The simmering ethnic tensions between those who prefer a non-Oshiwambo speaking person to become the next president of Namibia after president Pohamba’s term expires in 2013, and those who view such a call as tribalism and against the country’s slogan of “One Namibia-one nation,” has reached another boiling point. The latest tension stems from the Youth and Sport Minister Kazenambo Kazenambo’s (KK) outburst, when he called his fellow ministers “stupid Owambos” with “Boer mentality” in an interview with Insight Magazine’s Tileni Mongudhi a few weeks ago. In the Namibian and South African context, the term “Boer”, a Dutch and Afrikaans word for white Afrikaner farmers/settlers, is associated with oppression and apartheid.
Here is the deal: KK, who publicly called for the ruling party to nominate a non-Oshiwambo speaking candidate or a woman as the next president for Namibia, is also a staunch supporter of Hage Geingob, the main and obvious non-Oshiwambo speaking contender vying for the ruling party’s top ticket to become Namibia’s next president. Amid the backstabbing and veiled attacks, Geingob’s (who is also the VP of the SWAPO party) main competitor is turning out to be the party’s Secretary General and Justice Minister Pendukeni Ivula-Ithana, who is Oshiwambo-speaking.
The Sun newspaper reports that the president is very disturbed and had KK summoned to the State House to explain, a meeting attended by Prime Minister Nahas Angula, Deputy Prime Minsiter Marco Hausiku, Vice President, Dr Hage Geingob, SWAPO’s Secretary General, Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, and her Deputy, Nangolo Mbumba. So far KK’s fate remains unknown, but apparently the meeting brought up raw feelings among the State House participants as Hage Geingob spoke his mind in an attempt to desperately save his chief surrogate, but also to make it clear that he is not happy with the way he is being treated by the party.
This is not KK’s first transgression. A few months before this latest incident, he hurled racial insults at a white reporter who asked him about the repatriation mission, which he led, for the return of Hereros’ and Namas’ skulls (victims of German genocide in Namibia) from Germany. Many Namibians cheered him for standing up against a white person- a “Boer” for that matter. It is the follow-up questioning to this previous incident that made him go ballistic; when asked whether he (KK) acted more as a Herero than a Minister during the skull repatriation mission, KK physically threaten the journalist and confiscated his voice recorder (which he described in military language as a captured enemy tool). True to military fashion, KK (through his lawyers) had the voice recorder erased by an expert outside Namibia.
If we are to believe KK’s own words that the president never reprimanded him when he insulted a white reporter before this latest incident, then the pertinent question here is, why is president Pohamba apparently bothered now? One assumption is that the President and some in the leadership of the ruling party SWAPO are reading KK’s outburst within the context of his support for Hage Geingob and his call for a non-Oshiwambo president, which they obviously view as tribalism.
Of course, Hage Geingob is Namibia’s former Prime Minister, who was removed from his position and relegated to a junior ministerial post by the founding President Sam Nujoma in a cabinet reshuffle in 2002. Instead of taking up his new junior ministerial position, Geingob packed his bags for a self-imposed exile in the U.S., where he worked for a Washington-based Africa think tank group. After his brief stay in the U.S., Hage Geingob returned to Namibia and made nice with his comrades. They reciprocated by giving him the position of Vice President of the SWAPO party. In the SWAPO party tradition, a VP position is a one horse race position to become the party’s nominee for the country’s number one position. As a VP of the ruling party, for a moment, Hage Geingob’s ambition to be the next president of Namibia was a sure thing, because whoever is the SWAPO party candidate would likely eventually win the national presidential election, since the ruling party currently enjoys overwhelming electoral support in the country. But some cliques in the party had a different plan and started to challenge the SWAPO party principle, which allows an automatic nomination of a VP as the sole presidential candidate without contest. Instead, they pitched for the Justice Minister Pendukeni Ithana, who so far seems to enjoy widespread support within the party, especially among the majority Oshiwambo-speaking members.
Public reaction to KK’s outburst is mixed, but his seeming frustration about Namibia being a fortified “Owambo administration” is tapping into the feelings of those who think that it is time for the ruling party to nominate a non-Oshiwambo president. Triggered by KK, the Namibian reports that SWANU president and member of Parliament Usutuaije Maamberua plans to ask Prime Minister Nahas Angula, “[how] it is that about 80 per cent or more of most heads of Government offices, ministries and agencies are from the same ethnic group.” True, twenty-one years into the country’s independence, Namibia’s government, especially key and strategic positions, is largely dominated by the ethnic Oshiwambo-speaking Namibians at all levels of the government. In all honesty, it is not the policy of the SWAPO government to staff the government with a single ethnic group, but the ruling party’s heavy reliance on its exiled cadres (when it comes to appointment of ministers, permanent secretaries, diplomats, members of parliament, and boards of directors) has resulted in the unintended consequence of having most ministers and other key government positions staffed from the Oshiwambo-speaking group (the dominant ethnic group in the ruling party and the country). This unfortunate reality can be partly attributed to the SWAPO leadership structure (whether the youth league, the pioneer movement, elders’ council, women’s council, Plan or SWAPO Politburo) in exile, which predominately (and still very much so today) consisted of members of the Oshiwambo-speaking ethnic group. Both the founding president Nujoma and the incumbent president Pohamba, with all good intent, tried to diversify their cabinets by bringing in people from other ethnic groups, but this process is happening at a trickle-down pace.
As usual, the President, Prime Minister Nahas Angula, and the speaker of the Parliament Theo-Ben Gurirab reportedly seized this opportunity to rally Namibians behind the country’s policy of “one Namibia-one nation,” urging and reminding Namibians to learn from other countries such as Rwanda, Angola, the DRC and so forth. Obviously (and rightly so), they see ethnicity and regionalism as barriers to Namibia’s policy of reconciliation and national unity. The blindside, however, is that they seem to be missing the opportunity to revisit the country’s diversity policy, including the way government appointments are handled. In other words, the answer is not the symbolism of reconciliation and unity, but concrete social mechanisms to use Namibia’s ethnic and racial diversity- their hopes, expectations and inspirations- in order to explain what it means to be a Namibian, including managing expectations, fighting corruption and nepotism, and self-enrichment schemes that are so rampant in the government. It’s called managing expectations in a cultural diverse society!