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From Nujoma to Geingob: 25 years of presidential democracy

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Namibia’s first 25 years of independence were characterized politically by a democratic regime influenced by the presidential governance of Sam Nujoma (1990– 2005) and Hifikepunye Pohamba (2005–2015). With Hage Geingob, sworn in on Independence Day 2015, the third (and probably last) of the first ‘struggle generation’ entered the highest state office on behalf of Swapo, the former liberation movement now in firm political control. This article takes stock of Namibia’s presidential democracy by summarizing the institutional and structural features contributing to the strong executive role of Namibian presidents. It assesses the terms in office of the first two Heads of State and provides insights into Geingob’s path to office and his efforts to consolidate his status. It characterizes and compares the different personalities of the Namibian presidents and their style of political rule. It ends with a preliminary outlook at what might be expected from the current president Hage Geingob.
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Journal of Namibian Studies, 18 (2015): 49 – 65 ISSN 2197-5523 (online)
Copyright © 2015 Otjivanda Presse.Essen ISSN 1863-5954 (print) ISSN 2197-5523 (online)
From Nujoma to Geingob:
25 years of presidential democracy
Henning Melber*
Abstract
Namibia’s first 25 years of independence were characterized politically by a demo-
cratic regime influenced by the presidential governance of Sam Nujoma (1990–
2005) and Hifikepunye Pohamba (2005–2015). With Hage Geingob, sworn in on
Independence Day 2015, the third (and probably last) of the first ‘struggle
generation’ entered the highest state office on behalf of Swapo, the former liberation
movement now in firm political control. This article takes stock of Namibia’s
presidential democracy by summarizing the institutional and structural features
contributing to the strong executive role of Namibian presidents. It assesses the
terms in office of the first two Heads of State and provides insights into Geingob’s
path to office and his efforts to consolidate his status. It characterizes and compares
the different personalities of the Namibian presidents and their style of political rule.
It ends with a preliminary outlook at what might be expected from the current
president Hage Geingob.
Introduction
Presidential politics have emerged as a new focus for scholarly debate, seeking to
explore further the impact and influence of presidents in democratic settings within a
multi-party environment.1 Such debate on what is also termed ‘presidentialization’ might
find a fertile ground in a Namibian case study. At the centre of interest is the impact and
negotiating space presidents have or seek vis-à-vis the political party or parties and the
manoeuvring space utilized and applied.2
* Henning Melber has been the Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU) in
Windhoek (1992–2000), Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute (2000–2006) and Executive
Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation (2006–2012), both in Uppsala. He is a Senior Advisor to
both institutions, Extraordinary Professor at the Department of Political Sciences/University of Pretoria and
the Centre for Africa Studies/University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, and a Senior Research Fellow at
the Institute of Commonwealth Studies/School of Advanced Study at the University of London. E-mail:
Henning.Melber@dhf.uu.se
1 See as examples Gianluca Passarelli, (ed.),
The Presidentialization of Political Parties. Organizations,
Institutions and Leaders,
Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; Ludger Helms, (ed.),
Comparative Political
Leadership
, Basingstoke, Palgarave Macmillan, 2012.
2 See Paul Chaisty, Nic Cheeseman and Timothy Power, Chaisty, “Rethinking the ‘presidentialism debate’:
conceptualizing coalition politics in cross-regional perspective”,
Democratization
, 21 (1), 2014: 72-94.
50
While Namibia has a presidential democracy, it is, however, to some extent an empirically
different case from most others in this category. Sam Nujoma, the first President of the
Republic of Namibia, was elected prior to independence by the members of the
Constituent Assembly and sworn in on Independence Day on 21 March 1990. Since
November 1994 general elections for both the National Assembly and the President
have taken place every five years in separate but parallel polls. But at times one
wonders if the emphasis is on the presidency or on democracy, given the far-reaching
powers vested in the office of the Head of State and given the fact that he is backed by
an overwhelming parliamentary majority. His authority as President, nominated by his
party (the former liberation movement SWAPO), is even more widely anchored and
accepted than the hegemony of the political organization he represents. Presidential
election results have confirmed this: the party’s presidential candidates garnered more
votes than the party at every parallel election for parliament and president. Notably,
there was a marked increase in the difference at the last elections.
Table 1. Election results for party and president 1994–2014
1994 1999 2004 2009 2014
Swapo 73.89% 76.15% 75.83% 75.27% 80.01%
Nujoma 74.46% 76.85% – – –
Pohamba – – 76.44% 76.42%
Geingob – – – – 86.73%
As this shows, the three presidents elected by popular vote reached office almost
uncontested, despite several other parties and candidates seeking electoral support.
Securing their position therefore depends less on appealing to the electorate than on
the inner-party constellation and support base. This contributes to making Namibia a
case of ‘democratic authoritarianism’, which stresses the hitherto decisive relevance of
the hegemonic party, while at the same time confirming the large authority vested in the
head of state as the party representative.3
The party’s 2014 election campaign under the motto
The Legacy Continues
portrayed
all three leaders with the sub-heading ‘Consolidating Peace, Stability, Prosperity’,
associating Nujoma with peace, Pohamba with stability and Geingob with prosperity (see
fig. 1). Such personified equation is more than a construct of spin-doctors. It resonates
with the view of the majority of Namibians who have a high degree of confidence and
trust in the office holder. An Afrobarometer survey showed the following exceptional
3 Henning Melber, “Post-liberation Democratic Authoritarianism: The Case of Namibia”,
Politikon – South
African Journal of Political Studies
, 42 (1), 2015: 45-66.
51
approval rates for trust and performance: Nujoma 76% and 78%, Pohamba 81% and
88%, and Geingob 79% and 89%.4
This article summarizes the role and influence of the three leaders as ‘big men’ whose
rule was or is based on a democratic legitimacy.5 It explores the extent to which
personalities matter and the degree to which they had to apply political strategies for
inner-party support, especially in the case of the latest office holder, who was nominated
by the party after an internal campaign and contest, which for the first time was a
relatively open process with unpredictable outcome.
Fig. 1. The legacy continues.
This picture was taken at the launch of the Swapo election manifesto, 8 September 2014 and
shows the Swapo Party’s presidential candidate, Hage Geingob (right), together with his pre-
decessors Sam Nujoma and Hifikipunye Pohamba. In the run-up to the presidential elections,
pictures such as this were published in the
New Era
and the
Namibian Sun
. This particular one was
retrieved from Hage Geingob’s official Swapo Party Facebook page (photographer unknown).6
4 Institute for Public Policy Research / Afrobarometer, 28 October 2014,
News Release: Trust, approval
ratings high for Namibia’s president and prime minister following a long trend
, Windhoek, Institute for Public
Policy Research, 2014. The approval rates for Nujoma were based on results of a survey from 2002,
Geingob’s rates were for his position as Prime Minister.
5 Oda van Cranenburgh, “‘Big Men’ Rule: Presidential Power, Regime Type and Democracy in 30 African
Countries”,
Democratization
, 15 (5), 2008: 952-973.
6
New Era
, “SWAPO moots free tertiary education”, 8 September 2014, <https://www.newera.com.na/
2014/09/08/swapo-moots-free-tertiary-education/0> [accessed 14 October 2015];
Namibian Sun
,
52
Namibia’s presidential democracy
When the Constituent Assembly drafted the normative framework for the sovereign state
to come, SWAPO advocated a strong presidential democracy. Members of other parties
expressed preferences for a strong parliament and cabinet instead. At the end, a
compromise secured far-reaching powers for the president, but also some control
function for the parliament, based on the assumption that the latter’s plural nature
would allow for a certain watchdog role vis-à-vis the president’s party. Given Swapo’s
hegemonic status, with a two-thirds majority in parliament ever since the 1994 elections,
this has proved more wishful thinking than political reality.
Evidence for this was the first constitutional change in 1998, when Swapo with its two-
third majority in parliament modified the two-term clause for presidents. The party
created a
lex Nujoma
: as Sam Nujoma was not directly elected by the people the first
time round but appointed by the Constitutional Assembly, he was allowed to stand for
re-election by popular vote for another (third) term. This was adopted against the votes
and abstentions of all other Members of Parliament. However, one must also say that,
with this exception, Namibian presidents have thus far never tampered with term limits
and, in contrast to counterparts in neighbouring states, have been willing to hand over
power.
The authority and competence of the Head of State is defined in chapter 5 of the
constitution (articles 27 ff.). Although there is a prime minister, the president also has
the ultimate authority over the cabinet, whose members are appointed and dismissed at
his sole personal discretion. He is in supreme command of the army and decides over
appointments in all security organs and the Judicial Service Commission. The president
can also single-handedly declare a state of emergency or war. Parliamentary control
could, in principle, be executed if a majority supports a motion of no-confidence in
ministers; while the president, according to article 57, can also dissolve parliament. This,
however, implies that the president must also face elections again.
In contrast to the constitutional ideal, the political reality is that much depends on the
composition of parliament and the power of the parties when it comes to the influence of
the president. After all, the president could also be ousted from office by a two-thirds-
majority in parliament. Given the
de facto
one party system prevailing, with Swapo
holding 80% of the mandates, this remains theory. Thus, it is mainly at the discretion of
the president and the party as to how much they obey democratic rules. The only
obstruction for the Head of State could therefore come from within his own party ranks.
This seems highly unlikely, since many of the Members of Parliament, who are supposed
to exercise control over the cabinet, are also appointed either Ministers or Deputy
Ministers by the president.7 While they are supposed to have a controlling function, they
“SWAPO launches election battle plan”, 8 September 2014, <http://www.namibiansun.com/politics/swapo-
launches-election-battle-plan.70959> [accessed 13 October 2015].
7 See Henning Melber, “People, Party, Politics and Parliament: Government and Governance in Namibia”, in:
Mohamed Salih, (ed.),
African Parliaments: Governance and Government
, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan,
2005: 142-161.
53
normally take the floor in parliamentary debates as spokespersons of the party or the
president, to whom they owe ultimate loyalty. This lack of limitations renders the current
President of Namibia virtually omnipotent. The only restricting factors are party-internal
power relations and factions. Therefore, under the current constellation the real election
of the Head of State takes place within the party and follows the party line. Since 2007,
this has ultimately been decided by vote of the 400 plus delegates at the party
congresses held every five years. These are the decisive moments when the party
president and the deputy president – and thereby the party’s presidential candidate –
are elected.
The era of Nujoma
An anything but modest claim was characteristic for the leadership style of the country’s
first Head of State. As the ‘Founding Father of the Namibian Nation’ (the official title
bestowed upon him by parliament when leaving office in 2005), he had a generous
understanding of his competences and power and acted accordingly. Transparency and
accountability were not among his strengths.
When in November 1993 the then Minister of Agriculture left a cabinet meeting after a
dispute with the president over disciplinary action against a senior official in his ministry,
the minister’s actions were equated with resignation and his dismissal came the next
day. In August 1998, the president made use of his authority as commander of the
Namibian army to dispatch soldiers to rescue his friend, Laurent Desiré Kabila, under
siege in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Neither the cabinet nor the prime
minister were consulted or informed in advance. In early August 1999 the president
proclaimed the first state of emergency in response to the failed secessionist attempt in
the so-called Caprivi Strip.8
These and other examples – such as sporadic outbursts during official speeches and
anything but diplomatic rhetoric – testified to the particular leadership profile and
qualities of someone at the helm of a liberation movement for three decades before
moving into state office. He was the personification of the patriarch, responsible for the
family called Swapo and Namibia. Such understanding is also documented in his
autobiography, the title of which flagged his assumption that failure is not possible.9
8 See Henning Melber, “One Namibia, One Nation? The Caprivi as a contested territory”,
Journal of
Contemporary African Studies,
27 (4), 2009: 463-481.
9 Sam Nujoma,
Where Others Wavered. The Autobiography of Sam Nujoma,
London, Panaf, 2001. For
critical analyses of this patriotic history and heroic narrative par excellence see especially Christopher
Saunders, “Liberation and Democracy: A Critical Reading of Sam Nujoma’s Autobiography”, in: Henning
Melber, (ed.),
Re-examining Liberation in Namibia: Political Culture Since Independence,
Uppsala, Nordic
Africa Institute 2003, 87-98; idem, “History and the armed struggle. From anti-colonial propaganda to
‘patriotic history’?”, in: Henning Melber, (ed.),
Transitions in Namibia: Which Changes for Whom?,
Uppsala,
Nordic Africa Institute, 2007, 13-28.; and André du Pisani, “Memory Politics in ‘Where Others Wavered: The
Autobiography of Sam Nujoma. My Life in SWAPO and my Participation in the Liberation Struggle of
Namibia’”,
Journal of Namibian Studies
, 1, 2007: 97-107.
54
Nujoma, the autocratic personality and father figure, identified with others from a similar
milieu, not least Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.10 His desire for a heroic
narrative, including the celebration of his personal role, entered Namibia’s popular
culture and public space not only in the form of a costly Hollywood film of his life, which
was in terms of both art and commerce a disaster for the local film industry. The
personal cult during his reign and beyond was manifested in several monuments. The
gigantic Unknown Soldier dominating the Heroes Acre outside Windhoek which was
inaugurated in 2002 resembles Nujoma. The statue’s base reinforces the message with
a quote from Nujoma in his handwriting and with his signature.
On Heroes Day (26 August) 2013, an over-sized Nujoma statue was also inaugurated at
the memorial site in Omgulumbashe in the northern Namibia, where on 26 August 1966
the first military encounter between SWAPO and the South African army took place.
Nujoma attended the ceremony as a guest of honour, dressed in a military uniform.
There is also a Nujoma statue in front of the Independence Museum in Windhoek,
opened on Independence Day 2014, this time dressed in civilian clothing and armed
with the constitution. In honour of Nujoma, born on 12 May 1929, the Swapo Youth
League established the ‘12th May Movement’ in 2012, with the aim (so far in vain) of
having the day declared a national holiday.
There is hardly any town which does not have a main street name after him; Namibian
bank notes carry his portrait; and his picture is still hanging in all public offices. The
insignia of a personality cult are at the same time a manifestation of his widely accepted
authoritative role, both in the liberation struggle and in independent Namibia. Criticising
Nujoma is tantamount to blasphemy, though clandestine critical remarks about the ‘old
man’ are heard even within the party, where his continuing role is at times considered
an anachronism or a hindrance to other factional interests. In his late 80s, Nujoma has
access to all party meetings and is still considered a figure whose word has some
weight, although his influence on party politics seems to be waning gradually.
Despite all reservations concerning the
leader maximo
habitus and style, Nujoma can
indeed claim to have used his paternalistic, if not patronizing, authority for promoting
national reconciliation during the initial years of independence – at least with regard to
the interaction of the former colonized with the white minority and the political
opposition. During his second term in office, “reconciliation took a back seat, and a
certain authoritarian tone emerged”.11 His third and last term was dominated by
projects cultivating heroic narratives on a grand scale, at times bordering on
10 See on this mutual admiration and affinity beyond Nujoma Henning Melber, “In the Footsteps of Robert
Gabriel Mugabe: Namibian Solidarity With Mugabe’s Populism – Bogus Anti-imperialism in Practice”, in:
Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gathseni, (ed.),
Mugabeism? History, Politics and Power in Zimbabwe,
London, Palgrave
MacMillan, 2015: 107-120.
11 Bill Lindeke, “Presidential Power and Performance in Namibia: The first quarter Century”, in:
Celebrating
25 Years of Democratic Elections, 1989–2014
, Supplement of the Namibia Media Holdings on 23
December 2014 to the newspapers
Republikein
,
Namibian Sun
and
Allgemeine Zeitung
, 2014: 19-20 (19).
Bill Lindeke since then lost his fight against cancer. I dedicate this article to his memory.
55
megalomania in combination with manifestations anchoring his eternal legacy in the
public sphere.
At the same time one must concede, however, that Nujoma ultimately resisted the
temptation to ‘do a Mugabe’. While not being immune to such temptation, he was still
willing and able to put the collective interest above his individual wishes. When
confronted with the insight that any effort to remain in power beyond the third term
would risk harming the party over the contested issue, he was ultimately willing and able
to put the party and the country above his personal ambitions.12 While credit is due to
the Founding Father, it also due to other party leaders’ unwillingness to surrender
leadership for a lifetime to the party’s founding figure, if only because some of them still
cultivated ambitions to replace him as Head of State.
The era of Pohamba
While Nujoma was willing to vacate the bridge of the Namibian ship, he was determined
not to surrender power over the decision as to who should succeed him. His declared
crown prince was his decades-long confidante, Hifikepunye Pohamba. Born in 1935,
Pohamba served as Swapo’s Secretary for Finance, mainly in charge of infrastructure for
the movement’s civilian exile camps in Zambia and Angola, and the main contact on the
ground for those providing material support for the struggle. As an administrator
respected for his integrity and loyalty, he was a trusted low-key ally of Nujoma from the
early ‘struggle days’. Serving as a minister with different portfolios since independence,
his terms in office were remarkable for their lack of noteworthiness.
Despite the blessing of the ‘old man’, as Nujoma is fondly and respectfully referred to, a
fierce battle over his succession took place. Upon the initiative of Nujoma, Pohamba was
appointed uncontested at the congress in August 2002 to serve as the party’s deputy
president. But it was only in 2004 that Nujoma finally confirmed that he would definitely
leave office at the end of his term. A subsequent extraordinary party congress had to
elect a presidential candidate from three contenders, and Nujoma’s still decisive
influence ensured that his preferred candidate was sailed through, though the waters
were rougher than anticipated.13 The collateral damage included not only the dismissal
of the main rival Hidipo Hamutenya from his office as foreign minister, but a much wider
McCarthy-like vendetta against all those suspected of being opposed to the president’s
choice. The fall-out ultimately led to the founding of a new opposition party, Rally for
Democracy and Progress (RDP), by Hamutenya and other like-minded politicians,
12 See Henning Melber, “‘Presidential indispensability’ in Namibia: moving out of office but staying in
power?”, in: Roger Southall and Henning Melber, (eds.),
Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and former
Presidents in African Politics,
Cape Town, HSRC Press and Uppsala, The Nordic Africa Institute, 2006, 98-
119 (104–108).
13 See Melber, “Indispensability”.
56
including other long-serving party officials in higher ranks from the first ‘struggle
generation’.14
Against expectations Pohamba, who was reportedly reluctant to accept the new role,
managed to develop his own leadership style once in office. But not much of that style
suggested any specific leadership qualities. Far more moderate and modest in tone and
behaviour than his predecessor, Pohamba personified the humble servant of the people
for most of his two terms in office, seeking to heal the political rifts, some of which were
a result of his nomination, and building bridges to other parts of the Namibian community.
Guided by a strong Christian faith and, like his predecessor, rather conservative in his
moral values and lifestyle, he had a ‘man of the people’ appeal. In his personality, he
was more of a ‘father of the nation’ than the more autocratic and patriarchal Nujoma.
But Pohamba’s kind of father figure soon showed wear and tear. He was too lenient and
lacked the drive to bring about reform and fight corruption and graft, goals he announced
when taking office. Following his establishment of the Anti-Corruption Commission,
spectacular misappropriation of public funds either increased noticeably or became
more known, while those prosecuted and punished were mostly small fry rather than big
fish. While Pohamba’s personal integrity was largely undisputed, he disappointed those
who had welcomed his promise not to compromise in the fight against corruption.
Not least due to his shyness and unwillingness to enter into conflicts, there were few
spectacular developments during his decade in office. This was both a source for
comfort and discomfort. The ambiguity of Pohamba’s presidency was that too little too
late (if anything at all) took place in terms of reforms, and that the malpractices which
had become widespread in the upper echelons of administration and politics continued
unabated.
Pohamba’s presidency illustrated vividly that populist rhetoric is no substitute for action.
The State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered in 2012 serves as a striking example.
During the course of its delivery, Pohamba announced a Public Finance Reform
Programme and, as an integral part of it, revisions to the Public Procurement
Regulations. He promised “that these measures are implemented without delay”. He
also reinforced his “determination to fight corruption” and reiterated that this fight
“must be waged without fear or favour”. He would therefore “direct the Ministry of
Justice to expedite the tabling of a strong and comprehensive legislation on the pro-
tection of whistle blowers”. He tasked the National Planning Commission to finalize
without any delay the National Human Resources Plan and ordered “that the cleaning of
public buildings and their surroundings be improved without delay”. Before ending, he
14 The career of Hamutenya outside of the party was however mixed and short-lived. While the RDP
emerged as the official opposition in the parliamentary elections of 2009, it became almost irrelevant with
the election results in 2014. Under pressure, Hamutenya surrendered the party presidency – and returned
to the Swapo family under Geingob’s presidency in August 2015.
57
stressed twice that words and policies “must be turned into practical actions in order to
make a difference”.15
These almost imploring appeals contrasted with the realities, and documented weakness
rather than strength. The lack of leadership contrasting with this SONA was bemoaned
by the former editor of the popular independent daily
The Namibian
, who in her weekly
column suggested “that the former President should never have coerced Pohamba into
accepting the offer of the Presidency, because he has been a reluctant participant from
the outset”. According to her, he is a man,
who to all intents and purposes, has good and decent attributes and the best of
intentions […] Had this been accompanied by a resolve to ensure he would
not leave his office without having brought about some fundamental improve-
ments in the lives of the people, President Pohamba would most definitely have
passed muster. As things stand right now, he is the President who should never
have been.16
The impression of a toothless tiger (or rather, in the African context, a clawless lion) was
reinforced shortly afterwards when 11 out of the 24 Permanent Secretaries were re-
placed on 1 June 2012. The president had already ordered such a reshuffle a year
earlier. When massive mismanagement in the health system and other sectors was being
discussed at a cabinet meeting held towards the end of May 2012, he lost his usual
patience. Visibly enraged with Prime Minister Nahas Angula, he reportedly interrupted
the debate saying: “I wonder who is in charge of the government if I gave instructions
and a year later we have to sit with the same problem that was not addressed”.17 As
rhetorical as such a question was supposed to be, it would have been beyond
imagination that his predecessor would have posed it.
During his last months in office Pohamba increasingly displayed the features of an
impatient and angry man, contrasting with his image as a father seeking to accom-
modate differences and diversities. He articulated increasingly radical views, especially
on the unresolved land issue, seemingly unaware that he himself had been responsible
for land matters as a minister. This led a weekly newspaper close to the party to publish
a scathing editorial entitled “our lame duck president”, suggesting that
no one will take the outgoing president seriously when he starts screaming
about lazy and incompetent officials when under his watch during the last ten
years, a number of incompetent ministers kept their jobs. To some degree,
incompetence has been the hallmark of his presidency. […] It is time for
Pohamba to fade away.18
As a direct comparison between the first two Namibian presidents shows, personality
structures do make a difference, given that both held the same position and powers with
similar support from the electorate and the party. Pohamba never managed to obtain as
15 Republic of Namibia,
State of the Nation Address 2012 by His Excellency Hifikepunye Pohamba, President
of the Republic of Namibia
, Windhoek, 25 April 2012 (2, 4, 8, 9 and 13f).
16 Gwen Lister, “Political Perspective”,
The Namibian
, 27 April 2012.
17 Jan Poolman, “Reshuffle to ‘stimulate’ PSes”,
The Namibian,
30 May 2012.
18 Windhoek Observer, “Our lame duck president”,
Windhoek Observer
, 12 December 2014.
58
much authority and omnipresence as his predecessor. Even when he emerged from
Nujoma’s shadow he was not high-profile. While he occupied the moral high ground for
most of his time in office, he initiated no meaningful corrective measures. As Lindeke
observed:
Until recently, when he became more of a scold, his leadership style was more
grandfatherly (moral leadership) than interventionist, activist. In such a
scenario, the Cabinet becomes empowered (for good or otherwise), but bad
behaviour also creeps in and corruption or incompetence becomes frozen and
protected.19
Given the critical assessments, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s announcement on 2 March
2015 of the awarding of the 2014 Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership
to the outgoing Namibian Head of State came rather unexpectedly. With this recognition
Pohamba left office on a high note, praised by a proud Namibian public for such an
outstanding achievement. But a much more somber conclusion seems justified:
As Africa’s fourth Ibrahim Prize laureate retires […] his moderation should be
regarded as a two-edged sword. Namibia is marginally more free today than it
was ten years ago, with political dissent more readily tolerated, minorities less
frequently demonised, government pressure on independent media outlets
diminished, and intra-SWAPO squabbles more skillfully resolved. But Pohamba’s
caution, conservatism, and lack of dynamism have also combined to ensure that
President Geingob faces almost as many developmental challenges in 2015 as
his predecessor did in 2005.20
Geingob’s presidency
In contrast to his predecessors, Hage Geingob has the highest formal education; during
the ‘struggle days’ he was almost exclusively engaged in the spheres of diplomacy and
training. He studied at the US-American Temple University (1964–65), did a BA at
Fordham University (1965–1970) and an MA in political science at the New School of
Social Research in New York. He finally obtained a PhD at the University of Leeds in
2004.21 In 1972 he began working for the United Nations Council for Namibia in New
York, before being appointed director of the United Nations Institute for Namibia in
Lusaka in 1975, a high-ranking international civil service position. In mid-1989, he
returned to Namibia to manage SWAPO’s campaign in the elections supervised by the
United Nations. He then chaired the elected Constituent Assembly and became the
country’s first Prime Minister.
19 Lindeke, “Power”: 20.
20 Ian Cooper, “Namibia and President Pohamba’s Legacy”, guest post at
Presidential Power. Presidents
and Presidential Politics Around the World
, posted on 26 March 2015 at
<http://presidential-power.com/
?p=3053> [accessed 10 October 2015].
21 His supervisor was the late Lionel Cliffe. Part of his thesis (entitled
State formation in Namibia: promoting
democracy and good governance
) was published locally in a booklet as Hage Geingob,
Drafting of Namibia’s
Constitution,
Windhoek, Trustco, 2006.
59
Widely considered a potential candidate for the highest political office, he fell out with
Nujoma in 2002. While he had earlier orchestrated the ‘third-term-campaign’, it is
assumed that he refused to be instrumental in promoting Nujoma’s ‘president for life’
agenda. After being removed from his post as Prime Minister, he turned his back on
Namibian politics and joined the World Bank’s Global Coalition for Africa as executive
director in Washington (2003/4). He returned to local politics as a Swapo-MP when
voted onto the party list as number 40, and re-entered parliament as a backbencher in
March 2005. The party congress in 2007 elected him party vice president, which was
the ultimate rehabilitation. President Pohamba finally appointed him Minister for Trade
and Industry in 2008, during which he became popular for his determined negotiations
with the European Union over an Economic Partnership Agreement, advocating a
‘Namibia first’ approach.22
The 5th post-independence ordinary Swapo Congress took place from 29 November to
2 December 2012. President Pohamba, like his predecessor before him, had already
declared that he would remain party president, which was accepted unopposed. Given
that his second term as Head of State ended in March 2015, the party’s elected deputy
president automatically became the next presidential candidate. Hage Geingob stood for
(re-)election as party deputy president against the party’s Secretary-General (and
Minister for Justice) Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, and the Secretary for Information and
Publicity (and Minister of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Develop-
ment) Jerry Ekandjo. Ithana was the first female candidate seeking to become Head of
State; Geingob was the first candidate not to hail from the Northern Namibian
Oshivambo-speaking regions, but with roots in the Damara community; and Ekandjo was
the first candidate not to have been in exile. He had been a local activist (and political
prisoner on Robben Island). The result was clearer than expected: Hage Geingob
secured an absolute majority of 312 votes in the first round, ahead of Jerry Ekandjo
(220) and Pendukeni Ithana (64). Geingob supporters were also elected into the other
relevant positions.23 In a cabinet reshuffle of 4 December 2012, Geingob was reinstated
as Prime Minister. Since then, with the active support of Pohamba, ‘Team Hage’ has
consolidated continuously its position in the party and managed to further entrench its
network.
On 21 August 2014, the Swapo parliamentary majority adopted far-reaching constitu-
tional amendments, tabled on 29 July 2014.24 The controversial procedure ignored the
demand for proper prior nation-wide consultation and strong objections by other
parties. A civil society alliance articulated the fear that “several of the proposed changes
22 See Henning Melber,
Understanding Namibia. The Trials of Independence,
London, Hurst, 2014: 137-
141.
23 Selma Shipanga and Shinovene Immanuel, “Moderates prevail”,
The Namibian
, 3 December 2012.
24 Republic of Namibia,
Motivation of the Namibian Constitution Third Amendment Bill, 2014 in the National
Assembly, July 29, 2014, by Honorable Dr. Albert Kawana, MP, Minister of Presidential Affairs & Attorney-
General; and Republic of Namibia, National Assembly, Namibian Constitution Third Amendment Bill (as read
a first time)
, B.9 – 2014.
60
appear to be an attempt to further centralize power and therefore undermine
democracy”.25 The 40 amendments included an increase in the number of seats in the
National Assembly by one-third from 72 to 96 as of the legislative period 2015–2020. A
similar expansion was decided on for the National Council, based on the now 14
(originally 13) regions of the country. The appointment of regional governors by the
Head of State was also introduced as a constitutional clause. President Pohamba had
already made such appointments, guided by a previously adopted law. This was in
violation of the original constitutional clause which foresaw the election of governors by
the elected members of the regional councils. The amendments also introduced the
office of a vice president (as with all others in government, appointed by the president
alone), consolidated presidential control over state affairs, and thereby added further
power to an already strong executive president. Thus, with the legislative period
commencing in 2015, Namibia’s de facto one-party democracy moved even closer to a
one-person democracy, depending upon the degree to which the office holder was
willing to use (or abuse) those increased presidential powers. As was observed, “the
badly managed Third Constitutional Amendment process also presents a worrisome
potential of abuse in the two-thirds majority”.26
Notwithstanding such tendencies, Afrobarometer results released just ahead of the
national elections suggested that the approval ratings for both the President and the
Prime Minister were over 80%, among the highest of all countries surveyed since
1999.27 But despite such a comforting point of departure, there are indications that
Geingob, for all his overall popularity and approval ratings, has ascended to the
presidency with the most fragile inner-party support base of the three presidents to
date. His road to the highest position in the state was the result of a complicated
(though smart) co-optation strategy, one that was dependent upon there being no
obstructions from his predecessors. But it also made it necessary to keep them
contented, and not just the ex-presidents but also his former rivals, who both continue
to have influence among the party ranks. An indirect confirmation of this vulnerability
could be seen in the establishment of a Presidential Council (PC), announced at a media
conference on 2 February 2015. It is composed of Geingob and his two predecessors,
the previous prime ministers and their deputies. As Geingob declared with special
reference to Nujoma and Pohamba, this was important for:
[c]amaraderie, consultation and the continuity of government policy. It is rare
that you find a situation like that in Africa. Honestly, that situation is unique to
Namibia. These two icons and stalwarts of the struggle, Nujoma and Hifikepunye
Pohamba, have 15 and 10 years of governance experience between them
respectively, and will be engaged in advisory roles on the Presidential Council.28
25 NANGOF Trust,
Media Statement
, Windhoek, 30 July 2014. NANGOF is the acronym for Namibia Non-
Governmental Organisations Forum.
26 Lindeke, “Power”: 20.
27 Institute for Public Policy Research,
News Release: Trust, approval ratings high for Namibia’s president
and prime minister following a long trend
”, Windhoek, 28 October 2014.
28
Elvis
Muraranganda, “Hage brings back Nujoma”,
Namibian Sun
, 3 February 2015.
61
Observers wondered if this was a strategic move to eliminate any unwanted interference
by confining his predecessors to a limited role in such a body, or if it was a sign that
they were still too influential for him to be ignore. Whichever way, it can be seen as a
confirmation that the new government will continue to recognise the old guard. This was
reinforced with the appointment of Nickey Iyambo as Namibia’s first vice president. He
had served for the previous 25 years in all cabinets, holding six different portfolios, and
is the oldest within the first struggle generation still holding office.
The composition of the new cabinet as announced on 19 March 2015 can be seen as
further recognition of the need to unify party factions. The expansion of the second-tier
level of deputy ministers from 19 to 32 in particular was most likely undertaken to
promote inclusivity. Added to the 28 cabinet members, this brought the size of top
government officials to almost 60% of all MPs. It is an unplanned challenge for future
state budgets with an estimated annual increase of expenditure of NAD 15 million
(30%) to NAD 65 million, compared with costs under the Pohamba administration.29
New drama was then added by the surprise resignation of party president Pohamba.
Amidst controversies over procedure and a reportedly tense atmosphere, he handed
over the party reigns to Geingob at the Swapo central committee meeting on 18 April
2015, well ahead of the scheduled elections at the next party congress in 2017.30 For
the time being, Geingob continues to act as deputy president. His plan to appoint a
close confidante to this position was rejected by members of the party, who saw this
transfer of power as a kind of inner-party coup d’état, providing Geingob with a very
early pole position for re-election.
Seemingly confident in his new role, Geingob’s position might not be as strong as he
would make believe. While both his predecessors did not block his way to the highest
office, they seem to be quite unimpressed with his lifestyle, as he is known to be fond of
la dolce vita
.31 But he is also an intellectual strategist who knows his trade. Widely
considered a technocrat, he entered office with a new metaphor for the ‘Namibian
house’, thereby deliberately reaching out beyond the party to embrace all Namibians. As
he stated in his inaugural address:
I take this oath on behalf of all Namibians and promise to serve all Namibians
without exception. No Namibian must feel left out. […] All of us must play our
part in the success of this beautiful house we call Namibia. We need to renew it
from time to time by undergoing renovations and extensions. […] Let us stand
together in building this new Namibian house in which no Namibian will feel left
out.32
29 Jo-Maré Duddy and Estelle de Bruyn, “Geingob-span kan dúúr wees”,
Die Republikein
, 23 March 2015.
30 Tileni Mongudhi, T “Geingob takes charge of Swapo”,
The Namibian
, 20 April 2015.
31 Being a divorced bachelor, he re-married only on Valentine’s Day 2015 as President elect.
32 Republic of Namibia,
Inaugural Address by His Excellency Dr Hage G. Geingob, President of the Republic
of Namibia at the 25th Independence Day Celebration and Swearing In of the 3rd President of the Republic
of Namibia,
Independence Stadium Windhoek, March 21, 2015: 3, 7 and 8.
62
His measured speech was free of most of the customary heroic pathos. This new sound
was reinforced by a much-applauded SONA, considered the best ever held in parliament.
The speech was indeed carefully crafted and remarkable in several ways, not least
because Swapo did not feature as the almighty party. Instead, repeated reference was
again made to the ‘Namibian house’ as a strong and appealing metaphor.33 But on
closer inspection the question arises: to what extent is this house constructed on firm
and sustainable foundations; and is it truly a house for all Namibians?
Geingob is also wont to indulge in his predecessors’ bogus anti-imperialist antics. To
what extent these two sides of his politics complement each other or are merely applied
according to circumstance without indicating his true convictions is difficult to assess. In
the past, on various occasions during election campaigns, his tirades against political
opponents have bordered on incitement to hatred. He has also displayed a tendency to
dismiss internal social and political protest as remote controlled efforts for regime
change, almost as if they were part of a neo-imperialist conspiracy. He engaged in such
antics at the summit of the African Union held in Johannesburg on 14 June 2015.
Surprisingly, Geingob decided not to hold his prepared speech, but simply introduced
himself as the new President of Namibia, while also declaring that Robert Mugabe is his
‘idol’.34 It is fitting that on the same occasion he decided to invite Winnie Madikizela-
Mandela to Namibia in honour of her role in the struggle.35 In addition, while the
indictment of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir dominated the headlines, Geingob had
already dismissed the role of the International Criminal Court in Kenyan affairs:
no institution or country can dictate to Africans, who and by whom they should
be governed. The International Criminal Court (ICC) must therefore stay out of
Kenya’s domestic affairs.
Some are saying that we are the ones who created the ICC. However, when one
creates something to be an asset but later on it becomes an abomination, you
have the right to quit it since it has ceased serving its intended purpose.36
Such ‘pragmatism’ in relation to values that were adopted as international law and
ratified in treaties by Namibia (and thereby also embraced as domestic law) is worrying.
Comparing and contrasting the variety of faces Geingob has already displayed makes it
difficult to predict the substance of his governance. It requires more time to properly
determine what is show and what is genuine in his presidency.
33 Republic of Namibia,
State of the Nation Address 2015 by His Excellency Dr. Hage G. Geingob, President
of the Republic of Namibia,
Windhoek, 21 April 2015.
34 Jo-Maré Duddy and Catherine Sasman, “Geingob kies stilte op Afrika-verhoog”,
Die Republikein
, 15 June
2015.
35 Elivs Muraranganda, “Hage to honour Madikizela-Mandela”,
Namibian Sun
, 26 June 2015. According to
the report, which is based on a confirmation from sources at the State House, ”it is not yet clear whether
the veteran politician will receive a house or a street named after her”.
36 Republic of Namibia,
Statement by His Excellency Dr Hage G. Geingob, President of the Republic of
Namibia, to the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government
, 14 June 2015, Johannesburg,
South Africa, 5.
63
Namibia’s presidents
The three presidents to date all came from the first generation of the anti-colonial
liberation struggle. If the biological clock now ticking should allow a fourth member of
this group to enter office, then this will only happen after Geingob’s current term ends. It
is however unlikely that Geingob’s ambitions are limited to a one-term-presidency. His
political priorities appear to include ensuring a second term, and retaining the Swapo
presidency beyond the next party congress. As Swapo enjoys political hegemony the
decision as to who will be the country’s Head of State is a purely party internal one.
Whoever is appointed their presidential candidate will be elected. Thus support within
the party is more important than popularity among the wider general electorate. Support
among the ordinary voters does not impact this decision-making process. Up to now
support within the party has not been based on any candidates’ political programmes,
but rather on their skills in building personal alliances. As a consequence, Namibia’s
presidents, despite their far-reaching powers, have not been guided primarily by a
subject-related compass which puts general policy matters at the centre of their
strategy. Instead, handling the party and its factions has continued to top the agenda.
The announcement that Cabinet had adopted the 2014 Swapo electoral manifesto with
immediate effect as the document directing all state institutions and agencies as well as
state-owned enterprises in their strategic plans37 illustrates, despite all executive
powers, the limits on the authority of any president in Namibia. But as shown, person-
alities make a difference. A strong president means State House’s influence on policy-
making will be considerable, provided the president has the will and ability to steer the
boat. Geingob’s first 100 days suggest that he is of such calibre. But the exact
coordinates of his compass remain unclear as does the course of that boat.
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