29 November 2001

NAMIBIA: Nujoma's departure a challenge for SWAPO

Political analysts and commentators have hailed President Sam Nujoma's decision not to stand for re-election in 2004 as positive for his ruling party, SWAPO, for Namibia and for the Southern African region.

After much speculation and debate during the past year SWAPO announced at the weekend that he would definitely not be its presidential candidate in presidential polls due in 2004. “It's his own decision. He wants to comply with the constitution. He feels that somebody else should take over and that he's getting old and that the pressure is getting too much," SWAPO's secretary general, Hifikepunye Pohamba, was quoted as saying in the Namibian on Nov 27. He said Nujoma would stand for re-election as SWAPO president at its congress in 2002, meaning he will remain at the helm of the organisation he has led for almost 40 years until 2004, but that a new candidate would be elected in 2003 to contest the country's presidency.

Several analysts told the media that Nujoma's decision would have a significant impact on SWAPO, particularly its decision-making processes, because of how the party and its members related to Nujoma as a founder of the liberation movement and its only leader. “SWAPO has not had any other leader as a president for 40 years, so as would happen in any other organisation, there will be a change in the decision-making process. Also, because of the way decisions were made, with Nujoma seen as the father and founding member of the organisation, the way other SWAPO members related to him might be different to the way they relate to the next leader, who may not necessarily be a founding member," Victor Tonchi, a senior political and administrative studies lecturer at the University of Namibia, told IRIN.

Christiaan Keulder, director of the Windhoek-based Institute for Policy Research, also told IRIN Nujoma's departure was significant for SWAPO. “The crucial issue (for SWAPO) will be determining the role Nujoma will play after the presidency ... There is also the question of how SWAPO becomes a political party. I don't think they have made the transformation fully (from liberation movement to political party," he said.

In light of this, said Keulder, “the culture of internal competition might not be well developed" and the challenge for SWAPO would be to create a process that would allow the expression of “ambition to lead the party". Referring to a possible role for Nujoma after his presidency, which was not made clear by SWAPO at the weekend, Keulder said there were various possibilities. If Nujoma remained president of SWAPO, there was a possibility he could still be involved in the day-to-day running of the country because of the respect he still commanded in the party, he said. Turning to a possible successor, Keulder said it was still unclear how SWAPO would make the decision, but that it was likely - to ensure a smooth transition - that the person would be someone “similar to Nujoma".

Turning to the impact Nujoma's decision would have on the region, Tonchi said it was important to note that unlike other Southern African leaders who expressed interest in extending their presidencies, Namibia's constitution was changed in 1999 to allow Nujoma a third term only because of a technicality. The constitution states that a directly elected president should serve two terms in office. SWAPO argued in 1999 that Nujoma was not directly elected at independence in 1990. The constitution was changed to allow the founding president to serve three terms, but all future presidents can only serve two.

He said the fact that Zambia's Frederick Chiluba had backed down on his bid for re-election next month, that Nujoma had decided to go and that there was already pressure in Malawi to prevent Bakili Muluzi from standing for a third term in 2004, indicated that Southern African civil society was getting stronger. “It shows that democratic participation has risen to a high level in the region ... And it is up to civil society to ensure that adherence to the constitution," he said.

Referring to the legacy Nujoma would leave behind, Keulder said: “Nujoma is extremely popular, well trusted and respected by the people who vote for him." He said it would be unfair to hold Nujoma responsible for all the positive and negative developments in the country, but that independent Namibia was an African success story, with a stable economy and a democratic culture taking root.

Nujoma's controversial ramblings about homosexuality and other “unwanteds" may have raised eyebrows he said, but “the state has not been used to suppress whites, gays or foreigners" - all of whom have been at the receiving end of Nujoma's wrath in recent years.

While Tonchi said Nujoma would leave a legacy of “dedicated nationalism" and would be revered by Namibians for years to come, he said that SWAPO, under Nujoma's leadership, had upheld democratic principles. (IRIN)

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