Swapo’s moment of truth has arrived.
As the party’s top three leaders were burning the midnight oil, party officials were setting the stage for a watershed elective congress.
High on the agenda is who will emerge victorious when incumbent vice president (VP) Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah takes on challengers Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila and tourism minister Pohamba Shifeta.
Yesterday, the local hotel in the capital where Namibia’s ruling party will hold its congress, was a hive of activity, with the accreditation and verification processes in full swing for today’s official opening.
Meanwhile, at State House, New Era understands that Swapo’s top three leaders – President Hage Geingob, Nandi-Ndaitwah and secretary general (SG) Sophia Shaningwa – were having crunch talks over several anomalies in the run-up to congress. Chiefly, discussions around the alteration of congress delegates from Grootfontein was high on the agenda.
The congress runs until Sunday, with election results expected to be announced during the wee hours of Monday morning.
There are no clear frontrunners in the tight race, as each camp claims it has the majority of delegates in its pocket.
This is also largely attributed to Geingob’s decision not to endorse any of the candidates.
Although no challenge is expected for the position occupied by Geingob, he has vowed to step aside as party president before the next election to pave the way for whoever emerges victorious in the VP race to take over as party president.
With Swapo’s popularity waning among the electorate, the party might struggle at the 2024 general elections, depending on the outcome of this weekend’s decisive congress.
Swapo is still Namibia’s biggest political formation.
But its popularity among voters has dropped significantly. This is evidenced by Swapo losing
its grip on key municipalities, including Walvis Bay, Swakopmund and Windhoek as well as several regional councils including Kunene, Hardap and //Kharas.
At the polls in 2019, the party lost its two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, while Geingob’s vote was reduced from 87% in 2014 to just over 50%.
The soaring unemployment levels and corruption allegations, particularly the Fishrot scandal that led to the arrests of former Cabinet ministers and Swapo-linked businessmen, have not helped the ruling party’s brand either.
What is clear is that Swapo is a wounded lion, but cannot be written off just yet, particularly in the face of a crowded and polarised opposition.
Less than 800 delegates will elect their next VP in a vote widely seen as a decisive moment for Swapo’s survival.
“It will either make or break Swapo,” was the summation of analyst Ndumba Kamwanyah.
Pretenders vs contenders
While the eyes of many are glued on the next Swapo VP position - the face of the party’s next presidential candidate - the two remaining positions are equally crucial.
Known as the ‘engine room’ in Swapo corridors, the importance of the SG post – which is occupied by the party’s top administrator – cannot be over-emphasised.
In most other political formations, the SG is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, politician.
In Swapo, the position comes with lucrative perks and a seat at the high table [Cabinet] and immense political capital.
This time around, a fierce contest is when Shaningwa defends her fiefdom against youthful Oshikoto coordinator Armas Amukwiyu. The position of deputy secretary general will see former tourism minister Uahekua Herunga, Kavango West Swapo coordinator David Hamutenya and parliamentarian Evelyn !Nawases-Taeyele pitted against each other.
Parliamentarian Lucia Witbooi, who was also vying for the deputy secretary general position, withdrew from the race on Monday, labelling it as “too crowded”.
The move is seen as tactical and to avoid vote splitting, as Herunga and Witbooi are said to be in the same camp, alongside Nandi-Ndaitwah and Shaningwa.
Meanwhile, !Nawases-Taeyele is
believed to be in the same camp as Kuugongelwa-Amadhila and Amukwiyu.
This week, New Era solicited views from political commentators, party loyalists and veterans on why this year’s elective indaba matters for the survival and reincarnation of Swapo. Former Namibia Today [Swapo’s mouthpiece] editor Asser Ntinda agreed with Kamwanyah, saying “this congress will either make or break Swapo”.
At the heart of his argument is the fact that some key party figures feel alienated, among them parliamentarian Jerry Ekandjo.
Ekandjo was eliminated from contesting for the party vice presidency.
“There are many people out there who are hurt by the exclusion of Ekandjo from the race. How can Swapo sacrifice people like Ekandjo, who is scandal- free, while fielding corruption-tainted leaders? Are they the only best of the best left in Swapo? In the eyes of many, that means Swapo has become a den of thieves and corrupt leaders,” Ntinda asserted. The veteran Swapo journalist backed his claims by saying all the candidates lining up for the various leadership positions
are products of the 2017 congress, which was allegedly bankrolled with Fishrot money.
“Swapo is neck-deep in a smelly ditch because of slate politics,” he said, suggesting that unity remains a mirage in Swapo.
For Ntinda, beyond the hype, there is not much to expect from this year’s congress.
“Those who will emerge as leaders from this congress will have an uphill battle to convert the born-frees to vote for Swapo. The born-frees will simply not listen to corruption-tainted leaders.
Swapo is even fielding people who are heavily implicated in the Fishrot scandal. That is an insult. Being a state witness doesn’t mean anything. What will these people say about corruption in 2024?” he wanted to know.
He also took issue with Geingob’s decision not to endorse Nandi-Ndaitwah, who he handpicked five years ago to form part of his christened ‘Team Harambee’.
“He no longer trusts the people he trusted in 2017. And he doesn’t tell us why he no longer trusts them,” Ntinda, once Swapo’s biggest cheerleader, but now biggest critic, said. It is an open secret that the Swapo congress matters, even to apolitical Namibians, opposition parties and the general public, as it points to Namibia’s next likely president, if looking back down memory lane is anything to go by.
“Swapo dominates the socio-economic policy landscape, and the citizenry are eager to know who will emerge victorious in the various leadership positions, especially that of vice president,” political analyst Rui Tyitende observed.
A commonality among Swapo congresses is that they have all been marred by allegations of corruption and division, he added, noting that this year’s assembly is not an exception.
Analysts also warned that Swapo could split after the contentious leadership battle.
“The burden is on Swapo to deliver a leader that Namibia is crying for. We haven’t seen innovation or any new ideas. It is a crucial congress because Swapo is divided. They have to do everything to ensure that they don’t come out divided after this congress,” Kamwanyah said.
A divided Swapo, Tyitende echoed, will find it difficult to convince an electorate which is disillusioned with the current socio-economic malaise that the country is in.
This, he added, makes managing the various factions or camps after the congress priority number one for those who emerge victors. “Whoever emerges victorious as the vice president and secretary general will have to deal with a party that is in the political intensive care unit and has a serious credibility problem,” the academic noted.
He added that the 2024 election will be Swapo’s ultimate litmus test.
“It will determine whether the party will escape the dangerous zone of falling below the 50% threshold. The onus will be on the leadership to persuade the public that they have transformed, and have a clear and comprehensive plan to rescue the country with its myriad of problems,” stated Tyitende.
It is often said among ‘religious’ followers that “when Swapo sneezes, Namibia catches a flu”, to amplify the perceived importance of major Swapo events, especially elective congresses.
We take a short trip in history to highlight some defining moments in the Swapo calendar.
Immediately after independence in 1991, Swapo held its first congress to set its policies.
That year, the congress mainly focused on uniting party cadres, those who went into exile during the liberation struggle, and those who stayed home to fight the apartheid regime from within.
Again, in 1997, delegates converged to elect its top four leaders and central committee members.
During that congress, the position of party president, occupied by Founding President Sam Nujoma, was uncontested, as he sought to secure a third term as head of state. Nujoma had his way through a constitutional amendment, midwifed by Geingob a year later.
The position of party VP was the hot topic, as it pitted the powerful prime minister, Geingob, against the late Rev Hendrik Witbooi.
Although Geingob enjoyed Nujoma’s support, he lost to Witbooi.
Witbooi, a clergyman, was allegedly fielded in the race to simply curtail Geingob’s influence in Swapo as he was seen as the heir to Nujoma’s throne at party and State level.
The 1997 dust refused to settle when the delegates met in 2002 for a similar exercise.
What featured predominantly in the news at the time was the fall-out between Geingob and Nujoma.
That year, Nujoma fired Geingob as his prime minister, offering him the position of local government minister. Geingob promptly resigned and jetted off to the United States.
It was at that congress where former president Hifikepunye Pohamba [Swapo SG then] was voted in as party VP, which effectively catapulted him to pole position to replace Nujoma.
At the watershed extraordinary congress in 2004, Nujoma backed Pohamba - then Swapo vice president - as his preferred candidate. Nujoma’s blessing, however, did not deter party veterans such as the late Hidipo Hamutenya and Nahas Angula from challenging Pohamba. A re-run was required between Hamutenya and Pohamba to determine the eventual victor.
Pohamba eventually won the battle for the party vice presidency, while he was also confirmed as the Swapo candidate for the general elections in 2004. In 2007, Nujoma would exit the political stage, forever, leaving Pohamba in charge of the ruling party and country. At that congress, Geingob returned from the political wilderness after a brief stint in America. Senior Swapo leaders, including Pohamba and Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, backed Geingob at that congress.
With his popularity at its peak, Ekandjo was seen as the only stumbling block between Geingob and the VP position.
Ekandjo withdrew from the race, and allowed Geingob to run unopposed.
That year, then Swapo diehards – Hamutenya, Jeremiah Nambinga, Kandy Nehova, Jesaya Nyamu and Mike Kavekotora – left the ruling party en masse to form the Rally for Democracy and Progress after the dust from 2004 refused to settle.
In 2012, again, Pohamba endorsed Geingob as his ideal candidate for the position of vice president.
Geingob faced stiff competition in the form of Ekandjo and Iivula-Ithana.
Geingob saw off his competitors.
The 2017 congress saw slate politics dominate, with Geingob’s Team Harambee going knuckle-to-knuckle against Team Swapo. That congress was also marred by allegations of vote-buying and election rigging. Alas, Team Harambee annihilated its competition, sealing all top four positions and a greater chunk of CC seats, effectively pushing Team Swapo into a state of permanent paralysis.