved with the chair of the Tender Board of Namibia

He persuaded business leaders such as Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer Tarah Shaanika, former NamPort chairperson Jerry Muadinohamba, and the government’s favoured rail contractor and former Swapo central committee member, John Walenga, to buy shares in the company.

A year later he bought his partners out for a nominal amount. Profile Investments, however, went on to supply Walenga’s D&M rail construction company with rails in 2013.

In 2010 Shafudah was promoted to permanent secretary for finance, automatically making her chairperson of the Tender Board of Namibia. 

From that point, his companies Profile Investments and Baby Face Civils entered the state contracting game at the highest level.

Many of Nghipondoka’s competitors have accused the Tender Board of favouring him.
In an interview, he strongly denied speculation that he has a family or romantic connection with Shafudah. 

“She was my classmate at the Polytechnic of Namibia. She is an old woman. How can Shafudah be my girlfriend? Come on!” he said.

Shafudah said she had neither connection nor relationship with Nghipondoka. “It should be put on record that ministries and agencies prepare specifications and evaluate tenders themselves for the Tender Board, not the chairperson. 

“Allegations pointing to me are rubbish,” she said.

Nghipondoka formed part of Geingob’s circle of close business friends, and was among those who accompanied him, when he was still prime minister, on the controversial 2014 trip to the football World Cup final in Brazil. 

The flight for the trip alone cost over N$1-million.

“…the moment you become a shining star, you must be eliminated by your black fellows”

“The President is my friend, but I have never used his name,” Nghipondoka said. “The President is not involved in tenders. 

“You can call him; he’ll tell you: Vaino does not come to me looking for work. Should we cut our friendship with him and ministers because we are friends?

“If we are doing it the wrong way, he must tell us: You guys stop that, what you are doing is wrong. The President will always tells us: ‘Guys, do business and pay tax.’ He won’t say, do business and give me something.

“If we fail and continuously are given work, that’s something else.”

In an interview he hit back at his detractors, accusing them of being driven by jealousy. 

“This is how we kill our own people: the moment you become a shining star, you must be eliminated by your black fellows,” he said.

Over the past 18 months Nghipondoka is seen as becoming exceptionally close to Swapo power broker Amukwiyu. 

It was reported that Geingob considered appointing the latter acting Swapo vice-president after Pohamba stepped down as party president in April 2015.

“…jealousy behind accusations that Nghipondoka is a middleman profiting from others’ work”

Amukwiyu was appointed to the boards of Profile Investments in January last year and its holding company, Profile Investment Holdings, a month later.

Nghipondoka is widely seen as a businessman who seeks to insert himself as an intermediary between the government and multinational companies seeking state contracts.

His companies are involved in the controversial Neckartal dam project, which has been dogged by allegations of political manipulation; the oil storage facility, and the supply of rails to the ministry of works. (See “Nghipondoka’s contracts” below)

The Namibian newspaper reported last year that a meeting was held at his farm where the reshuffling of permanent secretaries – director-generals in South Africa – was discussed, and that both he and Amukwiyu attended the meeting.

He denied the allegation, saying that “we don’t participate in appointment of permanent secretaries. It’s not within our mandate”.

Nghipondoka said jealousy is driving accusations that he is a middleman who profits from the work of others.

“We all do the same,” he said. “You go into a joint venture and the Chinese will do the majority of the project. People only complain because it’s Vaino,” he said.

Nghipondoka’s contracts

In addition to winning his own state tenders, Nghipondoka has partnered with a number of multinational companies that have won government contracts for major infrastructural projects in Namibia.

The state contracts to which he or his companies have been linked include:

• A contract for the installation of a fuel storage facility at Walvis Bay, awarded to a consortium China Harbour Construction Engineering (CHCE), the state-owned Roads Contractors Company and Babyface Civils in 2014. Originally estimated at N$920-million, the cost of of the project had escalated steeply to N$5.5-billion by this year.

• An N$80-million sub-contract to provide staff housing at the Neckertal Dam in southern Namibia, part of a N$4-billion job awarded in 2013 to Italian company Salini SpA;

• A N$160-million contract to construct the headquarters of the Directorate of Civil Aviation in Windhoek, won by Babyface in 2014;

• A N$62-million contract to upgrade the Aus-Lüderitz railway line in southern Namibia in 2013, awarded to a joint venture between Nghipondoka’s Profile Investments and his South African partners, VAE South Africa;

• A N$200-million IT tender for the finance ministry’s internet tax reforms awarded to Nghipondoka’s Profile Investments and Chinese partners CA-China SS Software Technology.

• In 2015, the Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF) appointed a South African company, New Integrated Credit Solutions, and its Namibian partner, Tribesmen Investment – an Nghipondoka company – to collect unpaid student debts of some N$1.5-billion.
According to Nghipondoka, Tribesmen is set to land 10% of the total payment for this work, estimated at about N$400-million.

• He is linked to Jeovani Properties, which won numerous state contracts including the extension of the fisheries ministry’s head office in Windhoek for an estimated N$60-million.
The exact nature of his interest in Jeovani is unclear, but he said: “Those are my boys. They are doing well.”

Nghipondoka was also one of a group of Namibians who formed a consortium with state-owned China Jiangxi, called Atari CJIC, which set out to purchase a 12ha plot worth N$146-million behind the Maerua Shopping Mall in Windhoek. 

The contract was aborted after the government found the contract had been “erroneously” offered. The consortium was paid N$22-million in an out-of-court settlement.

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