The Namibian (Windhoek)

11 January 2013

Namibia: Another Test for President Pohamba

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Déjà vu! Another leadership test for President Pohamba has emerged; stirring up yet another public debate about Namibia's simmering ethnic tensions. The details are still sketchy, but the latest ethnic and racial outburst reportedly stems from words of the deputy minister of mines and energy, Willem Isaack. Perhaps, the alleged New Year's Day ethnic slur against Namibian police officers at Berseba during a /Hai/Khaua Traditional Authority meeting may bring him a criminal record.

Media reports suggest that Isaack has denied the accusation, but his alleged outburst follows that of another Swapo member and former Youth and Sport Minister Kazenambo Kazenambo (KK) who reportedly also called his fellow ministers "stupid Owambos" with a "Boer mentality" in an interview with Insight magazine's Tileni Mongudhi.

Like Isaack, KK has disputed the reports. But according to Mongudhi's version, KK physically threatened him and confiscated his voice recorder, which the firebrand former minister described in a military language as a captured "enemy tool." Some attributed his outburst to frustrations over perceived marginalisation and neglect of other ethnic groups by the Oshiwambo-dominated Swapo government.

It is also important to note that the same KK was also involved in another racial spat with a journalist who asked him about the repatriation mission he led for the return of the Herero and Nama skulls (victims of German genocide in Namibia) from Germany. Many Namibians cheered him for his courage and fearlessness in challenging a white person. Yet if KK was the one on the receiving end of this insult from a white person, I am sure the entire Namibia would have gone ballistic about white racism.

What transpired between KK and the President behind the doors is not clear. But public speculation indicates that the President was displeased. What we know is that President Pohamba did not fire KK immediately after the incident took place. It goes without saying however, that there is a high probability that the axing of KK from his cabinet during his reshuffle last year has something to do with this.

If confirmed that Isaack indeed used a tribal tirade against the police, we can only speculate what the President will do. It is only the President who has the power to hire, reprimand and fire a cabinet member. However, from the divisiveness during the Swapo presidential succession campaign, KK's "stupid Owambo" remarks to Isaack's "I don't care about the Owambo government," President Pohamba's leadership and his ability to unite his party and the country have been called into question.

The irony here is that when Pohamba was elected as the second president of the republic, the public saw in him that rare characteristic - the ability to bring people together - because of his calm and collected demeanour. A question has to be asked: Why does, in contrast to the founding President, it seem that there are too many loose cannons in his cabinet and Swapo?

Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating a 'yes-man' mentality here. Quite to the contrary, I am all for critical and independent cadres who are not afraid to question and raise issues critical to the economic and political needs of Namibia. For that I say stay the course! But if one goes to the extreme of using ethnicity or race to score political points, that indeed is a new low for the Namibian diversity and democracy.

Most important, racial or ethnic xenophobia is not necessarily a new phenomenon in Namibia and it is everywhere: On Facebook, shebeens, trade unions, in the corridors of our institutions of higher learning, soccer fields, government offices, and the private sector. What is new is that this type of mentality is actually coming from cabinet members and politicians in the ruling party.

It is true that perception is not always a reality but the knowledge that President Pohamba's administration is viewed by some as an Owambo administration should give any President sleepless nights. Equally, this should also be of concern to every citizen.

Therefore, it is not enough for President Pohamba to fire or reprimand the culprits. Instead the President must rein in this issue by engaging and taking a lead in addressing this very perception head-on before it becomes an ugly reality. He should seize this moment to educate and remind the nation that the principle of unity in diversity still remains the driving force behind the Republic of Namibia. And that the dream of one Namibia, one nation still endures.

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