NAMIBIA: Struggling with the past

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Namibia laid to rest a part of its apartheid past this week, when the remains of liberation fighters discovered in mass graves in the north of the country were reburied.

The bodies of guerrillas of the now-ruling South West Africa Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) were discovered in 2005 in Eenhana, near a former base of the South African Defence Force (SADF), which occupied Namibia until independence in 1990.

Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba, accompanied by the country's founding president, Sam Nujoma, recalled how SWAPO fighters were tortured and killed, and then buried outside the camp. "The discovery of the mass graves at Eenhana bears testimony to the brutality of the apartheid South African regime," he was reported as saying.

The reburial came in the midst of controversy over a Namibian human rights group's decision to file a request at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague to investigate Nujoma over the disappearance of thousands of people during and after the liberation struggle.

Phil ya Nangoloh, executive director of the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), said he had been forced to lodge the request at the ICC after his repeated calls for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), similar to the South African model, had gone unheeded by the government.

The NSHR blames SWAPO for the alleged disappearance of 4,200 people between 1959 and 2003, many of them detained by SWAPO for being alleged South African spies.

But ya Nangoloh's allegations, which equate the human rights record of the SWAPO leadership with the apartheid military, have triggered fury in the party. SWAPO Chief Whip Johnny Hakaye tabled a motion in the Namibian parliament last week to examine the legal status of the NSHR.

South African atrocities committed during the liberation war are well documented. The South African TRC, set up by former president Nelson Mandela to probe apartheid era abuses, found the SADF and Koevoet, a counter-insurgency police unit, guilty of gross human rights abuse in Namibia.

The Namibian government has consistently rejected calls for a local TRC process. Information minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah told IRIN in 2006 that at independence in 1990, SWAPO had signed an agreement with the then apartheid South African government not to take legal action against individuals for their role during the liberation war.

Ya Nangoloh insists that the TRC would be non-partisan. "As we have persistently done during the last 15 years, we reiterate our call for the establishment of a TRC to investigate all human rights violations committed in opposition to Namibian independence, and in the name of achieving such independence."

Call to regulate media

Meanwhile, the parliamentary motion on the NSHR has antagonised the Namibian media. SWAPO chief whip Hakaye also called for a body to regulate the media, which had reported ya Nangoloh's calls.

"When I came across the many writings of ya Nangoloh, mostly in the ... Windhoek Observer [a weekly newspaper], I said to myself, 'this is too much, uncalled for and unwarranted. Don't we have a law in this country to regulate these - both the human rights body, the Windhoek Observer, The Namibian, and the likes?'" Hakaye was quoted as saying in The Namibian, a daily newspaper.

Mathew Haikali, director of the Namibian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, a watchdog body, has hit back. "We have submitted a letter complaining to the government. We have been told that the motion has been referred to a standing committee. We will strongly oppose any attempts to regulate the media."

According to media reports, SWAPO officials have also indirectly served notice on the NSHR's donors, which include Nordic countries. "If the NSHR and its sponsors dare touch our national and historical treasure in the person of Nujoma, the time bomb will explode," Elijah Ngurare, a spokesman for the SWAPO Party Youth League, was quoted as saying earlier this month.

A spokesman for Finland's embassy in the capital, Windhoek, told IRIN that it funded the NSHR for the "purpose of monitoring and reporting human rights violations, [and] training on human rights issues, as an expression of support for a strong civil society, freedom of expression and for an open debate about human rights issues in Namibia."

However, this "does not mean that the embassy endorses or supports all comments made by the organisation [NSHR]; we feel the Namibian people should own the Namibian debate, and our work supports the principles of humans rights in general."

Source: IRIN
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