Freedom in the World
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Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Elections in November 2009 returned President Hifikepunye Pohamba and the South West Africa People’s Organizationto power. Although improvements were registered in the legal framework and conduct of the electoral contests, the incumbency enjoyed some advantages and localized violence marred the campaigning process. While a number of opposition groups questioned the integrity of the elections process, observers declared the contests free and fair. A new communications law passed in July raised concerns about privacy rights, and media harassment continued throughout the year.
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in the late 19th century, and became a South African protectorate after World War I. In 1966, South Africa’s mandate was revoked by the United Nations, and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) began a guerrilla campaign for independence.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 between 1998 and 1999 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 2009.
Nujoma and SWAPO retained control of the presidency and legislature in the 1994 and 1999 elections. In 2004, after a bitter succession contest within the party, Nujoma’s longtime ally, Hifikepunye Pohamba, was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate and went on to win elections. Divisions within SWAPO became a central concern for the new president. The Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP)—a break-away party headed by several former prominent members of SWAPO—emerged in 2007. Pohamba also faced challenges from the hard-line SWAPO Party Youth League (SPYL) and to a lesser degree from Nujoma, who was especially critical of government policies and accused senior party leaders of corruption in 2008.
Despite these challenges, Pohamba won with 75 percent of the vote in the November 2009 presidential elections, while the first runner-up, RDP’s Hidipo Hamutenya, obtained 11 percent. Twelve candidates contested in the elections, the greatest number to date.The party list for legislative seats reflected continuity in personnel rather than the infusion of “new blood” as had been called for by some. In concurrent parliamentary elections, SWAPO won 54 seats in the 72-member legislature, while RDP took 8 seats.
The small white minority owns just under half of Namibia’s arable land, and redistribution of property has been slow despite legislation passed in 2003 to speed up the process. Following the government’s declaration in 2004 that all landholders were susceptible to expropriation, 30 farms have been targeted. However, as of 2009, the government had expropriated only five. Several farm owners have used the courts to contest the expropriation of their land or the prices offered by the government.
Namibia’s economy has been among the strongest in the region, and the country has consistently been rated positively in terms of competitiveness and ease of doing business. While the economy grew at a rate of 3.3 percent in 2008, it contracted 0.7 percent in 2009.Namibia’s Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation came into force in September 2009, having been one of three lower-middle-income countries to be granted eligibility by the U.S. government in 2005.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Namibia is an electoral democracy. 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.
In advance of the 2009 elections, the government passed amendments to the existing electoral law to allow for the counting of ballots at polling places, among other changes. While these amendments were applauded by the opposition, other issues, such as the length of the polling period and the absence of an electoral tribunal, remained the subject of criticism. Another controversy concerned the electoral commission’s decision to have ballots printed by a SWAPO-owned company. After complaints and pressure from opposition parties, this decision was rescinded and a South African company was awarded the printing contract. Additionally,the government-run Namibian Broadcast Corporation (NBC) cancelled all free media time for parties in November—a move that hurt smaller opposition parties. Reports indicated that 82 percent of the news coverage was devoted to SWAPO rallies. The campaign period also witnessed some localized tension and violence between SWAPO supporters and the opposition RDP.
Following the contests, eight opposition parties announced that they would bring a list of irregularities—including reports of multiple registrations by individuals and suspiciously high turnout in some areas—to the courts to confirm the legitimacy of the results. Domestic and international observers declared the elections free and fair, although the latter raised some concerns about the pro-SWAPO bias on the government-owned radio station, delays in the counting process, and organizational mishaps during the polling process.
The ruling SWAPO party has dominated since independence. Significant opposition parties include the newly-formed RDP, the Congress of Democrats, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, and the United Democratic Front. In 2008, individuals associated with the RDP were subjected to harassment and intimidation by SWAPO members, who disrupted RDP rallies and ignored police calls to disperse. The overall climate for the opposition improved in 2009, especially after the president called for more tolerance and respect for the law among SWAPO members, and a more aggressive police presence at opposition gatherings. However, the RDP did experience some difficulties in holding rallies immediately before the 2009 polls.
Although President Hifikepunye Pohamba has made anticorruption efforts a major theme of his presidency, official corruption remains a significant problem, and investigations of major cases proceed slowly. The Anti-Corruption Commission (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 2008, the former head of the SPYL and six others were arrested and charged in a major fraud case. While the trial is scheduled for 2011, SWAPO lifted its suspension of the former SPYL head in July 2009, and placed him on the party list for legislative elections. Additional concerns have recently emerged that children of government officials are disproportionately favored with scholarships granted by the Chinese government. Namibia was ranked 56 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees free speech, 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 and even threats against the independent press, usually in the wake of unflattering stories. SWAPO and government figures have also repeatedly called for the establishment of a media council to regulate the activities and operations of the media.
While many insist that the NBC enjoys freedom to criticize the government, it has come under political pressure in recent years, as the loyalties of those running the corporation have been questioned. In February2009, a high ranking director was dismissed amidst allegations that he backed the opposition. In March, the NBC canceled a popular phone-in radio show, which had at times allowed for harsh criticism of the government and ruling party.
While there are no restrictions on internet sites, and many publications and organizations have websites that are critical of the government, the 2009 Communication Act has raised concerns about privacy rights. The new legislation—which was passed in the face of substantial opposition—includes an interceptions clause that allows the government to tap into private communications without a warrant.
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, government ministers have in the past threatened and harassed nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and their leadership. 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. Traditional courts in rural areas have often ignored constitutional procedures. However, 2003 legislation to create greater uniformity in traditional court operations and better connect them to the formal judicial system was implemented in 2009. Allegations of police brutality persist, and conditions in prisons and military detention facilities are quite harsh.
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.
Despite constitutional guarantees, and one of highest percentages of women parliamentarians in Africa, 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. Lack of awareness of legal rights as well as informal practices have undermined the success of legal changes, such as the 2002 Communal Land Reform Act. Violence against women is reportedly widespread; rights groups have criticized the government for failing to enforce the country’s progressive domestic violence laws. The government has been praised for providing antiretroviral drugs to Namibians infected with HIV/AIDS and for its 2007 policy outlawing societal and workplace discrimination against those living with the virus.