Namibia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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Internal divisions continued to rock the ruling South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) party in 2006 as former president Sam Nujoma retained control over the party leadership, defying those who wanted current president Hifikepunye Pohamba to take charge. Local and regional party branches, unions, and parastatals have all been sites of struggle between the rival SWAPO camps. Meanwhile, land reform remains a major political issue. Although some in government have voiced admiration for Zimbabwe’s aggressive redistribution of agricultural land, the official position emphasizes that land reform will proceed within constitutional and legal frameworks.

Namibia, formerly known as South West Africa, was claimed by German imperial forces in the late nineteenth century. Efforts to consolidate German colonial rule and expand white farming settlements resulted in the massacre of thousands of indigenous Herero, Nama, and Damara during a series of wars with German troops in the early twentieth century. German forces were expelled during World War I, and the League of Nations made the territory a South African protectorate in 1920. South West Africa was ruled under the apartheid system after 1948. In 1966, South Africa’s mandate was revoked by the United Nations, and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) began a guerrilla campaign to secure the territory’s independence. After 14 years of war, a UN-supervised transition led to independence for Namibia in 1990, and SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma was chosen as president. The previous year, SWAPO had won 57 percent of the ballots in a free and fair vote for the Constituent Assembly, which became the National Assembly on independence.

Nujoma was reelected in 1994 with more than 76 percent of the vote, and SWAPO the same year won a major victory in the first legislative elections under the new constitution. However, Nujoma adopted an increasingly authoritarian governing style. Before the 1999 presidential election, SWAPO succeeded in passing a bitterly contested constitutional amendment allowing Nujoma to seek a third term. He was easily returned to power with 77 percent of the vote; his closest rival, former trade union leader Ben Ulenga of the Congress of Democrats, won only 11 percent. In legislative polls in 1999, SWAPO retained its two-thirds majority in the 72-member National Assembly, increasing its number of seats from 53 to 55.

Secessionist fighting in Namibia’s Caprivi region flared in October 1998 and continued into 1999. The region is geographically and ethnically distinct from the rest of the country. In the wake of the uprising, Nujoma declared a state of emergency in Caprivi, giving security forces wide-ranging powers. The resulting violence led some 2,400 refugees to flee to neighboring Botswana. A mass trial of 120 defendants involved in the separatist rebellion opened in October 2003 and is ongoing. Another 12 alleged Caprivi secessionists were brought to trial in September 2005; the trial is expected to conclude in 2007.

Although rumors indicated that Nujoma might try to amend the constitution to stand for a fourth term in 2004, this ultimately did not come to pass. His imminent departure set off a bitter contest within SWAPO over who would be the party’s new presidential candidate. Nujoma backed his longtime ally Hifikepunye Pohamba to succeed him. He was challenged by SWAPO stalwarts Nahas Angula and Hidipo Hamutenya, the latter representing the more definitive threat. In the wake of the struggle, Nujoma stripped Hamutenya of his portfolio as minister of foreign affairs. Pohamba ultimately won the nomination at the party convention. However, clear divisions emerged in the party, and Nujoma loyalists began an effort to weed out Hamutenya supporters from key positions. These dynamics continue to shape Namibia’s politics today.

In the November 2004 elections for the National Assembly, SWAPO maintained its overwhelming majority in the legislature by winning 55 seats; the Congress of Democrats won 5 seats, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance won 4, the United Democratic Front took 3, and other parties took the remaining 5 seats. In the presidential election, SWAPO’s Pohamba easily defeated six other candidates, taking 76 percent of the vote. Turnout was approximately 85 percent, compared with 61 percent in 1999. Despite criticizing the vote tabulation system and the opposition’s unequal access to media and campaign resources, observer missions deemed both elections free and fair. After successfully petitioning the high court to allow a review of official election documentation in December 2004, the Congress of Democrats and the Republican Party (RP) secured a court-ordered recount of all ballots in March 2005. The recount did not result in any changes in the allocation of seats in the National Assembly.

As president, Pohamba has emphasized combating corruption and adopted a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor. His central political challenge has been divisions within his party as it approaches the 2007 convention, where senior party officers will be chosen. The divisions stem from Nujoma’s ongoing control of the party presidency, which critics say undermines Pohamba’s authority. In late 2005, Nujoma received unwanted scrutiny after a newspaper report implicated him in a corruption scandal and a mass grave was discovered containing the remains of SWAPO fighters killed by South African forces in April 1989. The latter discovery generated a debate about whether Nujoma had ordered the offensive that led to the massacre of the fighters. Responding to the criticism, Nujoma supporters aggressively pushed a bill through Parliament that declared him the father of the nation.

During 2006, conflict between rival SWAPO camps escalated. Nujoma opponents, especially former Hamutenya supporters, were removed from key positions in government, parastatals, and labor unions. Several leading party members privately appealed to Nujoma in early 2006 to step down from his role as party president; he angrily refused. By August, Pohamba and Nujoma had allegedly fallen out over the former’s tolerance of anti-Nujoma elements in positions of power, the anticorruption drive that had implicated Nujoma and some of his supporters, and a campaign by Nujoma backers to make him life president of SWAPO. The divisions, which follow ethnic lines, played out significantly at regional levels as different camps sought to put supporters in place ahead of the 2007 convention. The extent of open dissent in the party, historically one of the most cohesive in Africa, is as high as it has been in recent memory.

The small white minority owns just under half of Namibia’s arable land, and land reform remains a big issue. Although the government initially pursued a “willing-buyer, willing-seller” program, frustrations with the slow pace led to the passage of legislation in 2003 to speed up redistribution. In 2004, the government declared that all Namibian landholders were susceptible to expropriation. Officials have hoped to use proceeds from a land tax, implemented in 2004, to help pay for the land program. In 2005, 18 farms were targeted for expropriation. Several farmers filed court cases to challenge the prices to be paid for the land. In April 2006, the government announced that it had successfully taken three farms since 2005. That month, three farmers filed lawsuits challenging the planned expropriation of their farms. Several leading government and party officials have continued to criticize the pace of reform, and a few have applauded the more aggressive approach taken in Zimbabwe. However, the Namibian government insists that its own process will remain within the existing constitution and legal framework.

Capital-intensive extractive industries, such as diamond and uranium mining, have drawn significant foreign investment and are the centerpiece of Namibia’s economy. Most Namibians, however, continue to live as subsistence farmers, and many lack basic services. The expiration of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act in 2005 and the end of textile quotas mandated by the World Trade Organization significantly affected the competitiveness of Namibia’s textile industry. In May 2006, the controversial Malaysian-owned Ramatex textile factory threatened to shut down operations, placing 6,000 jobs in jeopardy. The government prevented the closure by offering incentives and financial support to the company. The country is also a recipient of substantial foreign aid. In November 2005, Namibia was one of three lower-middle-income countries granted eligibility to apply for support from the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Account. The government submitted project proposals in September 2006.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Namibia is an electoral democracy. Despite a court-mandated recount, the 2004 presidential and legislative elections were judged to be free and fair. The bicameral 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. National Assembly seats are allocated by proportional representation, based on a party-list system. The president is directly elected and serves as the head of state for a five-year term.

The ruling SWAPO party has dominated both the legislative and executive branches since independence. Significant opposition parties include the Congress of Democrats, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, and the United Democratic Front.

While Namibia has a legislative and institutional framework to combat corruption, it remains a significant problem in government and parastatals. In August 2005, Paulus Kapia, a deputy minister and secretary of the SWAPO Youth League (SYL), resigned after a judicial inquiry implicated him in a fraud scandal involving the Social Security Commission, which had invested N$30 million (US$4.6 million) in a company associated with key SYL leaders. He was then suspended from all activities by the SWAPO Politburo, but remained on the SYL payroll. Results of an SYL inquiry on the matter have not become public.

President Pohamba has made anticorruption efforts a major theme of his presidency and routinely raises the issue in his public speeches. Enabled by anticorruption legislation passed in 2003, the president in February 2006 officially installed the officers of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). The ACC is answerable only to the National Assembly and can recommend cases to the prosecutor general, who has final say on whether to proceed. In March, the ACC received an allocation of N$6.5 million in the national budget, up N$2.5 million from the previous year. Despite these efforts, many observers have expressed concern about the slow progress in investigating and prosecuting major cases. Namibia was ranked 55 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees the right to free speech and a free press, and Namibia’s press is considered one of the freest on the continent. Private radio stations and critical independent newspapers usually operate without official interference. Reporters for state-run media have been subjected to indirect and direct pressure to avoid reporting on controversial topics. In September 2006, SWAPO leader Nujoma brought a suit against the largest independent daily, The Namibian, for a September 2005 article alleging his connection to the social security fraud scandal. The legal fees alone threaten to put the newspaper out of business.

While many insist that the state-run Namibia Broadcasting Corporation enjoys freedom to criticize the government, others believe that it is biased toward the ruling party. There are at least 11 private radio stations and two private television stations that broadcast in English and other languages, and international broadcasts are available to those who can afford access. Although then-president Nujoma appointed himself minister of information and broadcasting for a period in 2004, no significant problems were experienced during his tenure. There are no government restrictions on the internet, and several publications have popular websites.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed by law and permitted in practice, except in situations of national emergency. Local and international human rights groups operate freely without government interference, though some officials have verbally attacked nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize the government.

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 separation of powers is observed in practice. Judicial decisions regarding the recount of the November 2004 elections underscored this independence. Access to justice, however, is obstructed by economic and geographic barriers, a shortage of public defenders, and substantial trial delays caused by a lack of capacity in the court system. In rural areas, traditional courts often ignore constitutional procedures.

After nearly four years of delays, the mass trial of 120 defendants accused of high treason and other crimes related to the separatist rebellion in Caprivi opened in October 2003. The trial of another 12 alleged Caprivi separatists began in September 2005; these defendants have argued unsuccessfully that they have been denied due process by both the Namibian and Botswana governments. The main trial is expected to stretch into 2007.

Police and military forces are under civilian control. Pohamba’s administration includes the newly created Ministry of Safety and Security, which supervises both the police and the national intelligence services. Allegations of police brutality persist. Human rights groups have called for independent investigations into the 1999 arrest and detention of suspected Caprivi separatists and the deaths of 13 suspects in police custody. In January 2006, the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) alleged that torture and ill-treatment had been used against suspects and witnesses in the treason trial. Conditions in prisons and military detention facilities are harsh but generally meet international standards.

Human rights are for the most part well respected in Namibia. Nevertheless, several minority ethnic groups, including the Herero and Damara, claim that the government favors the majority Ovambo in allocating development funding and providing local services. In May 2005, a group representing the Khoisan people became the latest group to demand reparations from Germany for colonial-era atrocities; Herero leaders have already filed a US$2 billion lawsuit in the United States seeking reparations from Germany for similar abuses. In 2004, the German government had apologized for atrocities committed against the Herero people but had ruled out reparations, promising increased development aid instead.

Despite constitutional guarantees, women continue to face discrimination in customary law and other traditional societal practices. In July 2005, the government announced plans to introduce an inheritance bill to protect the property rights of widows and orphans, who are often stripped of their land and livestock in rural areas. Violence against women is reportedly widespread, and despite the existence of progressive legislation—including a domestic violence act—rights groups have criticized the government for failing to prosecute the majority of cases or provide compensation to the victims. Women are increasingly involved in the political process but remain underrepresented in government and politics.

Homosexuals are discriminated against and have been accused by government officials of causing HIV/AIDS; in 2001, then-president Nujoma called on police to arrest, deport, and imprison homosexuals. In February 2005, the government launched a national policy intended to assist orphans and vulnerable children by supporting community groups, NGOs, and faith-based institutions. In addition, the government has been praised for its programs providing antiretroviral drugs to Namibians infected with HIV/AIDS.