Namibia is not the first country that comes to mind when looking for international trend setters. Roughly the size of Turkey but with a population of only 2.1 million, it has been an independent state for just 25 years. Yet thanks to a recent initiative by its newly installed President, Hage Geingob, the country could become a leader in the worldwide struggle to combat corruption. On May 21 the President voluntarily disclosed his income and assets and those of his spouse. The disclosure is an effort to prod Namibia’s public servants to follow his example, but if President Geingob’s precedent setting move prompts other heads of state, in Africa and elsewhere, to voluntarily disclose details of their personal finances, the country may long be remembered for its contribution to the international movement to curb corruption.
As important as the disclosure are the actions the President took in connection with it, actions other heads of state seeking to emulate him should take as well.
First, he had PricewaterhouseCoopers Tax and Advisory Services audit his finances to assure Namibians of the disclosure’s accuracy; second, its release was accompanied by a lengthy statement explaining how in his 50 plus years as a fighter and advocate for Namibia’s liberation, a World Bank and UN employee, and more recently an elected political leader, he amassed the US$4 million net worth he reported. That detailed explanation should lay to rest concerns that the President used his time in office to profit unlawfully. (It may also reassure Namibians of his qualifications to manage the nation’s finances, showing him to be a savvy investor in the Washington, D.C., real estate market and a frugal spender.)
The disclosure is the opening salvo in the drive the President announced in his April State of the Nation address to require Namibian public servants to report annually their income and assets. The President explained that in the past some Namibian public servants had used their position to enrich themselves unlawfully — often through engaging in blatant conflicts of interest. As he pointed out in his address, income and asset disclosure is an important tool for policing such conflicts, but at present in Namibia only legislators are obliged to report their finances, and compliance is spotty at best. The President pledged to require executive branch officials to disclose theirs, and he urged legislative leaders to ensure parliamentarians comply with their obligation to disclose.
The President’s disclosure of his finances, audited by a reputable international firm and accompanied by a detailed explanation, establishes a high ethical tone for his government. It also sets a high bar for other heads of state wanting to improve the ethical climate in their countries. His example could well encourage them meet the standard he is setting (perhaps with a nudge from civil society, opposition parties, and the media). If other heads of state do follow his lead, his actions will echo far beyond Namibia’s borders, and those seeking a corruption-free world will owe him a significant debt of gratitude.