Freedom in the World
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Namibia received a downward trend arrow due to the ruling party’s harassment and intimidation of the Rally for Democratic Progress, a new opposition party, including the disruption of the group’s meetings and rallies.
The arrival on the political scene in 2007 of the opposition Rally for Democratic Progress (RDP) continued to generate tensions and warning signs for Namibia’s democracy throughout 2008. Intimidation and violence against RDP members by loyalists of the ruling South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) took place in the lead-up to local elections, and the opposition also raised concerns about electoral manipulation. Freedom of assembly was also threatened by the disruption of RDP rallies by SWAPO activists. Meanwhile, divisions within SWAPO remained prominent, as the SWAPO Party Youth League increasingly flexed its muscles by challenging party leaders and government officials.
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in the late 19th century, and became a South African protectorate after World War I. In 1966, South Africa’s mandate was revoked by the United Nations, and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) began a guerrilla campaign for independence.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 at the end of 2008. 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 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. In 2007, these divisions manifested themselves in the emergence of a break-away party, the Rally for Democratic Progress (RDP), headed by several former prominent party members. The party gained little traction over 2008 however, and SWAPO stalwarts undertook an aggressive effort to stunt the party’s growth and success, sometimes using intimidation and threats. One leading SWAPO figure even allegedly suggested that the government should only supply water and business contractsto those loyal to SWAPO.
More generally, hard-line elements within SWAPO, most notably the SWAPO Party Youth League (SPYL), have become increasingly prominent and outspoken. Reflecting the ongoing influence of Sam Nujoma in the party, many of these elements remain tied to the former president and rallied to him when he criticized President Pohamba in September 2008. Such elements also called for the resignations of some senior leaders, accusing them of corruption. Government policies have also been openly criticized by the pro-Nujoma faction, most notably elements of a proposed $305 million Millennium Challenge Account Compact with the U.S. government.The source of the controversy lay in allegations that the agreement included a provision that would allow American investors to buy or develop a number of tourist lodges in Namibia’s national parks.
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, 30 farms have been targeted for expropriation, and as of 2008, the government had expropriated five. Several farm owners, including four German nationals in 2008, 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.
Namibia is an electoral democracy. Despite a court-mandated recount, the 2004 presidential and legislative elections were judged to be free and fair. Several local elections were held in 2008, some of which were characterized by tension, intimidation, and accusations of improprieties by government officials. The government suspended the head of the electoral commission in March 2008 after he postponed a local poll and was accused of “dubious conduct” by the SPYL. The accusations involved, among other things, allegations that he was loyal to the opposition and had manipulated the voters’ roll in their favor.The opposition RDP claimed that the commission was being manipulated.
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 newly-formed RDP, the Congress of Democrats, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, and the United Democratic Front. The climate for opposition parties, especially the RDP, deteriorated in 2008. In several instances, individuals associated with the RDP were subjected to localized harassment and intimidation at the hands of SWAPO members. Leading SWAPO figures called for surveillance of RDP activities, boycotts of businesses owned by RDP members, and the purging of those members from ranking positions in the private sector. SWAPO members also disrupted RDP rallies, ignoring police calls to disperse. In the most visible local election in Omuthiya, the home area of several RDP leaders, the party obtained only 8 percent of the vote.
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. Since then, the ACC has been involved in the arrests of a number of lower-level state officials as well as two officers of the National Assembly. It has also conducted investigations of more senior officials. In April 2008, the former head of the SPYL and six others were arrested and charged in a major fraud case. The charges are associated with the loss of nearly N$30 million (US$4.6 million) invested by the Social Security Commission in a company associated with key SPYL leaders; the trial was ongoing at year’s end. Namibia was ranked 60 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees the right to a free press, and Namibia’s media have generally enjoyed a relatively open environment for their operations. 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, usually in the wake of unflattering stories about the government and ruling party. The ruling party and several pro-SWAPOgovernment figures also called in 2007 and 2008 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, it has come under political pressure in recent years. In July2008, members of SWAPO and the government criticized the NBC’s directors on a variety of grounds, raising suspicion that this was due to the NBC’s failure to sufficiently follow the partly line. 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 generally have operated without interference, in 2007, government ministers threatened and harassed a prominent human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) and its leadership, after it called for an investigation of former President Nujoma’s role in the killing and disappearance of over 4,000 Namibians from the 1970s to 1999. The National Council called for a review of its activities and for legislation to regulate the activities of NGOs; no such episodes were reported in 2008, however.
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.
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, especially at lower levels. Ministry of Justice officials have devoted more attention to these issue in recent years, however. 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. Victims of alleged police torture and abuse in the aftermath of the Caprivi uprising have brought damages claims against the government; all claims have been settled out of court. Conditions in prisons and military detention facilities are quite harsh. In 2007, a High Court judge declared conditions in police holding cells to be “plainly unconstitutional.”Focusing on the deplorable health and sanitary conditions in police cells, another judge in 2007 maintained thatauthorities could be held liable for violating detainees’ constitutional rights if conditions are not improved.
Human rights are for the most part well respected in Namibia. However, 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 have been stripped of their land, livestock and other assets in rural areas. The revision of customary laws in 1993, combined with a Communal Land Reform Act in 2002, helped to make the land rights of widows more secure. However, lack of awareness of legal rights as well as informal practices have undermined the success of such legal changes. 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.