Freedom in the World
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Hifikepunye Pohamba, the successor to Namibia's founding president Sam Nujoma, won national elections held in November, and the ruling South West Africa People's Organization party (SWAPO) maintained its overwhelming majority in parliament. The government completed the crucial first stage of its land reform program, paving the way for the purchase of white-owned farms and the resettlement of landless blacks.
Namibia was seized by German imperial forces in the late 1800s. Thousands of people were massacred by German troops in efforts to crush all resistance to colonial settlement and administration. The territory became a South African protectorate after German forces were expelled during World War I and was ruled under the apartheid system for 42 years after 1948. After 13 years of violent guerrilla war, Namibia achieved independence in 1990. During a UN-supervised democratic transition, Sam Nujoma was chosen president that year by a freely and fairly elected National Assembly.
SWAPO scored a sweeping victory, and Nujoma was reelected in 1994. Nujoma, the leader of the country's struggle against apartheid, adopted an increasingly authoritarian governing style. He was easily returned to power with 77 percent of the vote for a third five-year term in the 1999 presidential election. The party had succeeded in passing a bitterly contested constitutional amendment to allow Nujoma to seek a third term.
Legislative polls in 1999 saw SWAPO retain its two-thirds majority in the 72-member National Assembly, increasing its number of seats from 53 to 55. The ruling party's main base is among the country's largest ethnic group, the Ovambo, whose prominence within SWAPO has evoked allegations of ethnic discrimination.
In April 2002, the Angolan government and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) signed a ceasefire agreement. Fighting in Namibia's Caprivi region had flared in October 1998 and in August 1999, and UNITA was accused of supporting Caprivi insurgents. Under a 1999 mutual defense pact, the governments of Angola and Namibia agreed that each could pursue suspected rebels into the other's territory. Caprivi, a finger of land poking eastwards out of northern Namibia along its borders with Angola and Botswana, differs geographically, politically, and in its ethnic makeup from the rest of Namibia; it was used by South Africa in that country's operations against SWAPO guerrillas.
In November 2004 elections for the National Assembly, SWAPO won 55 seats (the same number it won in 1999), the Congress of Democrats won 5, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance won 4, the United Democratic Front took 3, and other parties took the remaining 5. SWAPO's Hifikepunye Pohamba easily beat out six other presidential candidates, taking 76 percent of the vote. Turnout was approximately 85 percent, compared to 61 percent in 1999.
Whites, who make up about 6 percent of the population, owned just under half of Namibia's arable land in 2003. The government has since assessed the value of more than 12,000 commercial farms and plans to implement a land tax that will help pay for the land reform program. Farm owners who contest the valuations may appeal in court; some 285 objections have been lodged so far. Nujoma also announced plans to expropriate 192 farms belonging to foreign absentee landlords. The government says it has resettled more than 6,000 black families and remains in negotiations with the commercial farmers' union to fully implement its "willing-seller, willing-buyer" land redistribution strategy. The program has won praise from Germany, which has agreed to fund part of the plan, for proceeding in an orderly and peaceful manner.
Capital-intensive extractive industries, such as diamond and uranium mining, have drawn significant foreign investment and are the centerpiece of Namibia's economic growth. In 2004, the government embarked on a massive power project that would quadruple Namibia's electricity production by developing gas fields. Most Namibians, however, continue to live as subsistence farmers, and many lack basic services.
Namibians can change their government democratically. The 1999 elections were judged to be largely free and fair, although there were some instances of government harassment of the opposition, as well as unequal access to media coverage and campaign financing. The legislature consists of the 26-seat National Council, whose members are appointed by regional councils for six-year terms, and the 72-seat National Assembly, whose members are elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. Observer missions from the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa and the Southern African Development Community said the 2004 elections were free and fair, although opposition parties complained that they only got access to the full voters' roll four days before the polls and vowed to go to court to demand a recount.
Namibia was ranked 54 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index. An anti-corruption bill was signed into law by President Nujoma in 2003, but a long-awaited autonomous Anti-Corruption Commission with investigative and arrest powers has yet to come into existence.
The constitution guarantees the right to free speech and a free press, and the country's press in considered one of the freest on the continent. Private radio stations and critical independent newspapers usually operate without official interference, but reporters for state-run media have been subjected to indirect and direct pressure to avoid reporting on controversial topics. There are at least eight private radio stations and one private television station. The state-run Namibia Broadcasting Corporation has regularly presented views critical of the government. There are no government restrictions on the Internet, and several publications have popular Web sites.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by law and permitted in practice, except in situations of national emergency. Local and international human rights groups operate freely without government interference. Constitutionally guaranteed union rights are respected. Although collective bargaining is not practiced widely outside the mining and construction industries, informal collective bargaining is increasingly common. Essential public sector workers do not have the right to strike. Domestic and farm laborers remain the country's most heavily exploited workers, in part because many are illiterate and do not know their rights.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government respects this right. However, in rural areas, local chiefs use traditional courts that often ignore constitutional procedures. Allegations of police brutality persist. After nearly five years of delays, the mass trial of 120 defendants accused of high treason and other crimes in relation to the separatist rebellion in Caprivi opened in June 2004. A judge had freed 13 of the defendants in February, but the men were immediately rearrested and the Supreme Court later upheld their detention. The trial of another 12 alleged Caprivi separatists has been set for March 2005. Human rights groups have called for independent investigations into the deaths of 13 Caprivi suspects in police custody since 1999. Authorities have dismissed allegations of torture. Conditions in prisons and military detention facilities generally meet international standards.
Respect for human rights in Namibia is good, and the country's National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) said that the overall civil and political situation in the formerly volatile Caprivi, Kavango, and Ohangwena regions has improved considerably. Nevertheless, Caprivians accuse the government of neglect in the province, which is among the country's poorest.
The Herero and Damara peoples are among the minority ethnic groups demanding larger government allocations for development in their home areas. Herero leaders have filed a $2 billion lawsuit in the United States to demand reparations for abuses they suffered at the hands of German colonists. The Herero were nearly wiped out during colonialism. In 2004, the German government apologized for atrocities committed against the Herero people, but ruled out reparations, instead promising increased development aid. The Namibian government has made efforts to end discrimination of indigenous San (Bushmen), although the NSHR says that the San remain marginalized and subject to rights abuses.
Despite constitutional guarantees, women continue to face discrimination in customary law and other traditional societal practices. Violence against women is reportedly widespread, and the UN Human Rights Committee criticized the government in 2004 for failing to prosecute the majority of cases or provide compensation to the victims, despite the existence of a domestic violence act. Women are increasingly involved in the political process, but remain underrepresented in government and politics.