Sam Nujoma: A Cold War Warrior


For decades the border between Angola and Namibia was one of the most fierce battlegrounds between the former apartheid regime and Southern African liberation movements, as well as other Cold War proxies of the US and the then Soviet Union.

But the stakes in this conflict were perhaps the highest for the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), which were fighting for the Independence of their country from South Africa.

This month marks the anniversary of the UN supervised November 1989 election of a National Assembly for Namibia, which ultimately led to the country’s Independence.

The President of SWAPO from 1960 until Nambia achieved its Independence – and then for many years afterwards – was Sam Nujoma.

It fell to him and his comrades to negotiate with the superpowers in international forums, while fighting a bush war against the South African Defence Force — then widely regarded as the most powerful military on the continent.

A former German colony, Namibia was entrusted to South Africa after World War I by the League of Nations. But South Africa effectively – if it could not formally – annexed Namibia, continuing colonial practices and inflicting apartheid rule. Inevitably, Namibians, who had a long history of resisting colonialism, rebelled.

Nujoma, who became involved in politics through trade unions, attracted the attention of the South African security apparatus when he organised protests against the implementation of apartheid policies in South West Africa – and called for the country to be granted independence.

He was forced into exile in 1960, after he was arrested and charged with organising popular resistance in the country, but was elected President of SWAPO in absentia.

Other SWAPO leaders ended up in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison.

Nujoma has been described as a leader with a broad smile and an iron will.

He spent the following three decades in exile, establishing SWAPO offices in neighbouring states and garnering international diplomatic and military support for the independence of Namibia and SWAPO’s armed struggle.

At first Nujoma and others petitioned the UN to end South Africa’s colonial administration of Namibia.

In 1971, the UN agreed that South Africa’s rule of Namibia was illegal – but South Africa refused to give up its occupation of the country.

By then, SWAPO had already launched an armed struggle.

On the website of the Sam Nujoma Foundation, he is credited with transporting the weapons that were to be used to launch the Namibian armed struggle in 1966, when PLAN forces first clashed with the South African police.

But the Namibian struggle for Independence soon became embroiled in Cold War geopolitics.

SWAPO based its fighters in southern Angola, a former Portuguese colony with a socialist government that was supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

Nujoma is credited with transforming SWAPO into an internationally recognised liberation movement accepted as the legitimate representative of the Namibian people by the UN and the Organisation of African Unity, created to end colonialism on the continent.

While in office, Nujoma adopted pragmatic social and economic policies, which SWAPO has broadly continued – despite fears that it would resort to populist, socialist redistribution programmes.

PLAN actions served as armed propaganda and kept up the security pressure on South Africa, although combat losses and deadly attacks on SWAPO refugee and military camps attracted criticism of its effectiveness.

There have also been allegations that Nujoma maintained too tight a grip on the organisation, leading to abuses as the liberation movement struggled to balance political and security concerns with democratic practices.

Nevertheless, Nujoma led the Swapo negotiations team that shuttled between the Western powers, South Africa and other African states ahead of the adoption of the UN Security Council Resolution 435 in 1978, which set out the process for Namibian Independence.

The implementation of the resolution became the rallying point for all those campaigning for Namibian Independence.

The fighting in southern Angola between South African and UNITA, and Angola and Cuba, reached a climax in 1988, but ended with a stalemate at the town of Cuito Cuanavale.

Both sides have claimed victory in what was then described as the largest battle in Africa since the end of the Second World War – but they all seem to have emerged keener for a settlement.

SWAPO won a majority in the Namibian elections that followed and on February 16, 1990, Nujoma was elected as the First President of the Republic of Namibia.

He was re-elected for two more terms in office, amid some controversy as SWAPO had to find a way around a constitutional limit on the number of times he could serve as President.

In any event, Nujoma stepped down in 2005, amid speculation that he had hand-picked his successor. – Gulf News

November 2013
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