The Untold Story Of Sam Nujoma And SWAPO


[March 27th, 2013. Windhoek, Namibia]

Visitors to Namibia’s capital Windhoek would have noticed a new addition to the skyline, a huge structure, squatting between a colonial era fort and a landmark church and towering over its neighbours with obvious political symbolism: this is the new Independence Memorial.

Although it was largely completed last year already, it remains closed for reasons that can be traced to the ongoing battle for the ruling South West African People Organisation (SWAPO)  ideological soul.

The three-legged construction, done in hallmark North Korean heroic style, is better known as the Coffee Percolator because of the resemblance to a brand of Chinese-made coffee-making machine noted for being more decorative than functional.

Four years into construction now by the secretive North Korean outfit Mansudae International, it was due to have been opened on Namibia’s Independence anniversary on 21st March last year until a spat over whose statue would occupy the central plinth got in the way.

National Museum of Namibia (NMN) officials have since quietly confirmed that its inauguration also wouldn’t be happening during the Independence Day week. Instead the occasion, it would appear, has been reserved for Heroes Day on August 26. This is the day in 1966 which SWAPO officially acknowledges as the date marking the start of their liberation-era military campaign.

The apparent choice of date is telling of SWAPO, now in its 50th year of existence, and the particular brand of nationalism they have sought to install on Namibia since Independence, 23 years ago this March.

The fact that the museum has not been opened yet does not appear to bother Namibians. After all, the official Military Museum in Okahandja, also built by Mansudae in 2006, was briefly opened for one day to a group of schoolchildren in 2007 but was then immediately declared as off-limits and zoned off as a military area again. Attempts to photograph are met with threats of arrests under the Namibian Defence Act.


The place of Sam Nujoma

In many ways, the absurdity of such reasoning encapsulates the competing streams in the liberation movement, led for 49 years by founding President Sam Nujoma who retired as President in 2005 after his third term in office. Namibia’s Constitution was amended to allow for this extra, five-year term – the only amendment so far, although SWAPO has often threatened to scrap several other clauses that restrain executive power.

Upon retirement as president of SWAPO in 2007 (but not active politics), the government declared him “Father of the Nation” by means of an Act of Parliament, an office of vague legal standing that seems to suggest some measure of political immunity. If anything, it officially makes Nujoma, now a still-sprightly 84, the official political deux ex machina, with a brand-new office block built to match his permanent status.

As one of the five founding members of SWAPO in 1963 at a meeting in New York, Nujoma’s single-minded pursuit of independence for Namibia is the stuff of legend inside the party. His official biography, “Where Others Wavered” is effectively the official SWAPO history: their own archives remain strictly controlled and off-limits to political outsiders.

As such biographies go, it’s no exception in being largely self-serving, with many of his versions of events openly challenged – one of the many reasons why there appeared to be no immediate consensus that his statue was to take the place of pride under the Independence Memorial (he had picked the site, after all).

To a large extent, the character of SWAPO’s history is Nujoma’s. The late Mberumba Kerina, one of the five founding members of SWAPO, recounted how when they entered the UN room borrowed for the purpose, Nujoma sat down at the seat designated for the president over the protests of the others who insisted that he first would have to be formally elected. Nujoma in imperious fashion just swept that point off the agenda.

And so Nujoma became the pin-up poster of Namibia’s liberation struggle, his character dominating as the competing factions – one preferring a political solution, the other a military one – fought each other for ascendancy in the party.

Matters came to a head in mid-1970s when large groups of idealistic young people joined the party in exile in Zambia in the years immediately after the fall of the fascist Portuguese government in 1974. Dissatisfaction with the leadership, botched military operations and above all, Nujoma’s insistence that the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) switch its traditional allegiance from Angola’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) to that of the Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led to demands for the leadership to be changed.

Led by former founding member Andreas Shipanga, the young people in SWAPO’s Zambian camps insisted on a congress to elect a new leadership. Nujoma and his camp followers grotesquely insisted that they were “enemy agents” and rounded up between 1,500 and 1,800 of them with the help of then Zambian leader President Kenneth Kaunda. The 11 ringleaders were packed to jail in Tanzania, while the others were kept in the Mboroma Concentration Camp near Kabwe in Zambia under inhumane conditions, where at least 50 were killed when they tried to escape.


SWAPO’s shadowy Security Organisation’s reign of terror

By the early 1980s, most of these dissidents were then transferred to SWAPO’s prison camps inside Angola, most notably outside Lubango the capital of Angola’s Huila province. In 1981, SWAPO then formed the notorious Security Organisation, a shadowy network of brutal enforcers and informers inside the party ranks that were to over the next few years install a reign of terror among the party faithful, all in the name of weeding out informers and enemy agents. At least 2,500 people are believed to have been murdered by the Security Organisation, their bodies dropped into deep crevasses in the Siera da Leba mountains west of Lubango.

With SWAPO drawing most of its support from the Oshiwambo-speaking tribes in northern Namibia, their views dominated in matters of life and death. Most of the people locked up were educated and, more often than not, not from Owambo. SWAPO’s anti-intellectualist strain took on the character of the Chinese Cultural Revolution as the Security Organisation – which reported directly to Nujoma – increased their chokehold over the party, leading to a culture of fear that still pervades the party’s structures to the present day.

Amongst others, the Security Organisation lured Nujoma’s wife Kuvambo Nujoma (who had remained inside the country when he fled into exile) into Angola and imprisoned her in the Lubango dungeons, as well as his brother-in-law Aaron Mushimba. Real or perceived criticism of Nujoma’s leadership saw several of their best leaders killed for spurious reasons.

Some escaped imprisonment – the best-known being current SWAPO vice-president and Prime Minister Hage Geingob, who heeded warnings to avoid visiting Luanda and so most certainly escaped torture and a likely death at the hands of the Security Organisation. Any signs of an independent SWAPO leadership emerging inside the country was immediately squashed, often by brutal murder as Nujoma and his cronies sought to hold on to their status as the sole and authentic political representative of the Namibian people.

Post-1990 saw SWAPO hold its first congress in 1992, only the third time it did so since its formation in 1963. But just like at the 1963 meeting, the agenda was always tightly controlled by Nujoma, who installed his loyalists in all key positions and started using the Namibian Central Intelligence Services  (NCIS) in much the same capacity as the dreaded Security Organisation. In fact, the NCIS was largely staffed by members from SWAPO’s own intelligence structures, with predictable results: most of their time was spent spying on other ministers.


Hidipo Hamutenya challenges SWAPO

But the two-term Constitutional limitations on the Presidency eventually caught up with Nujoma in 2004, when it became clear that another amendment to the Constitution would not be politically palatable. Challenged for power by former comrade-in-arms Hidipo Hamutenya (“HH”), Nujoma then installed Hifikepunye Pohamba in his place and led a purge of HH and his followers from the government and the party.

Like the PLAN hero and Robben Island graduate Ben Ulenga before him, HH then in 2007 created his own party – the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) – after Nujoma was then installed as a permanent power in the form of the extra-constitutional “Office of the Founding Father.”

Stung by accusations that SWAPO was becoming a tribal-based organization (it was born, after all, from the Owamboland People’s Organisation), Pohamba then sought to bring some tribal balance back into the party, firstly by re-appointing Hage Geingob: in 2002, he was suddenly fired as Prime Minister by Nujoma for reasons only known to Nujoma (Geingob maintains to this day he still does not know why he was sacked).

Pohamba, a mild-mannered man, was no doubt alarmed by the witch-hunting that characterized the party; he also survived several attempts on his own life by the hardliners, as admitted to by the then-Prime Minister Nahas Angula in parliament in 2008.


Is Hage Geingob the next Namibian President?

But with his hands removed from the direct levers of control in the state, Nujoma’s influence started waning, culminating in last year’s Congress where Pohamba’s successor was to be elected. In a three-way battle, Geingob faced off against party secretary-general Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana and hardliner regional government Minister Jerry Ekandjo.

Geingob won with remarkable ease, out-maneuvering his opponents by advancing the succession battle on the agenda over other policy issues advanced by the hardliners and postponing those ideological battles to the next congress, scheduled for June this year.

Pohamba in uncharacteristic speed immediately announced a Cabinet reshuffle, the largest since Independence, and re-appointed Geingob as his Prime Minister (he was Trade and Industry Minister from 2007 to 2012). Changes were also rung in the Politburo, sidelining the Nujoma loyalists to a large extent as the Geingob camp took control of the party structures.

The hardliners, led by Ekandjo, are however unhappy, and although they proclaim party unity as their mantra, they have mounted their own underground campaign to target corruption in the party. Geingob, whose name has repeatedly been mentioned in connection with dubious deals, clearly is their target, and Pohamba regularly comes under attack from media aligned to the hardline SWAPO Youth League.

Word among the party faithful now is that Geingob is essentially on probation: should he not perform according to the demands of the cabal surrounding Nujoma, he could still find himself replaced before the next scheduled national elections in end-2014, they threaten.

And one of these tests will be Geingob’s support for installing Nujoma’s statue under the Independence Memorial on Heroes Day this year. The political implications are obvious: by preferring a day venerated by SWAPO alone, the significance of the real Independence Day is discounted in the narrative of Namibian nationalism.

The battle for the party’s soul is by no means over, and Namibia’s future as a true democracy continues to hang in the balance.

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