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Why reconciliation agreement between Germany and Namibia has hit the buffers

From above, a small crowd of brightly dressed people walking down a sand road in a desert, two cars trailing them.
An aerial view of members of the Herero and Nama communities taking part in the Reparation Walk in 2019. Christian Ender/Getty Images

In mid-2015 the German Foreign Ministry admitted that the war the country had waged against the local communities of the Ovaherero and Nama (and the Damara and San) between 1904 and 1908 in German South West Africa (now Namibia) was a genocide.

Since then bilateral negotiations with the Namibian government have taken place to find ways to come to terms with this horrific chapter of the shared colonial past. The declared aim was to seek reconciliation.

In mid-May 2021 the special envoys of Germany and Namibia initialled a joint declaration. While ratification by the foreign ministers was anticipated within weeks, this remains a pending affair.

Considering the declaration’s flaws, this should not come as a surprise.

The declaration avoided far-reaching precedence. The genocide was recognised in moral and political, but not legal terms. As a result, reparations were not acknowledged as a consequence of the admission. It has therefore been widely criticised.

For the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights it is a “lost opportunity”, since it failed to meet the standards of codified international law norms.

That the “reconciliation agreement” will be published as a mere joint declaration speaks volumes. It reflects the fact that reconciliation between the people of the two countries – but also within Namibia – is further away than before. But one cannot admit to the degree of atrocities committed with their far reaching demographic, material and traumatic consequences for the descendants of the survivors without seeking direct reconciliation with these.

What’s gone wrong

The preceding negotiation process disregarded international participation rights based both in treaties and customary international law. Critics bemoaned, among other things, the fact that both governments were “seeking forgiveness without listening to descendants” and with no reference to the return of land to the dispossessed as part of restitutive justice.

The declaration avoids the term “reparations”. It allocates a total amount of 1.05 billion Euro (US$1.18 billion) over a period of 30 years for development projects to Namibian regions with the descendants of the genocide victims. About the same amount as German development cooperation has spent in the 30 years since Namibia’s Independence.

Another 50 million Euro (US$56 million) “will be dedicated to the projects on reconciliation, remembrance, research and education” over the same period.

This is a pittance. Nevertheless the declaration stresses that

these amounts … settle all financial aspects of the issues relating to the past.

For many, such meagre material recognition adds insult to injury.

The main agencies of the descendants, political opposition parties and leading members of the governing South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) did not waste any time to manifest their disagreement. The opening debate in the National Assembly in early June ended in turmoil. In an unprecedented form of protest, hundreds of demonstrators joined by MPs stormed the fenced in area outside Parliament to voice their frustration over the “betrayal”.

For them the motto is: “Nothing about us without us.”

This reflects article 18 in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People which has been signed by both countries. It states:

Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures.

Due to the pandemic-related lockdown, the parliamentary debate was postponed. Opening in late September 2021, it lasted until the end of the parliamentary sessions on 1 December.

Numerous speakers from all parties expressed concerns, criticism and rejections regarding the shortcomings. In a entirely new form of unity, they were condemning the declaration as insufficient.

MacHenry Venaani, leader of the official opposition Popular Democratic Movement, lambasted the agreed forms of compensation for the crimes committed as, “A flagrant display of arrogance by the German government.”

Bernadus Swartbooi, leader of the Landless People’s Movement, the second biggest opposition party, concluded with reference to the exclusion of the Ovaherero and Nama in the negotiations as the most affected indigenous communities “that this nation-state does not belong to all”.

SWAPO MPs voiced their frustration too. Minister Tom Alweendo was concerned about the growing divisions along ethnic lines as well as the government and opposition parties:

I am troubled by how the conversation has gone thus far. It is now so apparent that the debate has become so divisive. We call each other names. We refer to each other as puppets and sell-outs … I am afraid that should we continue with this path, then the legacy left by the divide and rule philosophy will continue to flourish.

The parliamentary debate closed without any decision taken. Government announced that taking into consideration the contributions, it would seek further negotiations with the German side.

No end in sight

Once an improved agreement was ratified, MPs were reassured that it would be submitted to the Namibian Parliament for acceptance.

In October the German special envoy Ruprecht Polenz confirmed in an interview that the declaration would not be renegotiated.

However, the new German government in office since early December stresses in its coalition agreement the commitment to pursue reconciliation with Namibia as an “indispensable task”.

It remains to be seen if a foreign minister from the Green Party will be willing and able to find a way out of the impasse.

Finally, even if renegotiations would be a viable option, the major challenge lies in the inclusion of the communities in Namibia and the diaspora who continue to be most affected by the violent past. It points to the limitations of government-to-government negotiations as long as they don’t adequately recognise those who mainly bear the trauma and consequences of the genocide.

According to the joint declaration:

Germany apologises and bows before the descendants of the victims … The Namibian Government and people accept Germany’s apology and believe that it paves the way to a lasting mutual understanding and the consolidation of a special relationship between the two nations.

Without the descendants of the genocide survivors substantially involved and willing to reconcile, this remains as patronising and paternalistic as colonialism was. It underlines the continued asymmetries. There is a long way to reconciliation.

The question the late Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi once posed in his book Zakhor – Jewish History and Jewish Memory remains valid also for this case:

Is it possible that the antonym of ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering,’ but justice?

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