Namibian elections hint at future change

Published:  29 December, 2009

In a widely anticipated result, Namibia’s incumbent president Hifikepunye Pohamba was returned to office in the country’s general election in November 2009. His ruling party, the South West Africa People’s Organization – a former liberation movement which has held power since Namibia achieved independence from South Africa in 1990 – secured just over 75 percent of the vote.

Initial opposition party challenges to the result were quickly dropped, and the election has received the stamp of approval from Sadc observers. For now, Swapo’s dominance of the political system remains firm, but the emergence of a credible opposition, as well as long term economic challenges, may loosen this over time.

“The only surprise is the opposition party, the newcomer, the Rally for Democracy and Progress,” says Dr Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House.

The breakaway RDP was established in 2007 by Hidipo Hamutenya and Jesaya Nyamu, both former cabinet ministers and leading members of Swapo. The RDP secured just under 11 percent of the popular vote. “That they did reasonably well is interesting, although they didn’t really erode the Swapo vote,” says Mr Vines. “We have to look at this in terms of a historical process. Namibian independence is relatively recent, and so liberation logic still looms large. Liberation parties regard themselves as having earned the right to govern. It is going to be some generations before this changes.”

“The only interesting thing is that we are beginning to see more splits in dominant parties,” he concludes, referring to similar developments in countries such as South Africa.

Namibia has enjoyed relative political stability and economic growth since independence, on the back of being the fourth-largest exporter of non-fuel minerals in Africa. Yet despite being ranked as a middle income country, unequal income distribution is amongst the highest in the world, and the official unemployment rate stands at more than 30 percent.

“By any global standard that is very high. You cannot sustain such an imbalance in the economy in the long term,” says James Hatuikulipi, managing director of Investec Asset Management’s Namibian operations.

“I think that is what the key challenge is for Namibia. We need to create an enabling environment for business to create jobs,” he adds, particularly for Namibia’s youthful and mostly rural population.

“Industrialisation policy has actually failed over the last 20 years. They have not managed to create a significant industrial base away from the primary sectors of mining, agriculture and fisheries.” Diversification of the economy, public sector reform to improve the delivery of services, and the provision of higher quality education are critical, he says.

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