Play it again, Sam

Three years from now, will Namibians accept an 81-year-old Sam Nujoma as their next president, possibly for the rest of his natural life, if he so chooses?

Like the proverbial 300-pound gorilla in the corner that no one wants to talk about, Sam Nujoma’s ambitions to return to the office he was forced to relinquish in 2004 because of a two-term limit are casting a shadow over Namibian politics.

In the past two years, two high-level delegations led by the ruling party’s wise men have failed to convince Nujoma to clear the deck for his hand-picked successor, President Hifikepunye Pohamba, to inherit the mantle of president of the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo).

Instead, well-placed sources say he has stubbornly resisted calls for his retirement from active politics and insisted that the Swapo congress later this year decide his future.

The problem is that Nujoma appears to have heavily influenced how the congress will decide by choosing who will attend. As a result, his tenure as president of the ruling party is unlikely to be challenged.

Nujoma’s plans to return to the presidency appear to have been set in motion as long ago as mid-2004, after the Swapo Women’s League forced him to step down as state president and his leadership in the ruling party was challenged by former trade minister Hidipo Hamutenya.

The retribution that followed was swift and brutal: Hamutenya was accused of planning a coup d’etat and he and his supporters were chased from every position of prominence in the party and the government.

Three years later, with the ruling party divided as never before, Nujoma appears to be edging closer to staging his return as the only person who could again unify Swapo.

Veteran opposition politician Norah Schimming-Chase pointed out that in order to legalise his return Nujoma has first had to ensure he controls Parliament by filling the benches with hand-picked apostles. Most members of the National Assembly and the National Council were elected to Parliament in late-2004 according to a list compiled by Nujoma, which made a mockery of democracy inside the party.

“Most of the Swapo newcomers in the back benches are pro-Nujoma,” Schimming-Chase charged. “They will do as he says, that’s what they are there for.”

Nujoma has also had to ensure that the upcoming Swapo congress returns him as party president and de facto national presidential candidate.

According to Helao Shityuwete, a former Robben Islander and member of the Swapo Elders’ Council, this is basically a fait accompli. Nujoma seized direct control of every party structure in Swapo by secretly and unilaterally declaring all by-­elections since 2004 null and void. “We demand to know from [Nujoma] who nullified these elections and why,” Shityuwete said.

Nujoma had illegally “replaced” Shityuwete and his colleagues in Khomas East area with a list of his own, hand-picked candidates. This means that the upcoming congress is going to be “a Swapo-Nujoma [congress], not a Swapo party congress,” a grim Shityuwete said.

He has reason to be grim: his appears to be the only constituency that is speaking out against being replaced.

Nujoma’s final hurdle is to win the legal challenge to overturn Article 29(3) of the Namibian Constitution, which limits presidential tenure to two terms. This should not be too difficult, however, as the push is led by Justice Minister and Attorney General Pendukeni Ithana-Iivula and Nujoma’s son Uutoni, the junior Justice Minister. Both have been campaigning to bring Nujoma back.

Pohamba, meanwhile, appears to have fallen from favour because of his anti-corruption campaign.

In May last year Nujoma eliminated from the trade unions anyone suspected of disloyalty, first ambushing the secretary general of the National Union of Namibian Workers, Peter Naholo, and then eliminating Naholo’s supporters in some of the dirtiest in-fighting yet seen among the unions.

The current union leadership, led by Evilastus Kaaronda, was elected “in a very unusual way”, said ­Herbert Jauch of the Labour Resource and Research Institute, adding that any union delegation to the upcoming Swapo congress would contain a strong pro-Nujoma faction.

Naholo’s apparent mistake was to distance himself from a statement exonerating Nujoma for the April 1 1989 fiasco in which at least 300 Swapo guerrillas were killed after Nujoma ordered Swapo’s army to enter Namibia and set up military bases. The ensuing fallout nearly destroyed the entire Namibian independence process—a fact that Nujoma seemingly did not want anyone reminded of.

In December last year, Nujoma also micro-managed the Swapo Women’s League elections by manipulating his favourite—and rumoured paramour—Petrina Haingura into position as chairperson.

According to sources who attended the congress, Nujoma allegedly achieved this by telling delegates in ­private that the incumbent, Eunice Iipnge, had been given a diplomatic posting. Iipinge’s only posting, it seemed, was to political Siberia in Swapo because of her prominent role in forcing Nujoma to step down in 2004.

Nujoma has also undermined the state apparatus in an attempt to cling to power. Most of the national intelligence services’ efforts of the past 15 years appear to have been dedicated to eliminating his opponents: mini­sters regularly complain of being spied on and having confidential documents stolen from their offices, only to find them mysteriously re-appearing in Nujoma’s hands.

By the time Article 29(3) of the Namibian Constitution forced him to step down in 2004, Nujoma had already grabbed a third presidential term, arguing that he had not been directly elected by the Namibian ­people for his first term in office. 

Nujoma’s plans for a political comeback are at least partly driven by his own fear: after 43 years of ruthless rule he “has far too many skeletons in his cupboard to sleep well”, suggested Phil ya Nangoloh, the director of a local human rights NGO.

During the Namibian liberation war, many potential political rivals were killed or arrested by South African security forces, while Nujoma managed to escape the same fate, a fact that much of the Nujoma myth has been built on, Ya Nangoloh said.

Ya Nangoloh has recently been exploring publicly the nature of links between Nujoma, Maurice Tempelsman, an American diamond dealer, and other acknowledged CIA agents and related front organisations.

In this respect, Ya Nangoloh points to recent revelations by former South African defence minister Magnus Malan that apartheid authorities had let Nujoma go in 1966 because they preferred him as Swapo’s leader over more communist elements.

A Swapo party member has a far more prosaic explanation for Nujoma’s ambitions: “It’s all about power, baby. It’s all he ever knew and all he ever loved—and he wants it all back.”

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