Category Archives: Namibia

Ian Cooper – Namibia and President Pohamba’s legacy

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.

Ian Cooper – Namibia presidential election report

This is a guest post by Ian Cooper at the University of Cambridge


Namibia’s 2014 Election: a Technological First, as SWAPO Sweeps to Victory

On 28 November 2014, Namibia became the first African country to use electronic voting technology in a national election. Local and international observers praised the exercise as a success, with real freedom of choice between parties and an official result which reflected the will of the people.

After two consecutive elections of marginal decline, the ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) secured its greatest ever victory, taking 87 per cent of the vote in the presidential ballot. When he succeeds President Hifikepunye Pohamba in March 2015, therefore, SWAPO candidate Dr Hage Geingob will have the largest popular mandate of any southern African head of state.

Presidential Election Result, 2014
Candidate (party)
Hage Geingob (SWAPO), 86.7%
McHenry Venaani (DTA), 5.0%
Hidipo Hamutenya (RDP), 3.4%
Others, 4.9%

This is not to say, however, that Geingob’s rise to power has been smooth. Sacked as prime minister in 2002, he spent three years working in the United States before securing SWAPO’s vice-presidency in 2007. Five years later his confirmation as presidential candidate was contested by regional government minister Jerry Ekandjo and justice minister Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, whose populism and gender narratives respectively won over substantial sections of the party.

Geingob’s victory over these two opponents at a party congress in 2012 failed however to end the factional infighting, and a later electoral college culminated in the farcical spectacle of several cabinet ministers—including Ekandjo and Ithana—failing to secure a safe position on SWAPO’s parliamentary list. Given the potential for further conflict, one of Geingob’s first acts as president will probably be to offer Ekandjo and Ithana non-voting seats in parliament.

Geingob’s candidacy and its fall-out did not represent the only source of controversy. On the eve of polling, two opposition parties and a local non-governmental organisation took the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) to court, arguing that electronic voting technology represented a threat to the integrity of the electoral process.

Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), they suggested, present opportunities for rigging by virtue of their alleged failure to create a paper trail. The case was thrown out by Namibia’s High Court two days before polling on the grounds that no evidence of malpractice had been presented.

The election itself was managed much more effectively in 2014 than in 2009. Whereas earlier electoral rolls had been discredited by duplication, EVM technology seems on this occasion to have assisted the ECN in creating a register accepted as accurate by much of the political class.

Election day itself witnessed long queues at many polling stations, with ECN officials occasionally arriving late or, as in some parts of the Oshikoto Region, reportedly not appearing at all. But the counting and verification processes appear to have been handled with considerable efficiency, allowing official results to be announced two days after the polls closed. In 2009, the ECN had taken six days to reach this point.

The election campaign was, also considerably more free and fair than those conducted in previous years. A survey of local television output concluded that SWAPO had received 45 per cent of election coverage during the week of 9-16 December, compared with 83 per cent during the same period in 2009. Opposition parties consequently received a much greater proportion of air time in 2014 than in previous years.

Improvement in the media environment was accompanied by a reduction in the level and severity of electoral violence. Local reports indicated that Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) members were attacked by SWAPO supporters in Oshakati and in Katutura, whilst Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) officials claimed that campaign material had been destroyed in the Oshana Region.

But 2014 saw none of the rioting and thuggery witnessed in 2009, when RDP rallies had been repeatedly disrupted and weapons, including firearms, were seized by police. Namibians were able in 2014 to exercise their democratic rights free from intimidation, at least of the overt kind.

The improved television coverage and reduced election violence witnessed in 2014 is perhaps associated with a recent, and still modest, shift in Namibia’s political climate. Often criticised for its autocratic reflexes, SWAPO has over recent years lifted a ban on state advertising in The Namibian newspaper, consulted opposition parties on a proposed constitutional amendment, and democratised its own candidate selection processes. These shifts followed President Sam Nujoma’s much-delayed passage from the political scene, and perhaps indicate that his autocratic influence over public life has at last waned.

Yet SWAPO’s Prague Spring might also be explained by a greater certainty of outcome in 2014. Five years earlier, the RDP had contested its first election amidst considerable speculation over its capacity to split the government vote. Similar uncertainty had triggered outbreaks of election violence in 1999, when SWAPO mobs tried to prevent the newly-formed Congress of Democrats (CoD) from campaigning in Swakopmund. By 2014, by contrast, SWAPO had every reason to be confident that RDP support had already reached its greatest extent.

Indeed, Geingob’s overwhelming victory illustrates the extent to which Namibians of all ages—including ‘born-frees’ with no memory of the liberation struggle—remain committed to his party. The passage of time has not yet produced a decline in support for the former liberation movement, which appeals to the electorate on the basis not only of its ‘heroic’ past, but also of its post-colonial achievements. Geingob’s enormous mandate perhaps also reflects a desire, expressed both within and outside the ruling party, to elevate Namibia’s first non-Owambo head of state.

Opposition parties, on the other hand, have emerged from the election in a state of utter disarray. Hamutenya’s RDP slumped from 11 per cent of the vote in 2009 to 3.5 per cent in 2014, losing all but three of its seats in parliament. Its successor as official opposition, the DTA, had mounted a vigorous campaign but still managed to secure only 4.8 per cent of the vote. No other party captured more than two seats in parliament, with Jan Mukwilongo’s much-discussed Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF)—sister party to Julius Malema’s controversial outfit in South Africa—polling just 0.4 per cent of the vote. Namibia’s opposition vote has never been smaller in extent, never been more fragmented, and never appeared less likely to mount an effective challenge for power.

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.