Home | About Us | News Feeds RSS | Subscribe | Support Us | User Login | Search

Southern Africa Report Archive

President Nujoma proposes to run for an unconstitutional 3rd term; what is to stop him? There is a movement called Congress of Democrats, the latest manifestation of an encouraging mobilization of democratic demands in Namibian politics. (jds/jk)

vol 15 no 1

The Congress of Democrats
Paul Kalenga

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 15 No 1, December 1999
Page 25



Paul Kalenga is a Namibian who is a researcher with the Development Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town. His major interest is in the field of regional integration issues in southern Africa.

On November 30 and December 1, Namibians will go to the polling stations to elect their State President and Members of the 72-seat National Assembly. These will be the country's third democratic presidential and general elections since the end of South Africa's colonial rule in 1990.

The current president, Sam Nujoma, received 74 percent votes in the presidential ballot of the last elections in December 1994. The Democratic Turnhale Alliance (DTA), led by former president Mishake Muyongo, polled 23 percent. (Muyongo now lives in exile and led the Caprivi secessionist uprising a few months ago.) In the same general elections, Nujoma's Swapo won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, accounting for 53 seats. This time, however, Swapo is not at all certain that it will keep its electoral dominance, particularly its two-thirds majority. It will have to contend with a new party - the Congress of Democrats (CoD) - headed by ex-Swapo combatant and trade unionist Ben Ulenga [for background, see "The Ulenga Moment: SWAPO and Dissent," SAR, Vol. 14, No. 1 (December 1998)].

In the period since the formation of the CoD, Swapo has intensified its campaign to discredit CoD's activists, and in particular, Ulenga. The CoD has alleged that their activists have been monitored and intimidated by state security intelligence agents. Their telephones are being tapped, they claim, and the party's activities continue to be severely censored by government media institutions, including the national radio and television stations.

The party, nonetheless, is reported to have made significant in-roads in areas in the far northern parts of the country that are Swapo's traditional strongholds. This has provoked a smear campaign by Swapo supporters and acts of intimidation against CoD supporters. Jerry Ekandjo, the country's home affairs minister (who is a notorious demagogue, also famous for his homophobic utterances), has openly accused Ben Ulenga and his supporters of being "spies" and "traitors." He suggested that the CoD "want[s] to bring back a white government like that of the [colonial] Boers during the liberation struggle."

Sources of dissent

The ruling party's fear of the new party was also demonstrated during the recent separatist plot in the Caprivi. A South African newspaper, Die Beeld, carried an article linking the CoD leader to the Caprivi secession uprising. The reporter cited "highly-placed" sources in the Namibian Government. In reaction to the allegations, Ulenga said that CoD did not support the dismemberment of any part of Namibia. He attributed the Caprivi problems to the "failure of government of the day to create a vision and a Namibian dream which all communities in their rich diversity can buy into."

Generally, the majority of the 110,000 Caprivians consider themselves to be part of Namibia. Due to the perception that the Swapo government has not shown interest in the development of the region, a few have become victims of Muyongo's personal ambition for political power.

The resignation of Ulenga from Swapo and the subsequent formation of the CoD can be explained by the failure of Swapo to transform itself from a secretive and exiled armed nationalist movement to a mass-based governing party. As a movement in exile, Swapo operated in a very centralized and clandestine fashion, and did not encourage democratic participation among its rank and file. A culture of unquestioning loyalty to its leadership was nurtured. Those that questioned some of its practices were labelled "enemy agents" and some ended up in detention.

As a ruling party after independence, Swapo failed to transform its hierarchy and decision making channels to suit the new circumstances. Some of its former activists, particularly those who were not in exile, continued to privately express their disillusionment with the way the party operated. The space to constructively differ within the ruling party without being victimized, however, was very limited.

In the 1994 general elections, Swapo obtained a two-thirds parliamentary majority. This was accompanied by a growing centralization of political power in the hands of president Nujoma. A recent editorial put it bluntly: "just as the continent is taking its first tentative steps towards an African renaissance, Namibian President Sam Nujoma's unfettered power is increasingly pushing him in the direction of despotism" [Sunday Times, October 24, 1999]. Confronted with a shrinking economy unable to generate jobs, growing dissent from unemployed ex-People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) combatants and displeasure over the slow pace of land reform and unfair land management practices, Nujoma has tended to copy the tactics of his old ally and good friend, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. To distract citizens' attention from burning national issues, he has lashed out at the media, the interfering judiciary, importunate donors, whites and foreigners in public speeches.

Arbitrary rule

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this arbitrary rule was the decision to amend the constitution to allow Nujoma to run for a third presidential term. The amendment provoked a public outcry. Even party activists had anticipated that the issue would be discussed at the Swapo Extraordinary Congress that took place on 27 and 28 August, 1998, but they learned just before the convention that the issue had apparently already been approved at the earlier full congress. To some concerned Namibians, this was a clear sign of the ruling party's abuse of power. In the words of Ulenga, the country's constitution had been "re-tailored like a dress to fit the expanding aspirations of individuals."

Then came the president's decision to deploy Namibian troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to prop up the Kabila regime without consulting the appropriate authorities. Judging from their public denials, it seems that even Cabinet members were not consulted before the deployment of the troops. Nujoma has not offered a clear explanation of the country's involvement in the DRC war to date beyond citing pan-African solidarity.

The public was outraged that human lives would be lost in a war that offered no benefit to the nation. Already, this has happened. In addition, critics argued that the country's coffers could not afford to foot the bill for a foreign war when such resources were needed to deal with high unemployment, rising crime and the sluggish economy that has fuelled public debt. When western donors started to question the logic of the pro-Kabila intervention, president Nujoma, like his Zimbabwean counterpart, lashed out at "these foolish Europeans," labelling them "white imperialists who want to control the country, take out its riches while the Congolese people live in poverty." [ The Namibian, September 21, 1998].

The cost of the pro-Kabila military intervention has started to bite. Government postponed tabling additional budget figures before the elections. Political observers warn that high military spending dominates the budget, which may cause a public outcry and cost the ruling party some votes. According to media reports, the Cabinet has approved an additional budget for 19992000, with an additional $173 million (Namibian) earmarked for the military. This amount represents almost 50 percent of the total additional budget. Most of this is expenditure for the DRC war. Despite reports that hospitals and clinics have shortages of basic drugs, the health ministry's request for more money to buy medicines was rejected.

Launch of the CoD

When Ulenga resigned as High Commissioner to the United Kingdom last August and subsequently from Swapo, he was welcomed by those who believed that a new political vehicle was needed to take Namibia out of widespread disillusionment. At the launch of the party in March of this year, Ulenga pointed to a gloomy situation in Namibia, characterized by socio-economic hardship, a stagnant economy, a dysfunctional education system, marginalized communities and bogged down policies of nation building and poverty alleviation. He remarked that by the look of things, corruption, self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement apparently had become virtues while democratic accountability had turned into a vice.

Ulenga's followers had only three months to mobilize. On July 30, more than 400 delegates from all over the country, representing a diverse spectrum of Namibian society, gathered in Windhoek for their party's inaugural congress. In his opening speech, Ulenga told excited delegates that the Government had failed to perform in key areas of education, health, the economy and combating of crime. He attributed this failure to corruption, noting that government leaders continued to heap perks upon themselves and spend limited resources on expensive luxurious planes and cars. He said that it was time to save the nation from another five years of Swapo's mismanagement and plunder.

Although Swapo is unlikely to be ousted in the upcoming elections, it is clear that Namibia's political landscape will not be the same again. Already, the most influential leader of the Swapo Youth League and Deputy Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Ignatius Shixuameni, has quit the ruling party. Like Ulenga, he cited a lack of inner-party democracy, a lack of vision and a rising tendency towards self-enrichment and intolerance of criticism as main reasons for his resignation. Shixuameni is number three on the CoD's electoral list and is likely to regain his seat in the next parliament, albeit this time on the side of the new opposition.

Meanwhile, Nujoma is taking serious steps to win over influential critics in order to keep his two-thirds majority. Gabes Shihepo, former president of the Namibia National Farmers' Union, has replaced Shixuameni as Deputy Minister of Information and Broadcasting. Just two weeks before his appointment, he had led a protest march of nearly 800 farmers to State House to register black farmers' discontent with the failed land reform policy. He claimed that farmers had waited patiently for eight years and had become tired of being ignored. Now, Shihepo is a deputy minister and occupies a favourable position on the ruling party's parliamentary list. Analysts regard this move as a strategy aimed at silencing him and containing popular discontent against the ruling party at this critical late hour.

Efforts by the ruling party, through its weekly paper Namibia Today, to link Ulenga and Shixuameni to some form of corruption have as yet failed to discredit them. In fact, Shixuameni has become the first Namibian politician to declare his interests publicly. He challenged Swapo leaders to also come clean by declaring their economic and financial assets and share-holding. He also called for Swapo leaders to disclose their offshore accounts, property dealings, dual citizenship and foreign passports.

After December

The battle between Swapo and the CoD is intensifying daily. Whatever the outcome of these elections, the new party is bound to play a positive role in strengthening democracy and good governance in Namibia. The party has received tremendous support from the country's youth and students and the intelligentsia across tribal and racial lines. The CoD is also succeeding in reaching out to the country's enlightened white community. Its challenge is to reach out to the rural masses whose loyalty to Swapo is traditionally stronger. In any case, judging by the delegates to its inaugural congress and composition of its leadership, the CoD stands to be a formidable force in the process of nation building.

The CoD wants to revitalize the economy, create new businesses and job opportunities, intensify rural agricultural development, encourage development in all regions, overhaul the education system and provide proper care for the elderly, the sick and the very young. It has committed itself to fight against corruption, self-enrichment and nepotism. In this regard, it advocates establishing an independent anti-corruption agency that will be granted all necessary powers to initiate and pursue investigations of corruption. The CoD plans to reform the public service by cutting the size of Cabinet to a maximum fifteen ministers. (At present, this small country has approximately fifty ministers, deputy ministers, ministers-without-portfolios and Directors-General at the Cabinet level. This makes the Namibian Cabinet one of the largest in Africa, if one takes account of the size of the population - 1.7 million).

Seven parties are expected to contest for 72 seats in the National Assembly, which are allocated on the basis of proportional representation. About 850,000 voters have registered for the polls. Although it is widely believed that Swapo will again win a majority, the CoD is expected to put a halt to their two-thirds majority. Considering what Swapo's overwhelming majority has meant to the country since the last elections, the realignment will be a victory for democracy in this fragile nation.

- 30 -
Printable Version

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.

     top of page