Namibia's tribal powder keg

By Catherine Sasmann | February 23rd, 2012
Namibia's tribal powder keg

The ripples caused by the ‘tribalist’ remarks made by a Namibian Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister are spreading – a clear sign that, despite the usual calm surface, Namibia has not yet come to terms with its ethnically divisive past.

It was the Minister of Youth, National Service, Sport and Culture, Kazenambo Kazenambo, who caused the latest waves when he reportedly went berserk during an interview with journalist Tileni Mongudhi.

According to Mongudhi, the interview started out on a cordial note but “got ugly” when Kazenambo became “confrontational and abusive”. The tone apparently changed when Mongudhi pressed the minister for a comment about perceptions that he had been seen as “more of a Herero than a national representative” when he led a delegation to Germany to bring back the remains of genocide victims from the German-Herero/Nama war of 1904–08.

Kazenambo, a Herero speaker, reportedly lashed out at Mongudhi, an Oshivambo speaker, accusing him of being part of an “Ovambo conspiracy”, calling him a “stupid, unqualified, inexperienced Ovambo journalist” and accusing him of having been sent by “stupid Ovambo ministers” to ask “provocative questions”.

For good measure, the minister allegedly added that Owambos think the country belongs to them and ranted that “you Owambos are just like the Boers – worse because you are hungry and stupid.” Before storming out of the interview room, Kazenambo grabbed Mongudhi's tape recorder and reportedly concluded, “You people just can't take the fact that the next president will be a non-Ovambo.”

In early 2010, Kazenambo had ignited a similar controversy when he remarked that the next SWAPO presidential candidate – and therefore the next President of Namibia – should not be an Oshivambo speaker, presumably in support of the Damara speaking Minister of Trade and Industry Hage Geingob.

Many fellow ruling party members felt his comment was uncalled for as it suggested that SWAPO has tribalist issues to resolve. And subsequently President Hifikepunye Pohamba attempted to put a lid on all internal discussions about the presidential succession, which will come up at the party's congress later in the year, arguing that it had a divisive effect within the party.

As for Kazenambo's latest diatribe, some critics have called for his head to roll and rumours have it that SWAPO has ‘dealt with him’ internally. But none of the party leaders, including President Pohamba, have commented publicly on the controversy so far. And that is how it should be claims the Executive Director of the human rights watchdog, Namrights, Phil ya Nangoloh, who ‘strongly’ advised against any disciplinary measures against Kazenambo for his racist attack on ethnic Ovambos.

Ya Nangoloh argued that Pohamba did not publicly reprimand Kazenambo when he launched a racial attack against a white Afrikaans-speaking journalist, Jan Poolman, late last year for reporting that his trip to Germany had gone over the budget. Ya Nangoloh said a public reprimand would thus be perceived as a defence of the Owambos – the ethnic group to which Pohamba belongs – to the exclusion of other groups. “This might inflame more racial hatred,” cautioned ya Nangoloh.

At the opening of Parliament on February 14, Pohamba asked MPs to provide exemplary leadership and to inspire compliance with the letter and spirit of the Namibian constitution, which subscribes to a non-racial society.

The next day, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Theo-Ben Gurirab, in bolder form, addressed growing regionalism and tribalism. He said, “I am of the view that Namibia's body politic is slowly but surely entering a slippery terrain, which is encouraging disunity and regionalism spurned by tribalism and nepotism of the old-fashioned kind. That's very dangerous for nation building, political tolerance and mutual respect of public officials at all levels.”

He urged MPs to adhere to SWAPO’s constitution that calls for the elimination of ‘retrogressive tendencies of tribalism, ethnicity, nepotism, racism, sexism, chauvinism, regionalism, personality cult’ and so forth.

But the opposition SWANU MP Usutuije Maamberua, a Herero speaker, claimed that the situation in the country was far from the non-tribal ideal espoused by the constitutions of the country and its ruling party. In a submission to Parliament, Maamberua asked the Prime Minister why “about 80 per cent or more” of the heads of many government ministries, offices, and agencies are from the same ethnic group – the Oshiwambos – or from the northern part of Namibia. He wanted to know how government intends to correct the imbalance “before the perception is created that in Namibia ethnicity and/or regionalism is practised.”

To illustrate his point, Maamberua listed the following: the chiefs of the defence force, police, intelligence, the Windhoek City Police, the air force, navy, prisons and correctional services are from the same ethnic group – and so are the Ministers of Safety and Security, and Home Affairs. In the judiciary, he also highlighted the Prosecutor General, the Judge President of the High Court (Damara-speaking but technically also from the northern regions of the country), the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General.

And his list went on – the Auditor General, the director of the Anti-Corruption Commission, the chairperson of the Public Service Commission, the Prime Minister, deputy Prime Minister, the Permanent Secretary within the Office of the Prime Minister, the Secretary to Cabinet, the President and his secretary, and head of the State-owned Governing Council. And there are more.

Meanwhile, on February 23, minority indigenous groups – the Himba and Zemba in the northern Kunene and Omusati regions – submitted three separate declarations to the Office of the Prime Minister in which they accuse the government of systematic denial of their rights of self-determination and the right to choose their own representatives. These declarations were submitted to the United Nations the following day.

The Zemba tribe said the government has denied them recognition as a distinct tribe since the 1990s, and claimed that the ruling party, which is dominated by the Oshivambo group, “played a very cruel, unfair game” with them.

While many find the growing debate around regionalism and tribalism a threat to Namibia's claim to stability and peace, others think it is an important one – however uncomfortable and inconvenient it might be – and that it is critical not to continue to sweep these issues under the carpet.

McHenry Venaani of the DTA of Namibia feels that the “tribal issue” in Namibia is not openly discussed, even though genuine tribal antagonisms and arguments over tribal entitlements do exist, and suggested that the country needs an open and mature debate on the matter.

Without that, he warned, the tribal powder key will remain one match away from exploding. 

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