Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The rules of the Namibian road

Namibia had a bad case of protocol blues overnight. The local Police force had to determine who had right of way when two VIP motorcades were on an apparent collision course. In the end, they ordered the motorcade of Namibia's current President Hifikepunye Pohamba to pull over in order to give way to his predecessor, Sam Nujoma. Pohamba's vehicles were forced to join a queue of other cars and wait as Namibia's founding president passed by. Police are blaming the clash on a surprise visit of Pohamba to the northern town of Oshakati. Both Pohamba and Nujoma are members of SWAPO, the South West African People's Organisation. SWAPO won 75.1% of about 977,400 registered voters in a population of 1.82 million and 55 out of 78 seats in the most recent election in 2004.

SWAPO had its base among the Ovambo people of northern Namibia. Sam Nujoma became the first President of SWAPO in 1960. In its previous incarnation Namibia was known South West Africa. It was a German colony until the end of World War I. South Africa then ruled it as a League of Nations mandate territory for the British until the end of World War II. After that war, South Africa repeatedly refused to turn the country into a UN trusteeship, or recognise that the UN had a legitimate interest in the region. By the 1960s, SWAPO emerged as the liberation organisation for the Namibian people co-opting groups from other parts of the country.

SWAPO launched a war of independence that lasted twenty years. They were a guerrilla group with Marxist leanings. In 1977 the Western members of the Security Council began negotiations aimed at bringing about the implementation of UN Resolution 435, providing for supervised elections. Progress was very slow, but in 1988, South Africa and Cuba agreed to withdraw their troops from Angola as an essential preparatory step before a Namibia settlement, which quickly followed.

SWAPO has been the dominant political party since independence. Sam Nujoma was quickly elected as Namibia's first President. Nujoma changed the constitution so he could run for a third term in 1999. Finally he stood aside in 2004 and was replaced as the SWAPO presidential candidate by his "hand-picked successor" Hifikepunye Pohamba. Those in Namibia hoping for a generation shift in the leadership were disappointed by this outcome. Nujoma, then 75, was barely six years older than Pohamba.

Hifikepunye Pohamba
has been a member of SWAPO for 45 years. He spent much of his youth in African prisons. He was arrested in Namibia for political activity before fleeing to Rhodesia. There he was quickly deported. He then spent another four months in prison in Namibia before spending two years in Ovamboland under house arrest. After he left prison, he went to Luanda to set up Swapo's Angolan office

Angola was a refuge for SWAPO during the South African era. The organisation was headquartered in Angola’s capital Luanda and directed camps in the south from which its militants could infiltrate into Namibia in small units. In 1978, South African forces made their first raid into Angola, attacking SWAPO's main camp at Cassinga. The Lusaka Accord of 1984 provided for a cease-fire as well as South African withdrawal. SWAPO were relocated to monitored camps north of a neutral zone along the Namibian border. South Africa delayed their withdrawal until its own problems forced its troops to pull back.

Namibia has been a stable country since independence with steady economic growth. Traffic protocol notwithstanding, the country has mostly kept out of the news. That was until the phenomenon known as Brangelina arrived there in 2006. This was the year Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie decided to have their baby there. They stayed at the Burning Shores lodge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and enforced a no-fly zone over the resort and insisted that unwelcome journalists be banished from the country. The Namibian government claimed its decision to comply with the couple’s demands would put the country on the tourist map. Human rights activists in the country were outraged.

Their takeover has been described as ‘celebrity colonialism’. The area was sealed off with security cordons, and armed security personnel have been keeping both local residents and visiting foreigners at bay. Pitt and Jolie reportedly wanted their first child to be born in Namibia because the country is ‘the cradle of human kind’ and it would be a ‘special’ experience. The real reason is more likely to be the exclusive privacy they were able to buy and therefore enhance the price of the photographs of their child. President Pohamba was more than willing to accommodate the arrangement and his wife was happy to pose with the famous family. All the Pohambas now need to do is win over Namibia’s traffic police.

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