The selection of Hage Geingob as a future presidential candidate, during the party congress, has been widely seen as the end of the 50 years of liberation politics, which former President Sam Nujoma had dominated. A sigh of relief by the local and international business community—who feared a Zimbabwean-like land nationalization program and a confiscatory tax regime, had either of his opponents won—was heard across Namibia.
While he still has to face national and presidential elections in two years’ time, Namibia’s single-party dominant system is such that only a major political catastrophe would prevent Geingob from replacing President Hifikepunye Pohamba in 2015.
Geingob was Namibia’s prime minister since independence, in 1990, until suddenly being dismissed by Samuel Nujoma in 2002. He was banished to the political wilderness for five years before being re-appointed as prime minister by Pohamba in a transitional Cabinet that is notable for its promotion of technocrats.
Government insiders said that Geingob’s surprisingly easy victory over the more trenchant elements of the party, that has ruled Namibia since independence, would now see the country adopt a more developmental economy model. This is opposed to its current ‘mixed economy’ approach, whose success, to a large extent, would depend on oil and gas being discovered off the Namibian Atlantic coastline.
Geingob’s approach was not at variance with the ruling party’s official policies, his stress on an energy-based economy, which is needed to bring development to rural areas and address massive unemployment of more than 53%, was one that would see the state take on a more assertive role in developing the economy, according to analysts.
While the details still are not clear, chances are that Namibia under Geingob will adopt a policy of national champions as espoused by the Asian Tigers. This will boost local manufacturing and the development of so-called ‘energy corridors’ linking Namibia to its land-bound neighbors such as Botswana, Zambia and those further afield such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, amongst others.
“The Namibian government under Geingob is increasingly likely to look towards the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries for development partners because of the ongoing crises in the Euro and Dollar areas,” says Professor Andre du Pisani, head of the University of Namibia’s Economics department and a high-level government advisor.
The stress, he said, would be more on pragmatic politics and economic cooperation, rather than the ideological stance that has characterized much of SWAPO’s 50-year-long history as battler of imperial colonialists.
As a stable democracy blessed with good, if not super-abundant, resources supported by a strong mining industry; a world-class fisheries sector and good tourism potential—Namibia has never quite met high expectations because of a lingering ideological rift between moderates and hard-line nationalists that often saw executive decisions getting bogged down in turf battles.
Geingob has made much of the fact that while the country, and its ruling party, has adopted progressive policies over the past 22 years, where it most often failed was in implementing those policies. His political victory as a moderate has raised hopes that the economy would now get out of the blocks and overcome its political inertia.
And signs are that this time, this could actually happen. In what amounted to the biggest surprise over the outcome of the party’s congress, incumbent President Pohamba announced a sudden major Cabinet reshuffle two days later that firmly sidelined the hard-line factions without totally alienating them by re-assigning half of the 24 ministerial positions in a careful political balancing act.
Former regional government and housing minister Jerry Ekandjo, who is Geingob’s strongest opponent and a noted party hardliner and Nujoma loyalists, who backed by the party’s youth league had waged an increasingly nasty campaign for the presidential nomination, were re-assigned to the ministry of youth and sports instead.
Former justice minister and party secretary-general, Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, who had hopes of becoming Namibia’s first female president, was thrown a political lifeline by being handed the politically powerful home affairs portfolio. This after she switched her support to Geingob during the congress, rather than supporting Ekandjo, whose political views she echoes.
And to keep everything in the family, Utoni Nujoma, who first backed Iivula-Ithana but then switched back to Ekandjo, was handed the justice portfolio.
He was replaced by technocrat Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah as foreign affairs minister.
Pohamba, who had taken over from Nujoma as his preferred candidate in 2004, has always labored under the perception that he was a mere figurehead doing Nujoma’s bidding; this amounted to his greatest political moment in the 50 years he has lived in Nujoma’s shadow: “Going out with a bang,” as he had put it to a political confidante.
His open backing of Geingob, which upset the other two candidates no end, has effectively allowed him to bestow his own legacy upon the party by helping to elect the first non-Oshiwambo person to the country’s most powerful office and so bring to an end to Nujoma’s domination of a party he helped found in 1960.
Geingob’s victory also saw moderates make a clean sweep of all the top offices in the party hierarchy; putting paid to a mooted plan to have the hard-line Ekandjo take over the presidency for one term in order to prepare the way for Nujoma’s son, Utoni, to have a clean run at the presidency in 2019.
In his closing speech to the congress, Pohamba, with uncharacteristic frankness, referred to a “watershed” moment in the party’s history. Although he did not say so, the message was clear after Nujoma had called for a female presidential candidate, allegedly to split the pro-Geingob vote and hand victory to Ekandjo, only to see Iivula-Ithana humiliated with a mere 10% of the vote as delegates deserted her in favor of Geingob.
All agree that the rising resource nationalism as espoused by the hard-line factions in the party had now been taken off the table, although questions remained how an even-handed Geingob would be in framing policies as future president, says Graham Hopwood, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a local think-tank.
“The question hanging over the Geingob candidacy is whether he will be able to distance himself from the interests of big business when making executive decisions and crafting policy,” Hopwood noted.
On the one hand, Geingob fought off Walmart’s proposed entry into the local market as not being in the interest of Namibia, but then also granted special tax status to French nuclear company Areva, a benefit that other uranium miners did not have, according to Hopwood.
This latter aspect is perhaps the most troubling aspect in an otherwise newly optimistic landscape: Geingob has admitted to receiving a $300,000 consultancy fee from Areva, albeit while still just a party backbencher in 2007.
But at least one can now expect that any future political debate over Namibia’s future would be centered on issues, rather than personalities, and that in itself amounted to major political progress, all agreed.