Namibia Struggles For Unity to the Delight of Its Enemies

Kazenambo (right) with Foreign Minister Nuyoma

Namibia has tried to promote national unity and contain the scourge of tribalism, but it hasn’t quite succeeded. Top positions in government and in the ruling party are in the hands of people from one ethnic group. Now voices are being raised against this, as debate on presidential succession gathers pace.

It is called managing expectations in a culturally diverse society, stupid! The simmering ethnic tension between those who prefer a non-Oshiwambo speaking person to become the next president of Namibia after President Pohamba’s term expires in 2013, and those who view such a call as tribalism and against the country’s slogan of ‘One Namibia One nation, has reached another boiling point.

The latest tension stems from Youth and Sport Minister Kazenambo Kazenambo’s statement calling his fellow ministers ‘stupid Owambos’ with a ‘Boer’ mentality in an interview with a local magazine’s Tileni Mongudhi a few weeks ago. In the Namibian and South African context, the term ‘Boer’, a Dutch and Afrikaans word for white Afrikaner farmers/colonists, is associated with oppression/apartheid.

Here is the deal: Kazenambo, who publicly called for the ruling party to nominate a non-Oshiwambo speaking candidate or a woman as the next president of Namibia, is also a staunch supporter of Hage Geingob, the main and obvious non-Oshiwambo speaking contender vying for the ruling party’s top ticket to become Namibia’s next president. Amid the backstabbing and veiled attacks, Geingob’s (who is also the VP of the SWAPO party) main competitor is turning out to be the party’s secretary general and justice minister Pendukeni Ivula-Ithana, who is an Oshiwambo-speaking person.

The Sun newspaper reports that the president is very disturbed and had Mr. Kazenambo summoned to the State House to explain, a meeting attended by Prime Minister Nahas Angula, Deputy Prime Minsiter Marco Hausiku, Vice President Dr Hage Geingob, SWAPO’s Secretary General Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana and her deputy Nangolo Mbumba. So far, Kazenambo’s fate remains unknown, but apparently the meeting brought up raw feelings among the State House participants as Hage Geingob spoke his mind in an attempt to desperately save his chief surrogate, but also to make it clear that he is not happy with the way he is being treated by the party.

This is not  Kazenambo’s first transgression. A few months before this latest incident, he hurled racial insults at a white reporter who asked him about the repatriation mission, which he led, for the return of Hereros and Namas skulls (victims of German genocide in Namibia) from Germany. Many Namibians cheered him for standing up against a this white troublemaker….a ‘Boer’ for that matter. It is the follow-up questioning to this previous incident that, when asked whether he  acted more as Herero than a minister during the skull repatriation mission, that made him go ballistic and physically threaten the journalist and confiscate his voice recorder (which he described in military language as a captured enemy tool). True to military fashion, Kazenambo (through his lawyers) had the voice recorder erased by an expert outside Namibia.

If we are to believe Kazenambo’s own words that the president never reprimanded him when he insulted a white reporter before this latest incident, then the pertinent question here is, why is President Pohamba apparently bothered now? One assumption is that the president and some in the leadership of the ruling party SWAPO are reading Kazenambo’s outburst within the context of his support for Hage Geingob and his call for a non-Oshiwambo president, which they obviously view as tribalism.

Of course Geingob is Namibia’s former prime minister who was removed from his position and relegated to a junior ministerial post by founding President Sam Nujoma in a cabinet reshuffle in 2002. Instead of taking up his new junior ministerial position, Geingob packed his bags for self-imposed exile in the US where he worked for a Washington-based Africa think tank. After his brief stay in the US, Hage Geingob returned to Namibia and made nice with his comrades. They reciprocated by giving him the position of vice president of the SWAPO party.

In the SWAPO party tradition, a VP position is a one horse race position to become the party’s nominee for the country’s number one position. As the VP of the ruling party, for a moment Hage Geingob’s ambition to be the next president of Namibia was a sure thing because whoever is the SWAPO party candidate would likely eventually win the national presidential election because the ruling party currently enjoys overwhelming electoral support in the country.

But some cliques in the party had a different plan and started to challenge the SWAPO party principle which allows automatic nomination of a VP as the sole presidential candidate without contest. Instead, they pitched for the Justice Minister Pendukeni Ithana, who so far seems to enjoy widespread support within the party, especially the majority Oshiwambo speaking members.

Public reactions to Kazenambo’s outburst is mixed, but his seeming frustration about Namibia being a fortified ‘Owambo administration’ is tapping into the feelings of those who think that it is time for the ruling party to nominate a non-Oshiwambo president. Triggered byKazenambo, The Namibian reports that SWANU president and Member of Parliament Usutuaije Maamberua plans to ask Prime Minister Nahas Angula ‘[how] it is that about 80 per cent or more’ of most heads of government offices, ministries and agencies are from the same ethnic group.’

True, 21 years into the country’s independence, Namibia’s government, especially key and strategic positions, is largely dominated by the ethnic Oshiwambo speaking Namibians at all levels of the government. In all honesty, it is not the policy of the SWAPO government to staff the government with a single ethnic group, but the ruling party’s heavy reliance on its exiled cadres (when it comes to appointment of ministers, permanent secretaries, diplomats, members of parliament and board of directors) has resulted in the unintended consequences of having most ministers and other key government positions mainly drawn from the Oshiwambo-speaking group which is the dominant ethnic group in the ruling party and the country.

This unfortunate but true reality can be partly attributed to the SWAPO leadership structure (whether the youth league, the pioneer movement, elders’ council, women’s council, plan or SWAPO Politburo) in exile which predominantly (and still very much so today) consisted of members of the Oshiwambo-speaking ethnic group. Both the founding President Nujoma and the incumbent President Pohamba, with all good intent, tried to diversify their cabinets by bringing in people from other ethnic groups, but this process is happening at a trickle-down pace.

As usual, the president, Prime Minister Nahas Angula and the speaker of the parliament Theo Ben Gurirab reportedly seized this opportunity to rally Namibians behind the country’s policy of ‘one Namibia-one nation’, urging and reminding Namibians to learn from other countries such as Rwanda, Angola, DRC and so forth. Obviously (and rightly so) they see ethnicity and regionalism as barriers to Namibia’s policy of reconciliation and national unity.

The blindside, however, here is that they seem to be missing the opportunity to revisit the country’s diversity policy, including the way government appointments are done. In other words, the answer is not the symbolism of reconciliation and unity but to come up with concrete social mechanisms to use Namibia’s ethnic and racial diversity — their hopes, expectations and inspirations — to explain what it means to be a Namibian, including managing expectations, fighting corruption and nepotism and self-enrichment schemes that are so rampant in the government.