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Namibia badly needs refurbishment after 32 years under the ruling party

A man in a suit wiping his face with a handkerchief
Hage Gottfried Geingob, President of Namibia. Photo by Hannah McKay - Pool/Getty Images

Namibia has been a presidential democracy since independence from South Africa in 1990. Much executive power is vested in the head of state, who is elected directly every five years in parallel to the National Assembly.

The South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) has held an absolute parliamentary majority since 1990. Hage Geingob was elected president of Namibia in 2014, following Sam Nujoma (1990-2005) and Hifikepunye Pohamba (2005-2015).

Geingob was elected president in November 2014 with a record 87% of votes. South West Africa People’s Organisation’s election manifesto declared “consolidating peace, stability, prosperity” as its track record. The party scored a record 80%.

With such election results, Geingob entering his first term in office on Independence Day 2015, was considered a success story. But elections five years later showed signs of erosion. In November 2019 Geingob was reelected with an all-time low of 56% of votes for the presidency. South West Africa People’s Organisation support dropped to 65%.

The two-third majority the party held since 1994 was gone. The fairy tale ended in harsh realities. Geingob’s track record is another example in the textbook on populism, that words alone are not enough. Even executive presidents with a huge majority in parliament and support by the electorate need to deliver.

On this score, Geingob has failed.

Namibia under Geingob’s stewardship

A prominent slogan during the anti-colonial struggle was

SWAPO is the nation, and the nation is SWAPO.

The mantra survived for a quarter of a century into independence. But with the growing number of younger voters born after independence, the struggle narrative became increasingly anachronistic. The allure for having “liberated” the country did not any longer trigger the same identification with the former liberation movement.

Geingob shifted South West Africa People’s Organisation’s centrism in the nation building discourse from “liberator” to “unifier”. As he explained in his Inaugural Address in 2015:

No Namibian must feel left out … All of us must play our part in the success of this beautiful house we call Namibia.

He expanded on his “Namibian house” metaphor in 2017:

Nation building is similar to building a house … in which no Namibian will be left out.

His emphasis on inclusivity was reiterated by the Harambee Prosperity Plan he presented as his governance blueprint for 2015/16 to 2019/20. He explained in his foreword that the Kiswahili word “harambee” (“pull together in the same direction”),

has been deliberately selected to call for unity and encourage Namibians to work towards a common purpose.

In his Christmas Message in 2015 Geingob stressed:

Those of us blessed with abundance should be willing to share in order to ensure that we provide the building blocks for a fairer and equitable house, a house in which all of us can pursue our dreams and prosper as equals.

The Harambee Prosperity Plan promised a more transparent Namibia, a culture of high performance and citizen-centred service delivery, and a significant reduction – if not elimination – of poverty. The ambitious agenda was based on an anticipated annual economic growth rate of 7%.

Economic prospects, however, signalled tough times. A sluggish global market caused a slump in demand and prices for the country’s mineral resources. Economic crises in neighbouring Angola and South Africa weakened the local economy. One of the worst droughts in Namibia’s recorded history in 2015/16 should have caused alarm that the “fat years” were over.

Economic woes

In 2016 the country entered an economic downward spiral, exacerbated by the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2021 total debt had increased to 70.4% of GDP. Back in 2016 the Harambee Prosperity Plan had reconfirmed the official commitment that state debt should not exceed 30% of GDP.

Economic growth rates were 0% for 2016, -1.0% for 2017, 1.1% for 2018, -0.6% for 2019 and -8% for 2020. The average per capita income plummeted by 2021 to 2013 levels. Namibia was diagnosed as an “economy on life support”.

In the 2020 Human Development Report Namibia ranked 130 out of 189 countries. Adjusted by inequality its rank declined to 144. As a 2022 World Bank report confirmed, the country is the second most unequal in the world, after South Africa.

More than 43% of Namibians suffered multidimensional poverty, measuring various deprivations of poor people in their daily lives. In 2021 the World Bank declared two thirds of the 2.4 million Namibians as poor.

The second Harambee Prosperity Plan, for 2021 to 2025 declares economic recovery as its goal. Geingob has urged,

Now it is time to hold hands and build an economy that is inclusive and where growth is shared.

But the national 2022/23 budget shows that there is no growth to be shared.

N$9.2 billion (US$608 million) was put aside for debt services (interest payments only) - the second highest budget allocation, equivalent to 15.4% of the projected revenue income. The total debt ballooned to N$140 billion (US$9.25 billion), and the fiscal liquidity was further restricted. Namibia was “swimming in debt”.

According to a 2022 Harvard University Growth Diagnostic for Namibia out of 17 Namibians in the labour force only one is formally employed in the private sector. Bringing about sustained, inclusive growth amid fiscal consolidation remains a huge challenge.


In November 2019, the country was rocked by its biggest government corruption scandal, called #Fishrot. It disclosed bribery for fishing quotas awarded to an Icelandic company. Two government ministers and several highest-ranking state officials were implicated. Evidence suggests that more culprits benefited inside SWAPO and “Team Hage”.

Another potential scandal, pertaining to the construction of a bulk fuel storage at the Walvis Bay harbour has been been swept under the carpet. But as just disclosed, a controversial diamond valuating deal enriched three beneficiaries by over 100 million N$.

In need of rehabilitation

Already an August 2019 survey by Afrobarometer, the independent pan-African survey network, indicated growing frustration among Namibians: 80.6% of the 1,200 respondents thought the country was going in the wrong direction, 72.6% described the economic conditions as bad, 58.2% believed the economic conditions were worse than a year before, while 47.3% expected them to become even worse. Trust in the country’s president decreased from 81% in 2014 to 60% in 2019.

On Geingob’s watch, the South West Africa People’s Organisation’s downward spiral continues, with a sharp decline in support for the former liberation movement in the regional and local authorities elections in November 2020. The South West Africa People’s Organisation lost its dominance in many regions and almost all towns. The capital Windhoek is governed by opposition parties.

Summarising trends, the Bertelsmann Transformation Index for 2022 classified the country as a “defective democracy”, with limited economic transformation and a moderate governance index. It concluded:

The Namibian government faces the mammoth task of regaining the trust and confidence of the public.

This year’s annual budget provides funds for rehabilitating Windhoek’s Independence Stadium. Thirty-two years into independence, it’s not only the stadium, in which Namibia’s flag was hoisted for the first time, that requires significant refurbishment.

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