Namibia | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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Divisions within the ruling SWAPO party continued to shake the political landscape in 2007, as factions remained at odds over party leadership and governance. In the lead-up to the November party congress, former state president Sam Nujoma agreed to pass the party presidency to his successor as state president, Hifikepunye Pohamba. By the close of the year, SWAPO itself had split, as a faction headed by several key figures broke away to form a new opposition party, the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP). Meanwhile, accusations of human rights abuses against Nujoma generated hostile reactions from ruling party stalwarts, who threatened nongovernmental organizations and the independent media in the country.

Namibia, formerly known as South West Africa, was claimed by German imperial forces in the late 19th century, and became a South African protectorate after World War I. In 1966, South Africa’s mandate was revoked by the United Nations, and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) began a guerrilla campaign for independence. After 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 after independence.

Secessionist fighting in Namibia’s Caprivi region flared in October 1998 and continued into 1999. The violence led some 2,400 refugees to flee to neighboring Botswana. A mass trial of 120 defendants involved in the rebellion opened in 2003 and was ongoing as of the end of 2007. Another 12 alleged Caprivi secessionists were tried independently; in 2007, two were acquitted, and 10 were sentenced to 32 years in prison for treason.

Nujoma and SWAPO easily retained control of the presidency and legislature in the 1994 and 1999 elections, and in 2004, Nujoma’s imminent departure after three terms in office set off a bitter succession contest within the ruling party. Nujoma successfully backed his longtime ally, Hifikepunye Pohamba, and began an effort to remove opponents from key positions. Pohamba captured the presidency with 76 percent of the vote in November, and SWAPO maintained its legislative majority, taking 55 of the 72 National Assembly seats. Despite criticizing the vote tabulation system and the opposition’s unequal access to media and campaign resources, observer missions deemed the elections free and fair.

As president, Pohamba’s central political challenge has been divisions within SWAPO. Many of these have been rooted in the 2004 succession struggle, which pitted Nujoma and his chosen successor, Pohamba, against those opposed to Nujoma’s leadership and domineering role in the party. These patterns persisted in 2007. Nujoma’s opponents openly decried intraparty “witch-hunting,” in which they were expelled from positions in government, party branches, unions, and state enterprises. In the lead-up to the 2007 party congress, which was delayed by a number of months amidst rumors of splits in the party, Nujoma and other members of the SWAPO politburo allegedly contemplated a mass expulsion of suspected opponents, but resisted the move. In turn, just prior to the congress, several senior SWAPO figures broke from the party to form a new opposition group, the RDP. At the congress itself, Nujoma relinquished the presidency of the party to state president Pohamba, but was granted the authority to attend all meetings of the party leadership structures. As Nujoma retains considerable influence with party members and within key party ancillary structures, his future role remains unclear.

Separately in 2007, Pohamba and other Nujoma supporters rallied to the former president’s defense after Phil ya Nangoloh, head of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), submitted a dossier to the International Criminal Court in July that called for investigations of Nujoma’s role in the killing and disappearance of over 4,000 Namibians from the 1970s to 1999. Nujoma’s defenders issued severe condemnations of Nangoloh, and the SWAPO-dominated National Council, the legislature’s upper house, demanded a review of the NSHR’s place in Namibia and called for legislation to regulate the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The small white minority owns just under half of Namibia’s arable land, and after redistribution stalled under the government’s initial “willing-buyer, willing-seller” policy, legislation was passed in 2003 to speed up the process. In 2004, the government declared that all landholders were susceptible to expropriation. According to available information, 26 farms have been targeted for expropriation, and as of mid-2007, the government had expropriated five. (A total of 209 farms had been acquired by government as of 2007.) Several farmers have used the courts to contest the expropriation of their land or the prices offered by the government.

Although extractive industries including diamond and uranium mining have drawn significant foreign investment, most Namibians live as subsistence farmers, and many lack basic services.

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 popularly elected for five-year terms using party-list proportional representation. The president, who is directly elected for five-year terms, appoints the prime minister and cabinet.

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.

President Hifikepunye Pohamba has made anticorruption efforts a major theme of his presidency. However, official corruption remains a significant problem, and investigations of major cases proceed slowly. The president in February 2006 installed the officers of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which is answerable only to the National Assembly and can recommend cases to the prosecutor-general. Bolstered by increased staffing, the ACC in 2007 was involved in the arrests of a number of regional and local officials, as well as two officers of the National Assembly. Namibia was ranked 57 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The constitution guarantees the right to a free press, and Namibia’s media are among the freest on the continent. Private broadcasters and independent newspapers usually operate without official interference. However, government and party leaders at times issue harsh criticism or threats against the independent press. These reached concerning levels in the wake of Phil ya Nangoloh’s 2007 accusations against former president Sam Nujoma. In August, the National Council introduced a motion calling for stricter media laws. Then, in December, the SWAPO congress passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a media council to regulate the activities and operations of the media.

While many insist that the state-run Namibia Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) enjoys freedom to criticize the government, others believe that favors the ruling party. In 2007, its directors altered a popular radio call-in program to prevent callers from diverging from the assigned discussion topic; some said the move was designed to prevent criticism of Nujoma. 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. Although human rights groups have operated without interference, officials have verbally attacked critical NGOs. In 2007, government ministers threatened Nangoloh and the NSHR, and the National Council called for a review of the NSHR’s activities and status. Both the majority whip in the Council and Nujoma’s son, a deputy minister, claimed that the NSHR was a threat to peace and stability.

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 are heavily exploited, 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. Access to justice, however, is obstructed by economic and geographic barriers, a shortage of public defenders, and delays caused by a lack of capacity in the court system. In February 2007, the prosecutor-general dispatched two teams to help the lower courts deal with the case backlog. In rural areas, traditional courts often ignore constitutional procedures.

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 custody. In January 2006, the NSHR alleged that torture and ill-treatment had been used against suspects and witnesses in the Caprivi treason trial. Conditions in prisons and military detention facilities are quite harsh. An investigation by a National Council committee in 2007 decried the situation in police holding cells, pointing to overcrowding, disease, and sexual abuse of minors. Months later, a High Court judge declared conditions in police holding cells to be “plainly unconstitutional.”

Human rights are for the most part well respected in Namibia. Nevertheless, homosexuals are discriminated against; in 2001, then president Nujoma called on police to arrest, deport, and imprison homosexuals. Moreover, minority ethnic groups have claimed that the government favors the majority Ovambo in allocating funding and services. In 2005, a group representing the Khoisan people became the latest to demand reparations from Germany for colonial-era atrocities; Herero leaders had already filed a US$2 billion reparations lawsuit against Germany in the United States. In 2004, the German government had apologized for anti-Herero atrocities but ruled out reparations, promising increased development aid instead.

Despite constitutional guarantees, women continue to face discrimination in customary law and other traditional societal practices. Widows and orphans are often stripped of their land and livestock in rural areas, and proposed legislation to address the problem has stalled. Violence against women is reportedly widespread; rights groups have criticized the government for failing to enforce the country’s progressive domestic violence laws. Women are increasingly involved in the political process but remain underrepresented in government and politics.

The government has been praised for providing antiretroviral drugs to Namibians infected with HIV/AIDS. A national AIDS policy passed in 2007 outlaws societal and workplace discrimination against those living with the virus, which has infected some 230,000 Namibians. The policy also guarantees full HIV-related services for prisoners and pretrial detainees.