Jóhannes Stefánsson

Fishrot Whistleblower and Altruist

Jóhannes Stefánsson’s health is a major concern because there have been attempts on his life. When he travels outside Iceland, he needs bodyguards. “If we die with this, then we die with this, we are going to fight to the end,” he tells me. “I was never supposed to survive.”

Stefánsson was born in Reykjavik, Iceland, an area many Americans know as a popular stopover for flights to England. Stefánsson’s mother died in 2016 with Alzheimer’s. His father, at 82, is “quite fresh,” according to Stefánsson. His parents taught him to always respect people and to never discriminate. He was raised to be kind to people, not taking advantage of others, and that is the main reason he blew the whistle when he became a man.

Growing up, Stefánsson did well in school but admitted he was “a little wild.” He started working at 12 years old, first at a car garage and then at a fish factory. In 1991, at eighteen years old, Stefánsson went to Panama as a foreign exchange student, which he described as a “fantastic experience, and I loved the country and the people.” When he returned to Iceland, he spent a year at a University and continued his career in the fishing industry. Stefánsson’s father had spent 40 years on fishing vessels, and Stefánsson followed his father into the same field.

Stefánsson spent several years on fishing trawlers and fish processing plants. In 2007, he started working for Iceland’s largest fishing and fish processing company, Samherji. Stefánsson is the archetypal Nordic man, pale, light-colored eyes and tall in stature. He grew up in an Icelandic culture that believes in looking after each other and the world around them. He embraced those qualities, and with a charismatic personality, rose quickly up the ranks at Samherji. He was considered such a valuable employee that he was made Managing Director in 2013.

Samherji controls a significant volume of Iceland’s fishing quota and operates many freezers and fish trawlers, along with fish factories. It also has extensive interests overseas, including the UK, the US, and throughout the world.

Samherji possessed large trawlers based in the areas of the world where fishing quotas could be obtained. Fishing quotas are a means by which many governments regulate fishing. The regulator sets species-specific allowable catch totals, typically by weight and for a given time. Quotas can typically be bought, sold, or leased. The first countries to adopt individual fishing quotas were the Netherlands, Iceland, and Canada in the late 1970s.

One Samherji fishing vessel could process 35,000 to 45,000 tons of fish per year. Samherji directed Stefánsson to find markets where they could purchase fishing quotas for their big vessels.

Stefánsson said, “That is what, basically, the official corruption is about, it is about this big access to fishing quotas through this corruption with well-connected businesspeople and the politicians. Normally it is local people in the countries who have the fishing rights that get the fishing quotas and sell to companies like Samherji. Fishing rights should not go to politicians.”

Stefánsson was Managing Director in Walvis Bay, Namibia, and running everyday operations for Samherji in 2011. Samherji’s trawlers caught horse mackerel, a “low-protein fish sold to the African market, for people who are low income.”

According to Stefánsson, “One ton of horse mackerel (frozen) goes into the market for $850. The politicians and corrupt businesspeople sold the quota to Samherji for maybe $250. So, if the politicians got access to 10,000 tons and they sell it to Samherji for $250,000 per ton which is $2.5 million (for ten tons). Samherji paid $2.5 million to the politicians. Samherji then goes fishing, processing, and freezing the horse mackerel, which they sell for $850 (at market for a total of $850,000).”

It is a quick sale for the politicians and corrupt businessmen, whom Stefánsson refers to as sharks, just for holding a fishing quota. A profit goes to Samherji of $600,000 per ten tons, which they transfer out of the country, paying no taxes and leaving nothing in the country.

Another aspect that bothered Stefánsson was that in 2011, Samherji had promised to build a fish processing plant on Namibian soil. The company said it would create jobs and help the economy but kept delaying construction. It put him in an awkward position for five years, as he made the promise on behalf of the company. It appeared Samherji was lying about the plant.

Stefánsson knew that the bags of money he gave to Namibian politicians were bribes even though they were couched in other language. The businessmen he dealt with had no prior knowledge or experience with Namibia’s fishing industry before building their relationship with Samherji. What they sold to Samherji was access to political power in Namibia. Stefánsson notes that “Samherji does whatever it takes to get its hands on the natural resources of other nations. The company deceives and makes empty promises, all in order to exploit these resources. They do not hesitate to use bribes and break the law so that they can take as much money as they can out of the country and leave nothing behind but burnt soil and money in the pockets of a corrupt political elite.”

By July of 2016, Stefánsson realized there were huge conflicts with Samherji. He was aware that the millions of dollars in bribes he paid were wrong, and Samherji was not only cheating Namibia but also Stefánsson, as he had been working without pay for holidays for years.

Stefánsson told Samherji that he was leaving. The company contacted him several times to return to Iceland because they were concerned about his altruistic feelings toward the Namibian people. He “put off Samherji” while he downloaded information on 5 hard drives consisting of 38,000 emails, plus memos, photos, and videos from Samherji.

Stefánsson always knew that he was going to have to go public with the information. He had seen the corruption scheme growing and becoming larger and larger. Namibia was a young country, gaining independence from South Africa in 1990. It has rich resources, but Samherji was ravaging the economy, with one in every five Namibians living in poverty and a 33 percent unemployment rate. Stefánsson knew that corrupt politicians and businessmen had taken more than $10 million in bribes. He also knew that millions more were being taken out of the country and laundered through banks, mainly branches of Den Norse Bank. Samherji used Cyprus, the UK, Mauritius, Dubai, Iceland, Norway, Namibia, Poland, and US banks to launder money into private bank accounts. Stefánsson came to realize that over $650 million were being laundered.

Swiss bank whistleblower Bradley Birkenfeld (Whistleblower of the Week, 9/28/20) said, “My bank, UBS, paid countless fines over the years for breaking securities and tax laws in Japan, Germany, Italy, Canada, and others, and yet they were still in business-why? Nobody goes to jail, and the bank writes a cheque and walks away.” Stefánsson noted that the Den Norse Bank gave an air of credibility to the money laundered by Samherji.

From July 2016 to January 10, 2017, Stefánsson stayed in South Africa. He hired bodyguards because threats against him were growing due to his knowledge of deep and widespread corruption. The Namibia Secret Service and South African mafia appeared to be behind the threats and a series of attempted abductions. At one point, five men with weapons were confronted by Stefánsson’s contingent of bodyguards. Attempts were made to bribe bodyguards, and their family members were threatened. Rumors were spread that Stefánsson was an alcoholic and drug addict, neither being true.

Shortly after he signed a severance agreement with Samherji, Stefánsson believes he was first poisoned at a hotel in South Africa. He feels strongly that Samherji had knowledge of this first poisoning and subsequent attempts. Stefánsson suffered effects of poisoning: a collapse, confusion, body agony, and a horrendous thirst. He was also told of a “hit” being placed on him and decided to leave South Africa in January of 2017. Stefánsson feels he is alive today only because of the bodyguards who surrounded him during that time.

Upon returning to Iceland, Stefánsson contacted WikiLeaks and provided them with thousands of documents that WikiLeaks published under the codename “Fishrot.” Stefánsson also provided information to Al Jazeera, which filmed “Anatomy of a Bribe” based on the Fishrot files and successfully conducted its own undercover operation.

In response to the allegations Stefánsson made public, Samherji published a statement blaming him. Samherji said that Stefánsson was behind the alleged bribes and Samherji was totally unaware of any corruption. Although Stefánsson did admit to being part of the bribe scheme, records showed that he never had control of the bank accounts the money flowed through. Also, the alleged bribes continued for three years after he left the company.

Physically, Stefánsson is broken, and he has suffered significant weight loss. He feels like his body is not functioning correctly, and there “are razor blades in his blood.” He suffers from constant pain, shakiness, dizziness, and limitations to his life, as he cannot work due to the effects of the possible poisoning. But if you ask Stefánsson if it was worth it, he will reply, “it definitely was worth it, as justice was served.” He refuses to be painted as a victim, saying, “I was part of it, I am not running away from my responsibilities. I was doing the work on behalf of the company.”

Asked why he was the only one to blow the whistle at Samherji and Stefánsson responds, “I was not going to have this on my conscience. I was not going to be part of (a system) cheating on the locals. I had started to fight for their interests before I had even left (Namibia). We are all equal, but people from Samherji looked down at the people in Namibia. Executives were arrogant and disrespectful. I came from a good home and was raised up correctly. I was taught we are all equal.”

Stefánsson stated that his dad is proud of him, even though it has cost Stefánsson his marriage and health. He has no assets and has lost everything. His former company has blackballed him, but Stefánsson does not think about what he has lost but thinks about the challenge of a solution. He wants to “fight for the people in Africa, fight for change in Africa.” He recalls the suffering of the people of Namibia because their economy is being drained by corrupt politicians, businessmen, and a global corporate company. The effect this corruption has on the people of Namibia is devastating, with high unemployment rates, lost houses, and suicides.

Stefánsson does not see himself as a hero, rather just someone who wanted to do “the right thing.” “It is,” he says, “an amazing story, and we are still writing it.” Stefánsson will have to be on oxygen for his future visits to Namibia. He will testify at the Pre-trial in April and the trial to follow a few months later. He hopes to raise enough funds to travel to a medical facility in Germany that specializes in treating poisoning victims.

Currently, a criminal investigation is underway in three additional countries, and the Fishrot investigation is tied to twenty-seven countries.

In his prayers, Stefánsson is thankful. He is thankful he survived and thankful he has made a difference in the world.

Contributions for Stefánsson’s medical care can be made via GoFundMe.

Read an Al Jazeera article “Anatomy of a Bribe: A deep dive into an underworld of corruption.” 

Watch a video from news outlet The Namibian called “Fishrot mastermind | The Rise and Fall of James Hatuikulipi.” 

Read “What Samherji Wanted Hidden” on Kveikur. 

Read “A Fishy Business: Shifting Profits Out of Africa” from Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). 

Read a short article about the Fishrot scandal by the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa.

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