Namibia set for election amid economic downturn

25 November 2019 - 09:41 By AFP
Supporters of the Namibian opposition party Popular Democratic Movement presidential candidate, McHenry Venaani, cheer and wave flags during the last Namibian presidential election campaign rally on November 24, 2019 in Windhoek, Namibia.
Supporters of the Namibian opposition party Popular Democratic Movement presidential candidate, McHenry Venaani, cheer and wave flags during the last Namibian presidential election campaign rally on November 24, 2019 in Windhoek, Namibia.
Image: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP

Namibians will vote in a general election on Wednesday with the incumbent president facing discontent over the ailing economy despite the nation being one of the most mineral-rich in Africa.

The southwest African nation is grappling with an entrenched recession that has overshadowed President Hage Geingob's first term in office.

Geingob, whose South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO) has ruled Namibia since independence from South Africa in 1990, is seeking re-election, but his popularity has waned among frustrated youth who have borne the brunt of the downturn.

Disaffection has fuelled support for ex-dentist Panduleni Itula, 62, a SWAPO member standing as an independent candidate.

Analysts say that Itula could attract votes from both the opposition and SWAPO loyalists displeased with 78-year-old Geingob.

"The Namibian people are living in dire straits," tweeted Itula last week.

'Don't need friends'  

Observers say the president is still likely to secure a second five-year mandate, but his score is predicted to drop from the 87 percent he garnered in 2014.

His runner-up McHenry Venaani of the opposition Popular Democratic Movement (PDM), had won less than five percent of the votes cast.

SWAPO has enjoyed a two-thirds parliamentary majority since 1994.

"We are now in the second phase of the struggle, that of economic emancipation, that of provision of basic necessities," said Geingob addressing a more than half-empty stadium at SWAPO's final rally in the capital Windhoek on Saturday.

Around 2,500 people clad in green, red and blue party colours joined in singing liberation struggle songs.

Even fewer attended Venaani's final rally on Sunday.

His PDM party is haunted by the legacy of its affiliation with apartheid South Africa before independence, which continues to deter voters. The rest of Namibia's opposition is ethnically divided.

"You have no meaningful alternative to SWAPO," analyst Henning Melber told AFP.

"With a weak opposition like that you don't need friends," he added.

Tough first term 

And Geingob has made very few. His first term saw Namibia's economy slump.

Despite World Bank predictions of recovery this year, growth remained negative for the first two quarters of 2019.

"The economy is so low, people are not getting jobs," said 18-year-old high school graduate Ndeshihafea Nghipandulwa, hawking eyewear on the side of the road.

"We want a new president so that we can see change."

Namibia's economic slide was triggered by a combination of low commodity prices and one of the worst droughts in history.

Public debt ballooned as the cash-strapped government sought international support.

But Geingob has continued to pump money into his administration and hired a disproportionate numbers of civil servants.

"You have six or seven ministries doing the same thing," bewailed another opposition candidate Esther Muinjangue, accusing SWAPO of creating "jobs for its comrades".

'Disappointed' freedom fighters 

"I fought for the country, but today I am very disappointed," said 77-year-old SWAPO war veteran Naftali Ngiyalwa, who sells flip-flops on Windhoek's Independence Avenue.

"We were not fighting to be well-off, but just to be okay and not homeless," he told AFP, adding that he would still support Geingob.

Namibia is one of the richest countries in Africa. Vast uranium and diamond reserves sit along a 1,500 kilometre (930-mile) coastline, which is home to a vibrant fishing industry.

Nearly a million tourists visit each year, drawn to its wildlife and desert landscapes.

That wealth, however, does not trickle down to many.

Namibia is the world's second most unequal country after South Africa, according to the World Bank.

Around 40 percent of urban dwellers lived in shacks in 2016, according to the government.

Rising suspicions 

Geingob's credibility took another hit this month after WikiLeaks published evidence of government officials taking bribes from an Icelandic fishing company and two ministers resigned.

The president claims the timing of the leaks was calculated to damage his campaign.

Meanwhile, the opposition are concerned over the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs), claiming the absence of paper records raised prospects of fraud.

Namibia was the first African country to use EVMs in 2014.

Reports that a number of EVMs went missing after they were used for a local election in 2017 have stoked further suspicion over the poll's credibility.

With a population of 2.45 million, around 1.4 million Namibians are registered to vote.

Eleven candidates and 15 parties are contesting the presidential and parliamentary polls. 

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