The elephant in the Namibian room

By Rear Admiral (rtd) Peter Hafeni Vilho

THE elephant in our room is tribalism and unless we address it head on we are on a slippery slope towards a national catastrophe. To be sure, tribalism which as some scholars assert “brings into play territoriality and particularism, where being tribal means belonging to a specific group and being shaped by its antagonistic relationship with the others” is as old as humanity and has always afflicted Namibia.

However, having drawn lessons from the anti-colonial wars of resistance during which the different tribes in Namibia fought the genocidal German colonisers on their own, the national liberation movement led by SWAPO sought to build a united national front in the struggle against apartheid colonialism. It is in this context that the SWAPO Department of Information and Publicity under the leadership of Prof. Peter H. Katjavivi published the seminal book on Namibian Political History titled ‘To Be Born A Nation’ (the tribe must die).

In the foreword Katjavivi says, “There is much that remains to be done – not least to close the last chapter of the liberation struggle itself. That moment, however, will only herald the beginning of a new task of national reconstruction, a new era of control over our own lives, a time when, free of imperialist domination, we can begin not only to write, but to make our own history.”

There is no question that having successfully concluded the national liberation struggle, SWAPO gallantly embarked on the very difficult task of national reconstruction. We assumed control over lives and are making our own history. It is this history and its nationalist underpinning that is now in contention by forces that are pretending to be progressive.

We made history when we as Namibians, across the breadth and length of our country, overwhelmingly elected President Hage Geingob – this was an unequivocal rejection of tribalism and an affirmation of our vision: One Namibia One Nation. In the recent elections, regions such as the four Os, the two Kavangos, Otjozondjupa, Omaheke and Khomas as well as a multitude of Namibians in the other regions remained true to this vision of One Namibia One Nation and voted for SWAPO.

Yes the elephant in our room is tribalism! There are those amongst us that could not accept the Presidency of Hage Geingob and sought out to derail it from day one. Just like the election of Barack Obama, the election of Geingob ignited nativist and tribalist sentiments amongst some of us and they set out to organise on that basis. Legitimate concerns of our people were harnessed in this project and in the short-term they seem successful. However the foundations of tribalism on which that project is built cannot be sustainable. Knowing that, we in SWAPO shall not bow our heads in shame for believing and pursuing the noble vision of One Namibia One Nation.

Geingob has served this nation from a young age – his record of service speaks for itself and needs no elaboration. Therefore just like former President Pohamba, one needs to ask our nativist compatriots – “Why not Hage?” Other than for tribalism, how else does one explain a former SWAPO youth leader referring to the offspring of the DTA (i.e. PDM) as a progressive force with whom he would seek a coalition? Geingob’s legacy will be in consolidating our nationhood. In his willingness, whatever the personal costs, to trust his fellow Namibians and seek as well secure their votes for the Presidency irrespective of their tribes he is indeed an embodiment of ‘To Be Born A Nation’. To paraphrase Mandela, Namibian nationhood is an ideal Geingob has lived for and it is an ideal he is willing to die for! Let us join him in pursuit of that noble ideal of One Namibia One Nation!

Indeed, the elephant in our room is tribalism! Alongside a tribalist campaign against Geingob’s leadership is an emerging anti-Aawambo narrative. It has even moved beyond a narrative and has become an organising principle of some of our new political formations. In that process, the Aawambo people are increasingly becoming a target of those that are hell bent on destroying a nationalist project for which many Namibians died.

For example, a question such as “why are there no councillors from other tribes in the four O regions?” is nothing but tribalist innuendo directed against the Aawambo.  We know very well the demographic peculiarities of the former Bantustans. The four Os make up the former Ovamboland which is comparable to former Kaoko, Kavango, East Caprivi, Damaraland, Hereroland, Bushmanland, Rehoboth and Namaland.

Therefore, the demographic make-up of the Ondangwa Town Council (which was the capital of the then Ovamboland) should be compared to that of Rundu, Katima Mulilo, Khorixas, Okakarara  etc. all of which were conceived as ‘capitals’ of the respective Bantustans. It is thoroughly dishonest to ignore such a painful reality because due to the lack of diversity these towns are the poorer for it.

This anti-Aawambo innuendo ignores the fact that the North has always been open to other Namibians that choose to make it a home. It is not an accident that one of the leading business people in the North today is Cde. Ben Zaaruka – an OtjiHerero speaking Namibian.  There are many other such Namibians that have made that part of our country their home too, and while they may not be prominent they have been successful in their various professional pursuits without discrimination.

The painful process of land expropriation saw the creation of so-called white areas in which towns such as Windhoek, Tsumeb, Otjiwarongo, Walvis Bay, Gobabis or Keetmanshoop were located. Henk Mudge may not know this but every black person needed a pass to live and work in these towns – we were considered sojourners who should be repatriated to our Bantustans once our services were no longer needed by the white colonial economy.

It is in this context that many Oshiwambo speaking Namibians through the pass and contract labour systems made the different parts of Namibia their home – I, for example, am a proud Katutura boy: born and bred in Windhoek! I grew up with Namibians from different language and ethnic groups and have enduring family and friendship links with them. How and why don’t I belong in Windhoek and Khomas as the neo-tribalist want us to believe?

The Namibia of Bantustans that was created by the colonisers and which some amongst us want to recreate has no place in the nation that we sought to create since independence. That is why our founding mothers and fathers in Article 21 of our Constitution asserted that, “all persons shall have the right to move freely throughout Namibia and reside and settle in any part of Namibia!”   That is an unequivocal rejection of Bantustans by a diverse group of Namibians that adopted our Constitution unanimously on 9 February 1990!

They heed the lessons of our past that, “divided we fall but united we stand!” A lesson some of us seem to have forgotten or are ignoring. Ethnic mobilisation for personal political power will destroy this nation and this cannot be allowed by peace-loving Namibians. Until my last breath – I shall pursue the ideal of One Namibia One Nation!

Peter Hafeni Vilho is the Minister of Defence and Veteran Affairs