How (not) to deal with genocide

In mid-2015, a spokesperson for Germany’s foreign ministry acknowledged that the warfare by colonial troops in South West Africa — modern-day Namibia — between 1904 and 1908 resulted in genocide

It was an overdue but unique admission.

Called the German-Namibian War by the descendants of the Ovaherero and Nama, the peoples killed for resisting German rule, the extermination strategy (which also affected the Damara and San) had lasting demographic and socioeconomic impacts, and left festering wounds.

Namibian independence in 1990 did not close the colonial chapter. Its legacy remains part of the present, not least in the ownership of land by white (often German-speaking) farmers, and a privileged German-speaking minority determined to protect its wealth. 

Reconciliation was misunderstood as a transfer of political power to the former liberation movement Swapo while maintaining the socioeconomic status quo, under which a new black elite joined the old white elite in one of the world’s most unequal societies.

Following Germany’s official acknowledgement, government-appointed special envoys began negotiations in late 2015. But major agencies of the Ovaherero and Nama tribes were denied the degree of participation they had expected. Their reference to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007 with the vote of both states, bore no fruit. This framework entitles indigenous people to full participation in any affairs affecting them.

Without adequate representation, relevant agencies of the Ovaherero and Nama from Namibia and in the diaspora took the German government to a New York court. Their case was rejected in 2019, and the appeal finally dismissed in May this year —just days before the special envoys paraphrased an agreement in Berlin after nine rounds of negotiations. 

While the German admission was a significant first step by a former colonial power, it carefully avoided any far-reaching precedents. The term “genocide” was accepted only in moral and political terms, designed to avoid legal implications. Reparations were categorically dismissed. 

As a “gesture of recognition”, Germany agreed to pay €1.1-billion over 30 years to existing aid programmes.

German foreign aid in the 31 years since Namibian independence amounts to roughly the same figure.

The fund will go to development projects — land reform, water supply, and so on — in seven of the 14 Namibian regions where Ovaherero and Nama residents form ethnic minorities.

But there is considerable opposition to the size of the fund and how it is to be disbursed. As Ian Khama, the former president of Botswana, stressed, descendants in the diaspora, including the thousands in neighbouring countries, are excluded from the fund.

For many, the fixed amount, declared as the nonnegotiable final sum, adds insult to injury. To put it into perspective: German private donations and official humanitarian aid in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami come to an equivalent figure. 

And while some €50-million has been earmarked for a foundation to promote German-Namibian reconciliation, including cultural projects and youth exchange programmes, it is painfully insufficient.

Germany has spent more money when it wanted to. The Central Berlin Holocaust memorial was constructed for €28-million on a property worth €40-million; another €60-million was set aside as annual maintenance costs for the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Castle. The museum, which displays many cultural artefacts looted during Germany’s colonial days, is a €700-million monument to imperialism.

While seeking to justify the agreement, Namibian Vice-President Nangolo Mbumba and Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila were clearly frustrated over the limitations of the deal. A first debate in the National Assembly erupted in turmoil. 

The ratification of the agreement between the two foreign ministers, planned for June in Windhoek, has been postponed. The Covid-19 pandemic spiralling locally out of control has added to the disruption of the schedule. 

Once signed, the German president is supposed to ask for an apology to be accepted in the Namibian parliament. But the majority of the descendants are not represented there. 

Among the victims have been the Ovaherero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro, the most vocal critic of the negotiations, and Namibia’s special envoy Dr Zed Ngavirue.

Opposition parties have already signalled that the solemn act might be disrupted. 

It clearly takes more to heal colonial wounds and promote reconciliation than the largely symbolic, piecemeal compromise agreed to.

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Henning Melber
Guest Author

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