Of all the former liberation movements in Southern Africa, which include those in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) has probably been the most successful at winning elections. In the 2014 polls, the party got 80% and President Hage Geingob got 86.7% of the votes. Many of his peers in the region, especially in South Africa, can only dream of such figures.
On 27 November, Namibians are again going to vote in legislative and presidential elections. Just over 1.3 million voters are registered. And although SWAPO is likely to win again, and Geingob to get a second term, it will certainly not be with such an overwhelming margin.
One of the reasons for this will be the impact of devastating drought in Namibia that saw agricultural production shrinking and one out of five Namibians becoming dependent on food aid. Stronger opposition, especially from independent candidate Panduleni Itula, is also expected to reduce Geingob’s margin.
This year has been the driest in 90 years and Windhoek received the lowest rainfall since 1891. Opposition parties blame the government for not doing enough to mitigate the crisis and help those in need.
Namibia’s GDP growth, which has been over 5% a year for decades, plummeted in 2016 due to falling commodity prices, coupled with the drought, and the country is now in a recession. Reliance for export earnings on mineral resources such as diamonds and uranium has clearly shown its limits. This is not good for an election year.
Since independence in 1990, Namibia has taken important steps to improve the livelihoods of ordinary people. According to Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research, poverty levels have more than halved from 50% in 1993 to around 20%. By 2040 Namibia was expected to rank among the top 10 per capita earners in Africa.
Yet it is one of the most unequal countries in the world and the government has lagged behind in providing basic services and infrastructure to its citizens. Access to electricity and sanitation are of the lowest among the upper-middle-income countries in Africa. Namibia also continues to depend heavily on food imports – over 60% of cereals are imported, mainly from South Africa.
The report found that boosting agricultural production could help reduce poverty significantly in the decades to come. This year – due to the drought that also hit much of the rest of Southern Africa – agricultural production was expected to be reduced by more than 50% compared to the last season’s harvest.
Given the nature of Namibia as one of the driest countries on Earth, with limited agricultural land, the ISS study suggests improving agricultural yields on land already in use, as well as improving the average calorie intake of citizens. Namibia has already experimented with innovative mechanisms such as aquaponics in this regard.
During the election campaign, these issues have been high on the list of Geingob and SWAPO’s opponents. Land redistribution and reducing inequality has become a rallying platform for parties such as the Landless People’s Movement, which registered as a political party in 2016, led by the former deputy minister of land Bernardus Swartbooi.
The recent revelations around a US$10 million scandal involving fishing quotas to Iceland also didn’t come at a good time for the ruling party. The ministers of justice and of fisheries were forced to resign earlier this month over their involvement in the allocation of fishing licences in 2014 to an Icelandish company, also involving Angola. Among the fears linked to climate change is the dwindling of fish resources along the coasts of countries like Namibia.
Itula, one of Geingob’s most outspoken opponents in this year’s elections, blamed the president of having ‘looters’ in his cabinet and vowed to fight corruption were he elected. He received support from two of the major opposition parties, the Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters and the Republican Party, and is said to have strong support among the youth.
Itula also made headlines in the past few weeks when he challenged the use of electronic voting machines in the elections. He says they will lead to fraud and unfair elections because not everyone understands the system. He insists that a manual vote be held in parallel.
A Namibian court, however, on Monday 25 November dismissed the case brought by Itula and other opposition leaders. The electronic voting system was used with relative success in 2014 and the electoral commission had been confident that the court wouldn’t decide in Itula’s favour.
Several of the nine other presidential candidates – of which one is a woman, for the first time in Namibia’s history – said the economic decline and poverty levels were a direct result of the government’s mismanagement of the economy. SWAPO, however, says it is doing what it can to improve the lives of citizens and to fight the effects of the drought.
In May 2019 Geingob announced a state of emergency and appealed to the international community to help those suffering from the drought. This was extended in October for another six months to March 2020.
So far, out of an initial budget of N$570 million (US$38.6m), government has spent N$131m (US$8.8m) towards drought relief. It has received an extra N$129m (US$8.7m) in donations to help farmers and families affected by the prevailing dry spell.
But the effects of climate change are not likely to ease up – neither in Namibia nor the rest of the region where up to 11 million people need food aid, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. The organisation called the situation in Southern Africa an ‘existential emergency’.
SWAPO might win this week’s elections but it will have to make greater strides to fight corruption and ensure better services so that people can withstand these major shocks.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher, ISS Pretoria
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Picture: Amelia Broodryk/ISS