Land claims turn tribal in Namibia

Namibia (Omaheke Region)

Namibia (Omaheke Region)

Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)

By Catherine Sasmann | April 15th, 2012

Namibia’s reputation for harmony is coming under more and more strain as disputes over power and influence are increasingly tinged with tribalism – including recent conflicts over land. In one example, in March, an angry group of around 150 Herero communal farmers armed with knobkerries, pangas and guns put up a roadblock on a rural road in the Otjinene constituency in the eastern region of Omaheke. Their aim – to stop Stefanus Gariseb, the Damara-speaking chief of the /Gobanin Traditional Authority, from proceeding to an area within the constituency where he was intending to allocate 20-hectare plots to more than 100 beneficiaries.

Police averted the potentially explosive situation by persuading Gariseb and the potential new land owners to leave the area until leaders of the conflicting groups had discussed the matter. Nonetheless, fearing for his safety, Chief Gariseb fled to Windhoek and only returned a week later after police assured him that he would be safe.

But the heart of the problem has not been resolved. The Otjinene constituency is largely populated by Herero communal farmers, who feel that Gariseb’s planned land distributions will infringe on their grazing area. In addition, they are infuriated by the fact that many of those slated to receive land are Oshiwambo-, Kavango- and Tswana-speakers.

And just as importantly, the Ovaherero Traditional Authority (OTA) under Herero Paramount chief Kauima Riruako contests Gariseb’s jurisdiction over the area, arguing that – in accordance with the Traditional Authority Act of 2000 – a traditional authority chief has no control over land, but only over the members of a particular tribal community.

Gariseb claims that he does have the necessary authority since the /Gobanin clan was given permission to live in the area in 1947 by Herero chief at the time and because he has been recognised by the current government as the official representative of the /Gobanin.

In the end, further conflict was temporarily avoided when both parties agreed that any future land allocations would be done with the consent of the Herero communal farmers in the region – an unlikely prospect. So the current calm is likely to be just a lull before another storm since the demand for land will not simply disappear.

Meanwhile, politicians have – unsurprisingly – jumped on the bandwagon. The leader of the Communist Party in Namibia, Attie Beukes, said that the ‘deliberate immigration’ of ‘other Namibians’ – like the Damaras, Owambos, Okavangos, Tswanas and San – into the Omaheke, which has historically been occupied by the Herero, was “politically reckless and socio-economically irresponsible.”

The country’s constitution clearly states that Namibia is a unitary State. But this concept is coming under increasing pressure, particularly in relation to competing demands for land.

Indeed, Beukes said that the Namibian government is enforcing the concept of ‘one Namibia, one nation’ and that it is time for greater self-determination – even perhaps for a federal arrangement. “This democratic right demands [freedom] from oppressive Owambo dominance and the freedom of oppressed and exploited and marginalised ethnic minorities to agitate by means of a referendum in order to secede in a peaceful manner,” said Beukes.

However, Beukes’ view remains the minority. Political commentator, Phanuel Kaapama, speaks for most when he says that this would be a very dangerous route for Namibia to take as it amounts to the total nullification of both the Namibian State and its constitution. But he did agree that the Otjinene incident has once again shown that there is a growing trend of ‘ethnicification’ of issues in Namibia – and particularly so in relation to land, which still provides around 60 per cent of Namibians with their livelihood.

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