Foreign Policy Blogs

The Caprivi Secession Attempt: Is It a Failure of Namibia’s Nation-building Project?

Reflecting on the unresolved Caprivi secession case, an old Namibian acquaintance has this to say: “From a constitutional point of view, justice is being denied. The suspects shouldn’t be in custody for such a long time if they cannot be prosecuted. I think the government is afraid of lawsuits, so it is better to keep them in custody until all of them die so that they won’t continue with the trial.”

A scenario in which all those accused in the Caprivi Secession attempt die without a trial is disastrous if not catastrophic for Namibia’s reputation. But my friend’s observation is a typical textbook case of the “justice delayed is justice denied” stuff. In this context, justice is discussed in two ways: Justice is being denied to the suspects who want to challenge their detention to prove guilt or innocence, and justice is being denied to the victims and their families who are seeking legal redress for what they have suffered.

It seems apparent that the rights of these defendants have been violated at every stage of the way in the criminal justice system process, ranging from claims of torture, non-adherence to minimum standards of detention/imprisonment, the use of evidence obtained under duress, the absence of a guarantee for a fair hearing, and the lack of a presumption of innocence until proven guilty

Almost eleven years after that fateful early hour of 2 August 1999, when the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA), members of a secessionist group, attacked government forces and building installations in Katima Mulilo (a regional capital of the Caprivi region), the defendants’ cry for justice still continues. Dubbed as Namibia’s longest and largest trial in the history of the Republic, prosecution and verdict is still pending for most of the accused who are either still in jail or died in custody. To date, since the trial of 122 accused started in 2003, only ten have been convicted and sentenced to a combined 314 years of imprisonment so far. Two were acquitted. Those in custody are mostly co-accused while Mushake Muyongo, the leader of the secessionist movement, and other key ringleaders have sought political asylum in Western countries.

On the other hand, justice is being denied to the victims and their families who want closure. The victims and relatives of the 11 people killed during the secessionist attack have been anxiously waiting for justice to be done, but in spite of their frustrations the court case has been characterized by delays and postponements.

The crux of the matter is that the Namibian judicial system’s handling of this case has disappointed, created suspicions, and undermined the integrity of Namibia’s judiciary. I make this claim not because I disregard the complexity of prosecuting this case, but simply to state what is obvious. More importantly, trial is just one aspect of justice because justice is also social. In terms of social processes, the progression from trial to conviction and ultimately to sentencing is neither the beginning nor the end of justice. As it is becoming clear that the trial route has a long way to go to bring the Caprivi issue to a meaningful conclusion, it is time that Namibia must also start thinking about the political aspect of this conflict– focusing on restoring relationships violated by the secessionist

attempt. Progress would require some sort of compromise and willingness from both sides of the aisle.

Here’s the worry: Mushake Muyongo knew what he was doing. He knew that his so-called Caprivi liberation army would not match the Namibian defence force when his forces stormed Katima Mulilo (the city of burning fire) during the wee hours of August 2, 1999. His goal on that day was not to win, but instead to use the attack to mobilize support in the Caprivi region, and create international solidarity. The Namibian government fell prey to his bait, and they got hooked. The government responded heavy-handedly, indiscriminately torturing and clamping down on any Caprivian-speaking Namibian(mostly Mafwe people) sociated with Muyongo. And now the inordinate delay in bringing the remaining defendants to justice is doing exactly the same, playing into Muyongo’s hand, matching what he desired to achieve on that fateful night 0f August 2, 1999. By delaying justice, Namibia is allowing Muyungo to define the Caprivi secession.

Thus, it is important that Namibia should not allow Muyongo to define the course of this conflict. The Namibian government should address the underlying political dynamics of this issue and start seeing this issue within the context of Namibia’s reconciliation and nation-building project. I know and I am aware that this is a sensitive case to be resolved politically, taking into consideration the nature of the crime, but the conviction of the defendants will not give Namibia a lasting closure either, if no political solution is attached to this case in order to achieve a sustainable peace for Namibia.

The truth is that the Caprivi secessionist attempt can largely be attributed to Muyongo’s hungry for power, but its also rooted in the colonial legacy, which created mistrusts and distrust among Namibians.

Therefore, in the wider context, this case illustrates the failure of Namibia’s nation-building project. The achievement of political independence in March 1990 paved the way for Namibians to build a secular nationhood. Whereas colonialism and the apartheid regime of South Africa used ethnic diversity to confound and divide, the SWAPO-led government introduced the policy of national reconciliation to forge a shared Namibian identity of “one Namibia, one nation” through unity. Understandably, this distinction is important because colonialism and the national liberation struggle created mistrust and disunity among Namibians. And to give credit where it is due, symbolically, the Namibian policy of national reconciliation has played an important role in overcoming the political, racial and ethnic tensions immediately after independence.

However, just like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market which is based on the theory that the market will correct itself without any intervention from the government, the Namibian national reconciliation policy is based on a mechanical approach with no policy instrument/tool to translate it into action. The assumption underlying the Namibian policy of national reconciliation is rooted in the state-nation building notion, which in postcolonial Africa meant melting all ethnicities and polities into one national identity despite the prevalence of cultural heterogeneity. This approach not only has treated reconciliation as an end instead of a means to an end, but also has fixed meanings, and has frozen discussions about national identity. Thus in a society with a deep history of division, reconciliation needs to be substantial and multidimensional by managing expectations and diversity, which is lacking from Namibia’s reconciliation and nation building process.

The bottom line: Namibia must try something new and show some initiative by experimenting with political diplomacy, which means that Namibia has to show some courage to tackle the Caprivi issue head-on.



Ndumba J. Kamwanyah

Ndumba Jonnah Kamwanyah, a native of Namibia in Southern Africa, is an independent consultant providing trusted advice and capacity building through training, research, and social impact analysis to customers around the world. Mos recently Ndumba returned from a consulting assignment in Liberia in support of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
In his recent previous life Ndumba taught (as an Adjunct Professor) traditional justice and indigenous African political institutions in sub-Saharan Africa at the Rhode Island College-Anthropology Department.

He is very passionate about democracy development and peace-building, and considers himself as a street researcher interested in the politics of everyday life.
Twitter: NdumbaKamwanyah