NAMIBIA is supposed to be a multi-party system but for the past 22 years, since independence, the country has been ruled by one party – Swapo. A few years ago I argued that Namibia was a one dominant party system.
But reflecting on that question now, the country has now assumed all the hallmarks of one party system, regular multi-party elections notwithstanding. De jure the country is a multi-party system but de facto it is a one party state.
The point is that the existence of multiplicity of organisations, whether civic or political, doesn’t necessarily guarantee democracy. This can only happen when that multiplicity is able to organise autonomously and impinge directly on the exercise of state power in order to effect the course of state policies.
In definitional terms, a one party system is usually decreed by the rulers so that no other parties can exist or operate legally. In the heydays immediately after the first wave of independence this was justified on the ground that a one party state was best placed to promote unity and development. But after end of the Cold War multi-party elections became the in-thing in a good part of Africa.
But looking at the reality of contemporary African politics there is basically a thin line between one dominant party state and a one party state. What distinguishes our system from, say that of Botswana, is that in Botswana there is a sense of national unity and thus consensus on many issues that confront their country unlike the divisive politics that characterised our society even to the extent of fighting over minor issues like who should become a patron of such and such a school, for example.
Thus the focus on the electoral process alone in a given country, especially in the African context, and the existence of multiplicity of political parties thus doesn’t exhaust the notion of democracy. We are basically talking about democracy in the formalistic terms but not in its substantive dimension.
The pointers of a one party state are many. The most important in our case is the total fusion of the Executive with the Legislature arms of government. This so because Cabinet minister are at the same time members of Parliament which means decisions taken in the Cabinet Chamber are hundred per cent sure to sail through the Swapo dominated National Assembly and National Council. Maybe this is not a fault of Swapo per se but of those who drew up the country’s constitution. Although one can still argue that since Swapo was in the majority during drawing up of the constitution they might have designed it that way in order to suit their own political interests. People now talk of Namibian ‘Cabinetocracy’ instead o of ‘Democracy’ – the system of checks and balances has been jettisoned.
The other problematic issue, another characteristic of one party states, is the use of state facilities and resources for party political purposes especially during elections campaigns when ministers suddenly see the need to travel to the regions ostensibly on government duties using state vehicles and facilities.
Mention should be made of the state funds that were used to print a glossy Swapo documents as a government report to its congress in 2007. But the most controversial issue is a minister using a Presidential jet for his personal campaign purposes. Well we are told the Minister of Trade and Industry, Hage Geingob, will pay for the use of the Jet. The question is can, say, Hidipo Hamutenya of the RDP or Katuutire Kaura of the DTA, use the Presidential jet if they are able to pay for it?
The other element here has been the recycling of political office bearers. The problem is that the person who becomes the president is usually drawn from the same crop of ministers and not an outsider. Thus we have ministers for life. For example, how many have heard of Barak Obama until he started running for the Democratic Party primaries?
Thus, what we have now are weak opposition parties unable to unite in order to put a formidable challenge to the ruling party and civil society groups that exist within the state created space of dominance and control. I’m sure the National Union of Namibian Workers is now biting its own bullet. The government has totally ignored the unions on the GIPF saga and the recent strikes by the teachers have shown that the unions have no political clout because they have allowed themselves to be co-opted in the jaws of the singe party.
Thus the one party state has made every effort to subordinate whatever organisations exist. Thus the party, parliament, bureaucracy, public media, military and the police have effectively been fused and put at the service of the one party state. The one (dominant) party state is usually un-responsive, complacent and in-different to human suffering. Thus Swapo has failed to effect any fundamental change on the economic front and also failed to nurture a more participatory democracy based on national consensus rather than partisan politics.