Namibia: The Next Election is Crucial for Change
The Namibians are a peace-loving people. The fought against the colonial power Germany, which even resorted to genocide, and against South Africa, which occupied the country after the First World War and introduced apartheid. But after victory their energy was exhausted, says Nora Schimming-Chase, National Chairperson of Namibia’s largest opposition party, the Congress of Democrats.
“Perhaps that is why Namibia is not very well-known in the West. If we had started killing each other then we would have been on the first page every day,” says Nora Schimming-Chase, National Chairperson of Namibia’s largest opposition party, the Congress of Democrats.
For this Grand Old Lady within Namibian politics (she says she became a liberation fighter at the age of 13 in the 50’s) the world’s lack of interest in her homeland has had one major consequence, the process of democratisation has stalled.
“Is Namibia a democracy? No. Or it depends on how you define democratic. Namibia has all the outer signs of a democracy. But,” Nora Schmming-Chase says, “what we have is a de facto one-party state, which has certainly been elected by the people, but which does not necessarily reflect the true will of the people.
“When after many years of struggle South Africa was forced to leave the country in 1990, and the Marxist-influenced SWAPO won the first free elections, our hopes were many and well-founded,” she continues. “Now we would finally be able to build up a Social Democratic state that guaranteed the right to healthcare and housing, where the country’s enormous resources would not simply vanish over the border. The late date of Namibia’s independence was also initially seen as a blessing, an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of our neighbours.
“Now after 15 years we see that we are repeating exactly the same mistakes as all other African countries. Corruption is completely taking over, and development has been stifled. Certainly we no longer have apartheid based on skin colour, but instead we have economic apartheid. For the small rich minority Namibia is a paradise, but for everyone else things are going in the wrong direction. In no other country in the world is the gap between rich and poor as great as in Namibia. This,” she says, “is a scandal.”
While many of her comrades in the struggle for independence were imprisoned on Robben Island in South Africa, Nora Schimming-Chase went into exile in 1961, and spent several years in West Berlin. She returned to Namibia with the first major amnesty in 1984, and continued to work politically for SWAPO, which led the armed struggle against South Africa. With independence she became Namibia’s ambassador, first in France and then in Germany.
But in the late 90’s she realized that the progress of the first few years had come to an end, and that the governing party was growing autocratic. Together with many other prominent politicians she left SWAPO and formed the Congress of Democrats (COD).
Democracy Withered Away
“It’s clear that the pillars of democracy are withering away. First the Constitution was changed so that President Sam Nujoma could serve a third term. Then the government sent troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo without the approval of parliament, which was against the Constitution. We formed the COD to save the Constitution.”
In the 1999 elections, when the new party had existed for seven months, they won seven seats in parliament. In the next election, in 2004, they took only five. But Nora Schimming-Chase, who holds one of the five seats, says this isn’t because of declining popularity. Instead she blames election fraud, and the inability of the opposition to compete on equal conditions with the ruling party in getting its message to the public.
“Today the ruling party has access to all necessary infrastructure, such as cars and airplanes, which means they can campaign everywhere in the country. We in the opposition can only visit one-fourth of all election districts. And we are unable to send representatives to every polling station to monitor ballot counting.”
“One contributing factor to election fraud in Namibia is that elections are held over a two day period, even though the population is no more than around 800,000. On the evening of the first day,” she says, “ballot boxes are moved by the army and the police, both of which are controlled by the government. And since the opposition isn’t present, there are many opportunities to manipulate the ballots.
“We appealed the results after the last election, since we had evidence of election fraud. In some areas where a majority of the population is illiterate, for example, the number of registered voters was 120 percent of the population. In one place we found 30 ballot boxes filled with ballots that were so wet that they couldn’t be counted. In another place we found partly burned ballots which would have all gone to the opposition.”
In the legal process which was started after the election, the COD won the first round. But it was suddenly halted by SWAPO, which ordered a stop to the ballot recount. Because of a lack of resources the opposition was unable to pursue the issue.
“If we had had a proper vote count,” Nora Schimming-Chase says, “the outcome would have different, that is for sure.”
“Namibia is a One-Party State”
Nora Schimming-Chase believes that Namibia has become a one-party state because SWAPO now has an absolute majority in parliament and can run the country by itself. Today the opposition has no chance of winning over the ruling party, she says, not because SWAPO is so popular, but because all the infrastructure, the material resources, and all important positions are controlled by SWAPO.
For the opposition the remains hope for the next elections, which are in 2009. But to have any chance, she says, they need support from abroad.
“We need financial assistance and support in training our members. The next election will be decisive for change in Namibia, and it will be a struggle on the grassroots level, where we will go from door to door, from village to village, with our message. And even if our members don’t expect to receive any payment, we can at least offer them transportation and some food.”
A major obstacle for true democratisation, she believes, is the international community’s low expectations for African countries.
“They are happy as long as there is no war. They compare Namibia with countries like Sierra Leone and say we are doing well. They never think to compare us with Germany or Scandinavia. If democracy is just slightly threatened in Eastern Europe the international community immediately is involved. They don’t do that in Africa.”
What she is primarily looking for is an opportunity for the opposition to operate on the same conditions as the ruling party. Despite the COD today receiving support from Sweden, they have had to close local offices because they could neither afford the rent nor pay their personnel.
“We need help with the process of democratisation in Namibia, to carry out free and fair elections where all parties have the same starting point. The rest we can do ourselves.”
ÅSA NYQUIST BRANDT