This is a guest post by Ian Cooper, University of Cambridge
Namibia’s Ibrahim Prize laureate retires amid mixed legacy
On Saturday 21st March 2015 Namibia’s head of state, President Hifikepunye Pohamba, handed the seals of office to his prime minister, Hage Geingob. It was an act of statesmanship anticipated some weeks earlier by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, a charitable body established by the British-Sudanese telecommunications billionnaire in 2006 for the purpose of encouraging improved governance. Board member Salim Ahmed Salim announced that Pohamba had been awarded the fourth Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership, with its US$5m lump sum and US$200,000 annual pension, on account of his ‘focus in [sic] national cohesion and reconciliation at a key stage of Namibia’s consolidation of democracy and social and economic development’. Furthermore, his ‘ability to command the confidence and the trust of his people is exemplary’. Many local commentators take a rather more balanced view of Pohamba’s legacy.
Namibia’s outgoing president was born in 1935 at Ohanghudi village in what is now the Ohangena Region, but was then a ‘native reserve’ within the South African-administered colony of South West Africa. Raised in a peasant family and educated at a Christian missionary school, he joined Namibia’s black nationalist movement, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), in 1960, slipping into exile after two years under house arrest. There he developed a close relationship with SWAPO’s charismatic leader, Sam Nujoma, whose patronage was to prove a crucial ingredient in his subsequent rise to prominence. Appointed to the Cabinet in 1990, Pohamba served in various ministries without particular distinction over the next fifteen years, before receiving Nujoma’s nomination for the state presidency. This dependence on Nujoma’s support base was to provoke opposition charges, especially during the early days, that his administration would be hobbled by a ruthless and scheming predecessor determined to act as backseat driver.
Certainly, Pohamba is widely regarded as a cautious figure without pretension or personal dynamism. When appointed minister of lands in 2001, he was asked whether Namibia intended to accelerate the programme by which commercial farmland is transferred from white to black ownership. ‘I do not intend to do anything apart from what is in existence and the procedures followed by my predecessor’, came the reply. As state president, Pohamba struck a moderate tone very different from that of his pugnacious predecessor. Out went the hate-filled tirades against ‘imperialists’, ‘Boers’ and homosexuals that had punctuated Nujoma’s fifteen years in office. Out went a ban on government advertising in The Namibian newspaper which most commentators had regarded as an act of media censorship. And out went Nujoma’s contempt for political dissent, with factional rivals retained within Cabinet and opposition party leaders invited to meetings at State House. Even the centralisation of executive power effected by constitutional amendments in 2010 and 2014 has yet to diminish significantly the quality of Namibia’s electoral democracy.
Yet Pohamba’s administration also failed to make much progress in tackling the numerous developmental challenges confronting its largely black African support base: unemployment, inequality, poverty, HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, and corruption, to name but a few. Its showpiece initiative, the Targeted Intervention Programme for Employment and Economic Growth (TIPEEG), was launched amid considerable fanfare in 2011. Funded by the largest budgetary expansion in Namibia’s post-independence history, it was intended to create 104,000 ‘employment opportunities’ in the public and private sectors, to facilitate an increase in agricultural production, strengthen the tourist sector, underwrite transportation projects, and provide increased access to housing and sanitation.
Controversy soon arose, however, over the practice of bypassing normal tender procedures, as well as over the quality and duration of TIPEEG jobs. Pohamba pronounced himself satisfied with the Programme’s overall results, highlighting the construction of two railway lines, a trunk road, and a 1,200-unit affordable housing development in Windhoek. But finance minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amathila was forced to admit in 2014 that TIPEEG projects had created only 15,000 permanent jobs and 67,000 temporary positions over the previous three years, a depressingly low rate of return on the government’s US$930m investment. Namibia’s unemployment rate actually increased from 27.4 percent in 2012 to 29.2 percent in 2013, whilst social inequality rates remained amongst the worst in the world. Eleven years after President Nujoma had unveiled his blueprint for national development, Namibia’s industrial base remained no more diversified than that of Lesotho.
Many of these failures, of course, could be regarded as stemming from problems of structure rather than agency. Given its colonial heritage, small population, and peripheral location, Namibia’s transformation from an extraction economy to regional powerhouse would have been beyond the capabilities of any politician, no matter how resourceful and dynamic. But Pohamba’s innate caution probably hampered progress towards developmental objectives that might otherwise have been achieved. Successive SWAPO governments, for example, have failed to tackle the racialised distribution of land ownership inherited from colonialism, acquiring just 293 of the country’s 4,000 white-owned commercial farms by 2011. Pohamba’s response was to blame the white community for failing to make commercial farmland available, even though his party could have used its parliamentary super-majority to amend Namibia’s constitutional prohibition on land expropriation. The Namibian Agricultural Union (NAU), which represents white farming interests, is outwardly sympathetic to the concept of land reform and might usefully have been consulted on measures that continued to guarantee market prices for expropriated property.
Pohamba’s caution also extended to the issue of welfare reform. At liberation, Namibia inherited a relatively generous (if racially discriminatory) system of social protection in which old-age pensions and other benefits were provided on a universal basis. Like Nujoma, but unlike successive counterparts in South Africa, Pohamba chose not to extend this social welfare net, telling reporters in 2009 that ‘dishing out money for free’ would encourage ‘people not to do anything’. He also sent mixed messages on the issue of probity in public life, establishing an Anti-Corruption Commission in 2006 but defending his daughter’s receipt of a Chinese government bursary in 2009. Indeed, Pohamba raised no recorded objection when a disgraced ex-deputy minister, Paulus Kapia, made his return to parliament in 2009.
As Africa’s fourth Ibrahim Prize laureate retires to his home at Okanghudi, therefore, his moderation should be regarded as a two-edged sword. Namibia is marginally more free today than it was ten years ago, with political dissent more readily tolerated, minorities less frequently demonised, government pressure on independent media outlets diminished, and intra-SWAPO squabbles more skilfully resolved. But Pohamba’s caution, conservatism, and lack of dynamism have also combined to ensure that President Geingob faces almost as many developmental challenges in 2015 as his predecessor did in 2005.
Ian Cooper is Teaching Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches African and comparative politics. He completed his doctorate in 2013 at the University of Oxford, where his work focused on democratisation and political parties in southern Africa.