/ 7 December 2012

Namibia’s Geingob’s comeback paves way for Swapo moderates

Cuba's President Fidel Castro
Cuba's President Fidel Castro

Less than 48 hours after he got the nod from Namibia's ruling Swapo to become its next presidential candidate last weekend, Hage Geingob was reappointed to his old job as prime minister in a major Cabinet reshuffle announced on Tuesday by President Hifikepunye Pohamba.

In a major political realignment seemingly aimed at improving service delivery in all key ministries except finance, health and education, Pohamba appeared to be preparing the ground for a new political direction for Namibia's ruling party, as signalled by the election of Swapo's moderates to its top four positions.

For Geingob, who was Namibia's first prime minister after independence until he was suddenly dismissed by former president Sam Nujoma in 2002, it affirmed his reputation as the comeback kid of Namibian politics. He had spent several years in the political wilderness before being appointed trade and industry minister in 2007.

His victory this week is widely seen as a win for the moderates in Swapo. Geingob beat rivals Jerry Ekandjo and Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana by a convincing margin and none of the hardliners' candidates – including Uutoni Nujoma (Nujoma's son) – made it into the top positions in the party.

Pohamba's surprise reshuffle also appeared to be aimed at dismantling rival political empires in the public service, with Ekandjo relegated to the youth ministry. Iivula-Ithana, who during the congress appeared to back Geingob, was moved from justice to home affairs, an apparent award for backing Geingob rather than Ekandjo, which had been widely expected.

Similarly, as a political sop to the loyalist hardliners, Nujoma Jr was moved from foreign affairs to justice, where he had previously deputised for Iivula-Ithana.

The congress was also notable for how Nujoma's influence has waned since 2005. Although he avoided endorsing any specific candidate, he did call for greater female representation, which was seen as being supportive of Iivula-Ithana's candidacy. She was trounced in the polls, however, getting only 10.7%of the vote, as opposed to Ekandjo's 37% and Geingob's winning 52.3%.

What riled the delegates most was how Iivula-Ithana was seemingly betrayed by Uutoni Nujoma, who first nominated her, but then campaigned on behalf of Ekandjo after the latter nominated him as secretary general.

More than anything else, making Geingob Swapo's political crown prince signalled a move away from glorifying its military struggle to a more outward-looking party that attaches more weight to actual administrative and political ability.

For Geingob, who sometimes visibly chafed under Nujoma's rule (from 1990 to 2005), it has been a vindication of his political career, which started in 1961 when he joined Swapo and soon after became the party's voice at the United Nations. As a member of the minority Damara people, he was always viewed with some distrust by the party conservatives and narrowly escaped being incarcerated in Lubango with other dissidents in the late 1980s.

In a party in which cultural protocols often override political ones, Geingob's open ambition to succeed Nujoma was often frowned upon and is believed to have played a major part in his sudden dismissal as prime minister in 2002. His supporters, mostly among business people and intellectuals, said his election was proof that Swapo had realigned itself to modern political realities.

But questions remain, not least about Geingob's personal probity: twice divorced and fond of the good life, his name has in the past often been connected to dubious deals.

Attorney general Albert Kawana – a noted hardliner – announced last Friday that the government would launch lifestyle audits of all leading government officials. The implied threat to Geingob was hard to miss.