Veteran Minister Sets Record Straight

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The Minister of Veterans Affairs, Ngarikutuke Tjiriange, this week spoke at length about his new ministry and hopes for the future. In the interview with Catherine Sasman of New Era, Tjiriange sets his sights on his new mission and the way ahead for his Ministry which was established on October 4, 2006 to address the needs and aspirations of ex-combatants of the Namibian liberation struggle. Excerpt Q: What is the purpose and mandate of your ministry? A: The ministry is to coordinate all Government’s efforts to assist the ex-combatants, and to initiate new areas of activities for them to help sustain their lives and promote their well-being. We intend to establish schemes from which they can benefit. Such schemes – still to be decided on – must be viable to stand the test of time. Most important is that these schemes be done in consultation with the beneficiaries. It is best to do things properly. Of course, the ministry is there to supervise such programmes. The sky is the limit here, but we have to do proper research not to end up with white elephants that will not benefit anybody. Q: Why has the ministry been set up only 16 years after Independence? Was there never a need for this, or was this a knee-jerk reaction to the demands made by the Committee for the Welfare of War Veterans last year? A: In the first place, Government has been dealing with the issue of the combatants since the word go. A number of things have been put in place (since Independence). One of these was the Development Brigade Corporation. Another was SIPE which dealt with the children and orphans of the fighters, and so on. There were also programmes where former fighters were given cattle, and some were resettled. Other projects were aimed at helping those who were injured in the war. Still others involved brick-making, particularly by women. The Peace project, for example, has brought about the creation of the Special Field Force and the inclusion of many in the armed forces. But we have learnt from our mistakes; from our progress or lack of it. The President (Hifikepunye Pohamba) thought the time had come to have a focal point – in the form of the ministry – where all these scattered programmes could be combined into one whole. For this, we have looked at different types of arrangements in the world. I have been sent to South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. I have also studied documents of other countries like Algeria and Vietnam. At the end of my mission I prepared a report, which I presented to President Pohamba. In his own wisdom, he decided that the creation of a properly constituted ministry was the best option to solve this problem once and for all. Q: So the ministry was not established in response to the mounting pressure from the Committee for the Welfare of War Veterans? A: No. Governments do not work that way. The Government would not be pressurized by that group. That is out of the question. Government had its projects from the start, and it needed to streamline those programmes and activities. The ministry is based on what has already happened. Those who think there was pressure from somewhere, are daydreaming. That group is not the sole representative of all the fighters. SWAPO waged the (liberation) war, and we know who the PLAN fighters are. And PLAN fighters know who SWAPO is. There is no divorce between the two, and SWAPO has at no time abandoned the PLAN fighters. We do not need any pressure from anybody. Q: What has been done so far to set up the ministry? A: We have done quite a lot of things. Because it has not been in existence before, we first had to find a place from which to operate. We have also drawn up a medium-term budget to do the most important things necessary to make the ministry tick. Our long-term budget will now be defended in Parliament at the next budgetary session (this week). We have obviously also laid down the design and structure of the ministry. The Public Service Commission has approved its two directorates: one will deal with projects and schemes and the other with administration and research. Recruitment is currently in full swing to obtain the necessary competent staff. The ministry is furthermore in the process of preparing Bills to provide a legal framework within which to operate. These we shall bring to Parliament as soon as possible. And right now we are organizing a workshop to prepare the ministry’s operational plan. All these things are in the process; some are done and some not. But we have started to deal with all of them. Q: And how will the registration of veterans be conducted? A: What first needs to happen is for the ministry to be fully constituted. At the moment it consists of myself as the minister, and the permanent secretary. By the end of the month, I would like to see that everyone is on board to start with the issues that we have been created for. The registration of veterans should be predictable and transparent. But before we get there, we need an Act of Parliament that will in very clear terms stipulate who would qualify as a ‘veteran’. Currently there is no definition of what this constitutes. I would not want people to say there was favouritism or corruption during the registration period. The Act will thus have to be very clear: you will either be considered a veteran, or not. I envisage that the eventual registration process takes into consideration that we might be dealing with people who are aged or not in the best of health, or who are scattered in the remote areas all over the country. We will have to satisfactorily reach out to all these people. Of course, and not to re-invent the wheel, we will be looking at those who have already been registered, particularly PLAN members … depending on the definition decided upon by Parliament. But we shall go out there and start registering people once everything is in place. People will be told through the media, traditional authorities and councillors at every level, and through all political parties when and where this is to take place. The entire country will be informed in very clear terms. We want this to be as speedy as possible so that people can benefit. But people have to be patient for now. Q: Once a clear definition is provided for in an Act of Parliament, how will the ministry establish who then really are ‘veterans’, or not? Who will vouch for those who claim to be veterans? A: There should be proper checks and balances to avoid any cheating. It might be a difficult process, but not impossible to do. We need mechanisms to get what we want, although there is no guarantee that you will always get a 100% watertight situation. But we should aim for that. But people should not be worried about being excluded. Many people have expressed that fear. We would like to be as inclusive as possible. The ministry is very deliberately called for ‘veteran affairs’ and not for ‘war veterans affairs’ which would have excluded many. It thus covers as many people as possible who have contributed in one way or another to what we have today. These contributions may have come in many different ways. And would the former Koevoets and SWATFs be included in such a definition? Perhaps we should look at what has happened in this country. Under Apartheid, the South Africans have created structures to wage war against the freedom fighters. Many have joined because they did not have much of a choice but to dance to the tune of the time. I do not believe that all whites supported Apartheid even if that regime was made to prop up their interests. Even those that the (former) regime pretended to benefit were also put under restrictions. We thus have to have a holistic approach. Those who were forced to fight against freedom fighters are here; they have been left behind and they are Namibians. I do not know how the law will accommodate these groups, but the fact is that they are here, no matter what they have done. We will have to find a way to tackle this problem. Q: Would you say this ministry has a restricted lifespan? A: There are no ministries that can exist permanently. But this ministry will exist until we think our mission has been completed. And if we later think other institutions can deal with its work, then so be it. But in the meantime we have a very real problem. We have to tackle it until we think there is no more need for a fully-fledged ministry. If the experience of other countries is anything to go by, then there is no end in sight. In Mozambique, Algeria and Vietnam they either have ministries or agencies, but these are still existing. It is therefore not easy to predict the lifespan of the ministry, but it is dependent on whether we are satisfied that we have achieved what we have set out to do.