Freedom in the World
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In December 2012, Hage Geingob was reelected vice president of the long-ruling SWAPO party, making him the party’s likely presidential candidate for 2014. In July, in what was hailed as a landmark ruling for women’s and patients’ rights, the High Court found in favor of three HIV-positive women who claimed that they had been sterilized at state hospitals without giving informed consent.
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in the late 19th century and became a South African protectorate after World War I. In 1966, South Africa’s mandate was revoked by the United Nations, and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) began a guerrilla campaign for independence.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 secessionists resulted in guilty verdicts in 2007, though the Supreme Court had yet to reach a decision on appeals of the verdicts for more than 100 defendants as of the end of 2012.
Nujoma and SWAPO retained control of the presidency and legislature in the 1994 and 1999 elections. In 2004, Nujoma’s longtime ally, Hifikepunye Pohamba, was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate and went on to win the elections. He was reelected 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, captured just 11 percent.
In concurrent parliamentary elections, SWAPO won 54 seats in the 72-member legislature, while the 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 in the government-run Namibian Broadcast Corporation (NBC), delays in the counting process, and organizational mishaps during the polling process. Nine opposition parties filed a legal challenge calling for the nullification of the parliamentary elections due to “gross irregularities.” After the High Court rejected the challenge in February 2011, the parties appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which heard the case in October. In July 2012, the RPD held a sit-in outside the Supreme Court building in Windhoek to protest the court’s delay in issuing a decision, and in October filed a petition with the chief justice seeking to force the judges who had heard the case to release a verdict. The Supreme Court released the verdict later that month, dismissing the case outright and ordering the RDP to pay SWAPO’s legal costs.
In late November and early December, SWAPO held its much-anticipated party congress, in which it elected its leaders, including party vice president. The congress—held every five years—had been preceded by a bitter succession fight, as the SWAPO vice president would be the party’s 2014 presidential candidate and, given SWAPO’s previous electoral dominance, was expected to become Namibia’s next president. Trade and Industry Minister Hage Geingob, the incumbent, won the race, defeating Local and Regional Government Minister Jerry Ekandjo and Justice Minister Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, who was also the party’s secretary general. Days later, Geingob was appointed prime minister, replacing Nahas Angula. Geingob, who was from the minority Damara community, would likely become the first Namibian president not to hail from the Oshiwambo-speaking majority.
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 October 2012, Pohamba warned that unequal land distribution could become a threat to political stability.
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.
SWAPO has dominated since independence. Significant opposition parties include the RDP, the Congress of Democrats, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, and the United Democratic Front. Since the RDP’s formation, its 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.
Although President Hifikepunye Pohamba has made anticorruption efforts a major theme of his presidency, official corruption remains a 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. 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 Namibian police did not start an official investigation until January 2012, and said in October that the investigation, which cost N$6 million (US$680,000), was not expected to conclude until 2013. Namibia was ranked 58 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, and sixth overall in the 2012 Ibrahim Index of African Governance.
The constitution guarantees free speech, and Namibia’s media have generally enjoyed a relatively open environment. 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. In August 2011, a 10-year ban on government advertising in the daily Namibian was lifted; the ban had been imposed by former president Sam Nujoma, who alleged that the paper was biased against the government. In November 2012, a Windhoek High Court judge dismissed a N$300,000 (US$37,000) defamation claim filed by a former Walvis Bay municipal official against the Namibian. Many publications and organizations have websites that are critical of the government. The 2009 Communications Act raised concerns about privacy rights on the internet, as it allows the government to monitor telephone calls, e-mail, and internet usage without a warrant.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. The government has in the past been accused of pressuring academics to withhold criticism of SWAPO, though there were no such reports in 2012.
Freedoms of assembly and association are guaranteed by law and permitted in practice, except in situations of national emergency. The government generally tolerated the RDP’s peaceful protests near the Supreme Court building in 2012, though the protesters were ordered to move 500 meters away from the court. Human rights groups generally operate without interference, but government ministers have threatened and harassed nongovernmental organizations 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 main umbrella union, the National Union of Namibian Workers, is affiliated with SWAPO and played a role in selecting the new party leaders.
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. Conditions in prisons are improving, though overcrowding remains a problem.
Minority ethnic groups have claimed that the government favors the majority Ovambo—which also dominates SWAPO—in allocating funding and services. A colonial-era law prohibits homosexual relations between men, but the law is generally not enforced. However, members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community report that they continue to suffer discrimination and persecution, including negative rhetoric by some public officials and discrimination in employment.
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. Violence against women is reportedly widespread, and rights groups have criticized the government’s failure to enforce the country’s progressive domestic violence laws. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, Namibia serves as a source, transit, and destination country for human trafficking for forced labor and prostitution, and it was placed on the Tier 2 Watch List due to its failure to take legal action against offenders.
Namibia’s HIV infection rate, though extremely high—13.1 percent in 2009—is much lower than its southern African neighbors. In July 2012, Namibia’s High Court ruled in favor of three HIV-positive women who alleged that they had been coerced by workers at government-run hospitals into agreeing to undergo sterilization while they were delivering their babies via caesarian sections, though the court found that there was not enough evidence to prove that they had been coerced due to their HIV status.