The Portrait of a Soldier
When President Hifikepunye Pohamba appointed him Chief of Namibian Defence Force (NDF) in January 2011, Lieutenant-General Epaphras Denga Ndaitwah became the fourth military officer to serve at the helm of the defence force since independence. After three years at the helm of the NDF, Lt-Gen Ndaitwah, husband to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, retires from the military at the end of this month. ANDREAS THOMAS of The Southern Times caught up with the defence chief to reflect on his long military journey that spans close to four decades.
QUESTION (Q): Looking back to almost 40 years in the military, by reflecting on that journey, what were some of the highlights before and after independence?
ANSWER (A): It was a long journey to get where I am today. If I were to remain in uniform until next year, I would have been 40 years in uniform.
I left the country in 1974 at a very tender age. I left the country at a time when many young Namibians were leaving the country to join the struggle for independence. After going through thick and thin, we ended up in Zambia, in the care of SWAPO. We were enrolled into the military wing of SWAPO, PLAN (the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia). And that’s where my military career started.
After going through basic military training in Zambia, I was among the first group of 500 that was sent to Tanzania for advanced military training. There are still a number of us, who were part of that group today, one of them being our deputy minister here (Peter Iilonga). We trained together in Tanzania between 1974 and 1975. The other one is Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana (Minister of Home Affairs), and many others. After training, we were sent to different fronts. I remember on 20 February 1976, the first time I crossed back into Namibia. We were a group of soldiers led by Commander Pondo laNangombe (that’s his combat name) ‑ his actual name is Isaak Shikongo.
We crossed at an area called Ohehonge, just east of Eenhana, and that’s where some of us have been operating, from east of Eenhana towards Okongo (present day Ohangwena region). We were sent inside Namibia to engage the enemies. But when we arrived in the country, it was now a question of “how do we start with the actual fight now?”
Another main priority was to mobilise the local population, because we heavily relied on them in so many ways. For instance, they sheltered us and provided us with food. They also provided us with valuable information about the enemies. It was important to establish a relationship with the local communities so that they understood the purpose of our mission. That’s basically how things unfolded. It is a long story; but basically that was the beginning
Q: As a young, untested soldier, how was your first encounter with the enemy?
A: My first encounter with the enemy was at a village called Eshii. That’s south-east of Eenhana. As we were coming to that village, we were informed that there were enemy soldiers on the other side of the village. So, we attacked them, and it was a successful attack because we found them unprepared and it was kind of a moral boost to many young fighters, most of whom had never engaged the enemy in actual battle ‑ it was the first time for many of us. That was in 1976 around March.
Q: And after independence, how did you and others adapt to the new environment after many years of fighting in the bush?
A: As you said, some of us were just emerging from the bush and much of the life we knew was the life of fighting in the jungle. Now coming into that new environment was something else. That was during repatriation, and we were coming into an unfamiliar environment where we didn't know what will happen the next day. You know the administration was still in the hands of the enemy, apart from the deployment of the UN. We were sceptical about the environment, but in the end we were repatriated, the elections came, of which we are all aware of what happened and that’s how peace started.
But again before independence, the would-be-government needed to have a defence force ‑ a defence force that would come from the warring parties that had been fighting each other yesterday. Those were the members of PLAN and members of the SWATF (South West Africa Territorial Forces). We had to merge into one single command unit. It was not an easy exercise. There were suspicions on both sides because we couldn’t just have fought each other yesterday and then today we are within one structure. But I must say that right from the beginning up to the time I am speaking to you now, we never experienced major problems between the two former warring factions. The reason why, I must say, was because of the political leadership that has advocated the policy of national reconciliation. And it worked perfectly within our defence force and that’s what made us what we are today.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges and successes of the Namibia Defence Force (NDF) in terms of organisation and adaptation during the past 23 years?
A: Bringing the former warring parties together as a national defence force was the number one challenge. Then it was the question of “what does it take for a defence force to defend and protect the new country?” There you are looking at human resources – the kind of people you must have in terms of training, sustaining them and looking out for their welfare.
You look at the kind of equipment needed to at least have an operational military. In terms of the welfare, soldiers needed decent accommodations. But the type of accommodation that we inherited in this country was of temporary nature. That's because Namibia was considered as an operational area by the former South African defence force that time, which means the infrastructure that we inherited was of temporary nature. So, those were the major challenges. But, as I said earlier, the biggest challenge was that of uniting the former warring factions.
There also came a time when naturally some of the original members were getting old and started to fall out. There was now a question of how “do you replenish the NDF in terms of human resources”. It was a situation that as you are having some members exiting the defence force – you also have those who are joining. It was another dilemma, because we even ended up having two different sub-cultures in the defence force. There was the culture of PLAN and SWATF members and that of the newly recruited. But you had to try to eliminate these subcultures in order for the different groups to belong to the same unit, which is the NDF. It was not an easy thing, but was not unique to us.
It’s a kind of problem that defence forces around the world always have to contend with, due to different generations in the military. Some of the challenges will continue; they are part of life but what is important is that we have managed to establish a defence force that is capable of protecting the land.
Q: What were the biggest challenges associated with being the most senior military officer in the country?
A: When I took over the command of NDF on January 24, 2011, I first set out to familiarise myself with my new responsibilities. I wanted to understand how I would be charged to command the NDF in the 21st century. I drew up an agenda, with items that I wanted at least to achieve, because I knew that at one point I had to go. So, I wanted to make use of the little time at my disposal. Therefore, when I took over the command, I had what I called the ‘clarion call’. I wanted a paradigm shift in some specific areas of defence force – within the administration, management and within the command and control of the NDF. How was I to achieve that? Of course, I had people around me, and have to make this clarion call as part of my agenda to say “well guys, this is what I want to achieve”.
With my clarion call, I looked into three areas – human resources, accommodation and equipment. I looked back at what we have done since independence with regard to training. There were some gaps that needed to be filled. I went further and said well “you might have well trained human resources but what about accommodation?” The last item on the agenda was the acquisition of equipment. It is not, of course, for me to brag about my achievements. There must be people who can look at that and say, “Well your clarion call has worked”. But I know we have achieved so much with regard to training, and accommodation. I want, where possible, you guys to go around and make it a point to visit some of the military bases, for example, Keetmanshoop is one base worth visiting, so that people will understand what I am talking about. Go to the Rooikop Base, Naval Base, the Military School here at Okahandja, Otavi, Otjiwarongo, Oshakati, Mpacha, Oshivelo, Rundu and other places, you might pick up the achievements that have been made within the short period.
Q: The veterans of the liberation struggle are retiring and they are leaving with military experience that they have accumulated over many years of service. What efforts has NDF made to ensure that such experience continues to benefit those who will take over after you?
A: Experience is something you accumulate through training, and practice. Most of us experienced soldier are now falling out and we are going with that experience. We have also tried to pass on our experiences to the next generation. That’s why today we have young officers whom we are bringing up within the structure. Therefore, we are not worried. This is nothing unique to Namibia – it is a global experience that those with experience have to go. But what is important is the preparation you have made, for those who take over the helm of the structures when you are no longer there.
Like I said, experience comes through training and practice; therefore, I am not worried that I am retiring with my experience. In my current position, I am leaving so many capable and able generals of which one of them will be taking over from me, and he will pass on his experience and knowledge to those who are likely to come after him.
Q: Surely, being the most senior military officer on the land comes with praises and probably spite from the ranks. Was there any misconception about you during your time at the helm of NDF?
A: That’s something I might not be in a good position to judge. But again, being a leader at this level is not an easy task. Despite the fact that you are leading the military, you are also leading human beings. People will always have their own perceptions about others. Within the structure, there will be, of course, those who do not want to be pushed around. But naturally, in the military, there is no such thing that you cannot be pushed around, unless you don’t understand. But I don’t push you around for personal reasons, but I was appointed to push around. For instance, training is not an easy undertaking; you need to push somebody to do that.
Some people within the structure might say, “I wanted him to have gone yesterday”. That can be due to different reasons, which sometimes are subjective. Probably an individual missed a promotion because that person was not recommended by his/her immediate supervisor for promotion. So, when the other is promoted, one might say now he promoted that one and not me. How can I just stand up right away and start picking individuals for promotions? Promotion is something that filters through structures. If you have not reached my table, forget about that. But in your eyes I might end up being a bad guy.
But I am not worried about those who wished I could have gone yesterday, because there are others who say “wow, this guy, we wish he could continue”. And that’s what I picked up as I was going around the country bidding farewell to the forces “to say thank you very much, I now going”. I must tell you the appreciation I got from the different units, some in the form of gifts – I cannot tell you. My wife used to ask, “how are you going to keep all these gifts”? Honestly, my house is full of different gifts for which I have no space. Some people went to the extent of giving me livestock. Like recently I received a bull, which will be delivered tomorrow (December 17) to my farm. These are gifts by those people who feel that “this guy has done so much, why don’t we do the same for him”. But as a human being, wherever you lead, you cannot get 100 percent support from everyone. That, however, does not worry me; I am thankful to those who say “thanks so much that you, you gave us what you gave us”.
Q: The last time we spoke, you talked about your interest in farming; that you will go into livestock farming after your retirement. Is that still the case?
A: Yes, that is still my interest. For too long, I have been trying to get myself a farm and it was only in 2011 that I got one. I have a passion for farming. And that passion has also been driven by my wife. She has the same passion for farming. For instance, while I was busy tying some of my activities at the coast last weekend, the whole of that weekend my wife was at the farm doing what is expected of her. Currently we are farming with cattle and small stock. I think our land is not too suitable for crop production. If we decide to expand into crops, it will be on limited scale.
Q: Do you have any special appreciation to those you think played a big role in your career?
A: I can say that while I was a PLAN soldier led by our Founding Father (Dr Sam Nujoma), he was the inspiration for all of us. He was heading both the military, political and the diplomatic fronts; he has been the source of inspiration for the majority of us. He has been the leader, and led us up to the time we gained our independence.
Within the current setting as the Chief of the Defence Force, I must honestly thank the current President (Hifikepunye Pohamba), who is the commander-in-chief, for giving me this responsibility. He is the one I have to thank most, because it was a rare occasion. I am just the fourth Chief of Namibian Defence Force since independence. I also have to thank the Minister of Defence (Nahas Angula), who helped me a lot as the political head of our ministry, and also the Permanent Secretary, Mr Peter Shivute who is the accounting officer of the ministry. I am also thankful to the former Minister of Defence (Major-General Charles Namoloh).
Then to the actual structure itself, I have been surrounded by competent officers, who have been of great assistance. The success that I've talked about, belongs to us all. I was not working alone, I was just heading the structure but supported by so many within that bigger structure.