Freedom in the World
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The ruling party, SWAPO, continued to dominate Namibian politics in 2011 despite internal party division, in particular over the choice of a 2014 presidential candidate. Opposition party challenges to the 2009 elections continued in the Supreme Court. A police investigation into the scandal that erupted in July 2010 over the looting of a government pension fund was finally opened in October 2011 and continued at year’s end.
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in the late 19th century and became a South African protectorate after World War I. In 1966, South Africa’s mandate was revoked by the United Nations, and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) began a guerrilla campaign for independence.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 in 1990, and SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma was chosen as president.
Secessionist fighting in Namibia’s Caprivi region between 1998 and 1999 led some 2,400 refugees to flee to neighboring Botswana. Treason trials for the alleged perpetrators resulted in guilty verdicts in 2007. Appeals continued in 2011, with final decisions expected in the Supreme Court in 2012.
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 the elections. He was re-elected in November 2009 with 75 percent of the vote, while the candidate of the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), an opposition party formed in 2007 mainly by SWAPO defectors, obtained just 11 percent.
In concurrent parliamentary elections, SWAPO won 54 seats in the 72-member legislature, while RDP took 8 seats. The elections were praised as free and fair by domestic and international observers, although the latter raised some concerns about pro-SWAPO bias on the government-run Namibian Broadcast Corporation (NBC), delays in the counting process, and organizational mishaps during the polling process. Following the contests, nine opposition parties filed a legal challenge calling for the nullification of the parliamentary elections because of “gross irregularities.” Key allegations included claims that some areas registered turnouts of over 100 percent and concerns that polling centers failed to post results as they were tallied, as is required by law. The case reached the Supreme Court in October 2011, and a judgment was pending at year’s end. Opposition parties have expressed unhappiness with the Electoral Commission on several other occasions, most recently when they accused a commissioner, Rodney Guiseb, of having faked his academic qualifications.
Throughout the year, individuals began positioning themselves for the upcoming contest over who would succeed Pohamba as party president and candidate for the 2014 elections.
The small white minority owns just under half of Namibia’s arable land, and redistribution of property has been slow despite efforts to accelerate the process. In December 2010, President Pohamba warned that this could become a threat to political stability.
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 contracted 0.7 percent in 2009, it grew 6.6 percent in 2010 and about 3.5 to 4.0 percent in 2011.
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.
The ruling SWAPO party has dominated since independence. Significant opposition parties include the recently formed RDP, the Congress of Democrats, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, and the United Democratic Front. Since its formation, RDP supporters have been subject to harassment and intimidation by SWAPO members, who occasionally disrupt RDP rallies despite calls by police to disperse. While these problems have subsided somewhat in recent years, the RDP experienced some difficulty in holding rallies before the 2009 elections and faced isolated bans and disruptions of demonstrations in 2010. The RDP also boycotted parliament for most of 2010 to protest the failure of the high court to decide their election petition on substantive grounds, and the delays in the resolution of their appeal in the Supreme Court.
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 has considerable autonomy, as it reports only to the National Assembly, though it lacks prosecutorial authority. In two separate cases in 2010, a former minister and the former head of the NBC were found guilty of corruption-related charges. A major scandal surfaced in July 2010 over a scam that cost the Government Institutions Pension Fund N$660 million (approximately US$90 million) between 1994 and 2002. Following a forensic audit by the Office of the Auditor General, the full details of which have not yet been made public, the Namibian Police finally started an investigation in October 2011. The investigation is expected to conclude in the second half of 2012. Namibia was ranked 57 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees free speech, and Namibia’s media have generally enjoyed a relatively open environment. 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. While many insist that the state-owned NBC has been free to criticize the government, concerns have increased about excessive government influence over programming and personnel. While many publications and organizations have websites that are critical of the government, the 2009 Communications Act has raised concerns about privacy rights. The new legislation, which allows the government to tap into private communications without a warrant and monitor email and internet usage, threatens to limit private discussion.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. In 2010, the government was accused of pressuring academics to withhold criticism of the ruling party, though there were no such reports in 2011.
Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed by law and permitted in practice, except in situations of national emergency. In August 2010, police attempts to temporarily ban public demonstrations by the opposition RDP and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) during the South African Development Community Heads of State summit were declared illegal by the high court. The government used informal pressure, such as declining requests for time off from work, to prevent civil servant participation in planned November 2010 protests over the government’s tepid response to the pension fund scandal. Although human rights groups generally have operated without interference, government ministers have threatened and harassed NGOs and their leadership in the past. Constitutionally guaranteed union rights are respected. However, essential public sector workers do not have the right to strike. Collective bargaining is not widely practiced outside the mining, construction, agriculture and public service industries.
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, 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.
Minority ethnic groups have claimed that the government favors the majority Ovambo in allocating funding and services.
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, and rights groups have criticized the government’s failure to enforce the country’s progressive domestic violence laws. Namibia serves as a source, transit and destination country for human trafficking for forced labor and prostitution.