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Namibia’s Hage Geingob was a modern leader

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Picture: Phill Magakoe / AFP – Namibian President Hage Geingob of Namibia speaks during a press conference during his state visit to South Africa at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on April 20, last year. Geingob died early on February 4, 2024 in a hospital in Windhoek.

By Sizo Nkala

Hage Gottfried Geingob, Namibia’s third president since the demise of apartheid in 1990, died on February 4 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek where he was receiving cancer treatment.

He was born on August 3, 1941 in the small town of Otjiwarongo, in northern Namibia, inhabited by the ethnic minority group of the Damara people. His birth coincided with the era when Namibia was an administered territory under the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, and just seven years before the effective colonisation of Namibia by South Africa’s apartheid government.

Geingob’s life would be significantly defined by his participation in the struggle against apartheid rule in his country of birth and the fight for the rights of the indigenous people of Namibia. He was politically conscious at an early age and joined the ranks of the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo), Namibia’s liberation movement, when it was formed in 1960.

Geingob took a teaching course at the Augustineum Training College which he completed in 1961. However, he was expelled during the course of his studies for protesting against the inferior quality of education offered to black people by the apartheid government. He was later readmitted.

He taught briefly at a primary school in Central Namibia. However, disillusioned by the injustices of the apartheid regime, Geingob joined the Swapo transit refugee camp in neighbouring Botswana in 1962 where he served as the movement’s assistant representative.

A story is told that he escaped death by a whisker when a plane on which he was to travel was blown up before he boarded at the Francistown airport on August 29, 1963.

Geingob left Botswana for the US in 1964 and studied at the Temple University in 1964 and 1965. He completed his first degree at Fordham University before obtaining a Master’s degree in political science at the New School of Social Research in New York.

From 1972 to 1975, he joined the UN Council for Namibia where he was one of the fiercest critics of South Africa’s continued occupation of Namibia.

He is also credited with getting the UN General Assembly to recognise Swapo as the genuine and legitimate representative of the Namibian people in 1976, thus expanding its diplomatic reach.

He became a director of the UN Institute for Namibia in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1975 and used this role to highlight Namibia’s plight in the international community, which kept its struggles firmly on the global agenda.

Geingob would return to Namibia from exile in 1989 to lead the Swapo election campaign under the UN-supervised elections that ushered in the democratic dispensation in Namibia.

He was elected chair of the Constituent Assembly that wrote the newly independent country’s constitution and elected Sam Nujoma as the founding president of Namibia.

Geingob himself was subsequently appointed as the country’s first prime minister in 1990 working under Nujoma – a post he would hold until 2002. As prime minister, he played a pivotal role in modernising the government and building a functional civil service able to deliver essential public services to the people of Namibia.

He left the government in 2002 to lead the World Bank’s Global Coalition for Africa after his fallout with Nujoma. He re-emerged in Namibian politics when he secured a parliamentary seat in 2004. This paved the way for his election as the vice-president of Swapo at the party congress in 2007.

He was elected alongside his predecessor, Hifikepunye Pohamba, as president. Pohamba was elected Swapo president and appointed Geingob the minister of trade and industry in 2008 before returning him to the post of prime minister in 2012.

This after he was nominated as Swapo’s presidential candidate at a party congress in 2012 for the country’s 2014 elections.

Geingob won a landslide victory in the 2014 elections, securing more than 86 percent of the vote, more than the 76 percent Sam Nujoma had secured in the first popular vote in 1994.

Geingob was also the first non-Ovambo-speaking president which made his presidency a representation of Namibia’s multicultural tolerance and unity.

A testament to his solid democratic credentials, Geingob’s ascendancy to the top post has been described as free from elements of repression such as the elimination of opponents, the arrest of journalists, and the political violence characteristic of other liberation movements in southern Africa.

Among his achievements as president, Geingob is credited with promoting women’s leadership through a progressive gender policy, promoting media freedom, and resisting pressure to sign homophobic bills from parliament into law.

Although Geingob was widely regarded as part of the “old guard” who fought for Namibia’s liberation, he made an effort to infuse his government with the youthful faces of the younger generation. However, the challenges he faced in fulfilling his election promises saw his party’s share of the vote decline from 86 percent in 2014 to just 56 percent in 2019. His death came just before the country’s seventh national elections.

Should Swapo experience another decline comparable to that of 2019, then Namibia will find itself in uncharted territory as Swapo may have to share power with the opposition for the first time since 1990.

Geingob’s experience and statesmanship would be sorely needed to steer the country through this unusual situation should it come to pass. However, his legacy of democracy should provide guidance in navigating such a situation and keeping Namibia’s democracy alive.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies