Pohamba: The man, the leader, his legacy…and that prize

Pohamba: The man, the leader, his legacy…and that prize
  • PublishedApril 1, 2015

Last month, Namibia inaugurated a new president, Hage Geingob, to take over from Hifikepunye Pohamba, who after 10 years in power, left office with fond accolades from Namibians and a $5m Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership to boot. From Windhoek, our correspondent Tom Mbakwe reports on how Pohamba will be remembered.

It is normal for ruling party members to praise a sitting president. To get opposition leaders and their supporters (especially in Africa where the opposition never accepts defeat in elections – elections are always stolen, they claim) to sing the praises of a president who does not come from their party is truly out-of-Africa, if not a testimony to the calibre of the president in question.

On that score alone, former President Pohamba deserves to have won the 2014 “Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership”, sponsored by the foundation run by the Sudanese business mogul, Mo Ibrahim, who made his money in telecoms.

Established in 2007, the Ibrahim Prize recognises and celebrates excellence in African leadership. Its main goal is to encourage African leaders to fully dedicate themselves to defeating the development challenges facing their countries, by improving the livelihoods and welfare of the people while consolidating the foundations for sustainable development.

On 2 March, the independent Prize Committee, consisting of six eminent Africans and one European, chaired by the former Tanzanian statesman, Salim Ahmed Salim, announced Pohamba as the 2014 Ibrahim Prize winner.

Making the announcement in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, Salim Salim said: “President Pohamba’s focus in forging national cohesion and reconciliation at a key stage of Namibia’s consolidation of democracy and social and economic development impressed the Prize Committee.

“His ability to command the confidence and the trust of his people is exemplary. During the decade of his presidential mandate, he demonstrated sound and wise leadership. At the same time, he maintained his humility throughout his presidency.”

The Tanzanian was effusive in his praise, adding that “during the decade of Pohamba’s presidency, Namibia’s reputation has been cemented as a well-governed, stable, and inclusive democracy with strong media freedom and respect for human rights.”

For all that, Pohamba, like the three former Ibrahim laureates, will get a $5m award paid over 10 years and $200,000 annually for life thereafter. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation will also consider granting a further $200,000 per year for 10 years towards any public interest activities and good causes that Pohamba would like to carry out.

Stepping out of Nujoma’s shadow

Truly, for those who have followed Namibia closely under Pohamba’s governance, not one word of Salim Salim’s eulogy was amiss. He was a much-loved president who managed to extricate himself from the shadow and big boots of his celebrated predecessor and benefactor, Sam Nujoma, who handpicked him as a successor before he stepped down in 2005 after 15 years in power.

How Pohamba succeeded in stepping out of Nujoma’s shadow without offending him, while wooing the opposition figures and parties who had been at loggerheads with Nujoma during his 15-year reign, is a feat that puts Pohamba ahead of his peers by a country mile.

In many countries across Africa, sitting presidents and their mentor-predecessors tend to trade insults in public and thereby denigrate the high offices they hold or held. Two notable examples come to mind – Zambia (Levy Mwanawasa and Frederick Chiluba) and Ghana (Atta Mills and Jerry Rawlings). But not Pohamba and Nujoma. Which is a big plus for Pohamba – for managing to keep all and sundry quiet and happy while national development went on unabated.

When he took office on Namibia’s 15th Independence Day (21 March 2005), Pohamba declared that he believed in collective leadership. It was a shot across Nujoma’s bow as the opposition had constantly accused him of being autocratic. But Pohamba had to set his own stall out. And he did, telling the nation that “we can achieve growth and development if we all work together through a public-private partnership”.

He continued: “Peace and stability remains a crucial ingredient for development. Where there is no peace, there can be no development. Thus, we should all work together to preserve peace and stability in our country.”

To his eternal credit, for the 10 years he was at the helm, Pohamba did exactly that. Peace and stability meant a lot to him. In focusing on this, his open-door policy and wide consultations brought people together, including even mortal political opponents who were left chuffed by the generosity and political maturity of the man they had all wrongly thought was a Nujoma lackey.

In the end, it was not the ruling SWAPO party that led the accolades for Pohamba. It was the very opposition figures and parties who had fought Nujoma, sometimes to a standstill, during the 15 years he was in power.

Asser Mbai, the leader of the opposition Nudo party, said in one interview: “The esteem and pride of a nation is created by the character of its leadership. Pohamba is a good person, an exemplary statesman.”

In a continent where opposition leaders never appear to have a good word for sitting presidents, Mbai’s words have brought goose pimples to the skin of his hearers.

And he was not alone. Tsudao Gurirab of the opposition Congress of Democrats (CoD) chipped in, saying Pohamba consulted with all interest groups and not only with politicians. “His approach is very accommodative to all human beings and this never happened during Nujoma’s era. That is the notable difference between the two presidents.” 

The one-time New African Namibian correspondent and now an accomplished political commentator, Uazuva Kaumbi, agrees with Gurirab, commenting that Pohamba will be remembered for his regular consultations with all opposition leaders.

“He invited the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) leader Hidipo Hamutenya to his 30th wedding anniversary,” Kaumbi says. “In fact, Hidipo was his best man way back in Angola at the wedding, and so he kept the links despite the political differences.”

What Kaumbi left out was that Hamutenya was a SWAPO foreign minister sacked by Nujoma in May 2004 for daring to announce that he would stand against Pohamba in the then-imminent party primaries. Hamutenya went on to form his own party to challenge Pohamba in the 2004 presidential election. He was soundly beaten. Pohamba won 76.44% of the votes to Hamutenya’s 11.8%.

Since then the former foreign minister has become a strident opponent of SWAPO. For Pohamba to thus invite him to both official and private events, like his 30th wedding anniversary, was a sharp departure from Nujoma’s days.

But that is not all. Kaumbi points to the fact that Pohamba’s team at State House included people from almost all the ethnic groups in Namibia.

An “all-round good person”

Pohamba also promoted people regarded as “hibernators” in SWAPO, advanced the government’s 50-50 gender balance campaign, which has put more women in parliament and in government, and virtually ensured that the country got its first non-Oshiwambo-speaking president in Hage Geingob. Both Nujoma and Pohamba are Ovambos, the dominant ethnic group in the country.

To people like Kaumbi, Pohamba’s leadership in education matters most of all. Under him, primary education became free and free secondary education is expected by 2016.

As Kaumbi puts it: “Major infrastructure projects like mass housing, the Gobabis-Grootfontein road as part of the Trans-Kalahari highway, the expansion of the Windhoek-Okahandja highway, and the Gobabis-Aminuis road upgrading took place under Pohamba’s leadership.”

Indeed the Nudo leader, Asser Mbai, brings the curtains down by saying: “Pohamba is an all-round good person. Above all he is a down-to-earth, friendly, and peaceful person. Under his leadership Namibia remained a stable and peaceful nation.”

Last year, speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York, Pohamba reminded the world of his government’s achievements. “The percentage of our people living in extreme poverty has been reduced by more than half,” he said. “Primary school enrolment has reached 100 per cent. Health care delivery has reached many communities, where there was none. The rates of new HIV infection cases have stabilised. Coverage of antri-retroviral treatment has reached 85 per cent and PMTCT [Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission] now stands at 90 per cent.”

Before the UN speech, he had said elsewhere: “Namibia is now free and free forever. The destiny of our country is in our own hands. We will work harder to make Namibia a winning nation. We will do our best to secure a brighter future for our children and for future generations. This we will do in honour of those who made the supreme sacrifices for Namibia’s freedom.”

But as one political analyst has pointed out, “Despite the progress made since independence in delivering state services to the poor and maintaining economic growth, poverty remains rife in Namibia and the racial inequalities in education, health, income, employment opportunities, wealth, landownership, and income inherited from the apartheid policies of Namibia’s South African colonial masters, persist.”

Failure: Land reform

However, where Pohamba clearly failed was on land reform. Though Germany lost South West Africa after its defeat in the First World War, Namibia (the name that replaced South West Africa after independence in 1990), is still very German in outlook and content.

To this day just a few thousand Namibians of German and white South African extraction control over 80% of the best farming land in the country, leaving the majority black Africans to tread water.

Before becoming president, Pohamba was minister of lands. During his tenure, government announced that it was abandoning its willing-buyer-willing-seller land principle, and was going to use compulsory land expropriations to resettle over 240,000 landless blacks. But it did not work and the old order remains to this day.

On Independence Day 2013, and already 9 years in power, a disappointed Pohamba told the nation: “The main objective of our struggle for national liberation was to reclaim the land of our ancestors. I must, however, admit that access to land as a means of livelihood by the formerly disadvantaged Namibians has not been satisfactory. We, therefore, need to investigate other ways and means of accelerating access to land by previously disadvantaged Namibians.”

If that was not a defeat for the president, nothing could be. In fact, in 2011, a high official of SWAPO asked this writer to accompany him to Gobabis on the Botswana border. On the way, from Windhoek, the official made a profound remark.

“You just look at both sides of the road, from Windhoek Airport to Gobabis,” he said, “and notice the unbroken nature of the fences of the white-owned farms. In Namibia, despite gaining independence, we, the black people, own only the tarred road and the air. Nothing more!”

That is part of Pohamba’s legacy, and it is not a pleasant one. But on the whole, he is sure to be fondly remembered for many years to come.

Written By
New African

8 Commentaires

  • What does it require for an African leader to win “global” or “international” awards? Is it service to one’s own people or service to foreign interests? What was the struggle for African decolonization all about?
    These questions came to mind upon reading the article above on president Pohamba’s win of the Mo Ibrahim award.
    Pohamba, like Mandela, Kenyatta, Senghor and other African leaders before him, will earn the accolades of the international financial institutions (world Bank, IMF), the descendants of European property-owning classes in Africa, and the so-called liberal international press for doing one thing: i.e., for following the prescriptions of neo-liberal, free-market theory without questioning.
    From our reading of history, we understand how Europeans used the colonial State as the chief institution for accumulation of property in Africa: the colonial State imposed hut and poll taxes on Africans only, and reserved the modern industrial sector for “whites only”, thus relegating Africans to subsistence agriculture and unskilled labour in European-owned farms and mines. Now, five decades after the onset of African independence, the Western world tells African States that the State is a bad thing for national development and should get out of the market. The reigning wisdom on globalization teaches that the State creates distortions in the market: that the State, by definition, cannot allocate resources efficiently in society. Hence: “willing buyer willing seller”, “protecting investments”, “there is nothing for free”, and “everything belongs to somebody.” All these home-spun “truths” of free-market ideology are contradicted by the historical lessons concerning the role of the State in industrialisation and national development. We can refer to Japan and China during the twentieth century, did these two countries achieve the status of industrial States by following a free-market approach?
    Why do African leaders follow wholesale the neo-liberal economic policy that Europe dishes out? Secondly, how come that it is those African leaders that most faithfully serve the interests of the international capitalist class, (which, for historical reasons, is European) that win “international awards?”

    • Because few people in the world, let alone Africa, understand that the global history has been convoluted to suit the interests of global leaders that want history read as per their script. For example, did you know that the all-well repeated “fact” that the nazi-led Germany executed six million Jews under Hitler is a myth? History has also obscured the truth about (the obliteration of) the black wall street of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is only recently coming to light, and even then very surreptitiously and out of the glare of the so called mainstream media.
      Closer home, both African and non-African alike have been conditioned to view Mugabe as a tin-pot dictator whose only interest is to die in power and ensure his wife takes over, Whereas the man has not done much to alleviate the suffering of his kinsfolk, but the downward spiral was occasioned by his daring to do as much. His tactics of forcibly turning over white-owned farmlands to fellow blacks have been roundly criticised for their unorthodoxness (sic), yet nothing is orthodox about foreigners owning land while the real African owners squat in it.
      The list of grievances is long and winding, and found in virtually every spot on the planet. And the few administrations that do not conform to the globalist agenda are aptly labelled as regressive and boxed into a corner, oft times forcing them/resulting into actual oppression of their peoples.

  • Congratulations former president Pohamba for winning Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership! To be short, you are worthy the prize! There is no way Africa can get out of the underdevelopment abyss without good leadership. Good leadership is the only key to switch on the African engine of development. Without it, the continent is stagnant. Ibrahim Prizes will spur rational African leaders to excellence.

    • tthere ae existing risks for good african leader to be hounted and killed. We have to be aware of that risk. Otherwise i do really agree with you that africa for a quit a long time asked for good leaders

      • Wilo, it is better to die for your country than to die for nothing. Death is inescapable. Fear of assassination cannot justify their corruption.

        • Agree

          • Thanks Wilo! Good times!

  • With these facts in our hands let us find out our own solutions to our challenges. We stagnate in explaining why our continent is not developing. Let us focus on finding solutions to our own problems.

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