The Congress of Democrats (CoD) is in an anxious state. During the past week, the leadership crisis in the country’s second-largest political party reached a climax. The extraordinary congress, which was expected to address the party crisis, now appears to have worsened matters. Currently, the party, once viewed as a beacon of democracy and hope by its supporters, faces a possible permanent split or a natural death. New Era’s Kuvee Kangueehi had a Question-and-Answer interview with CoD’s President Ben Ulenga on the state of the party and the recently concluded congress. Q: In what state does the party finds itself now? Ulenga: The party is facing a challenge, one of its biggest challenges since its inception, but it also provides the party an opportunity to examine itself and rebuild itself. The problems of the party did not only start at the last extraordinary congress, but much earlier. Q: When exactly did this problem start? Ulenga: The problem between us started shortly after Gertze was elected Secretary-General of the party in 2004. I remember in August 2004 while I was at the genocide centenary at Okakarara, I received a call from Gertze enquiring about two cheques I did not sign. I informed him that I could not sign the cheques because there were no supporting documents, but Gertze exploded and accused me of all sorts of things. I was really disturbed by his behaviour and that is when communication between the two of us started breaking down. Q: Did you report the incident to other leaders or did you discuss it at a meeting? Ulenga: At first, I kept the incident to myself, but I once raised it with other members at a leadership meeting and it became ugly. Gertze in the meeting told me that he does not trust me and accused me of working with Sam Nujoma. The meeting became chaotic and there was simply a stand-off. Q: What were the other issues? Ulenga: It was the way the finances of the party were administered and the resignation of Kaveri Kavari as Treasurer-General of the party. It came to my attention that Gertze had made loans, without consulting anybody, to the Breaking Wall of Silence (BWS) of which he is the chairperson, and to some individuals. I think it was morally wrong to spend public funds in such a manner. Gertze also had given personal loans to himself and Pauline Dempers, and it is simply unacceptable. The Secretary-General had discovered a way of accessing party funds without the requirement of a second signature and was writing letters to the bank instructing it to pay out funds to individuals without the authorization of the party. Q: What was the reason for the resignation of Kavari? Ulenga: Kavari had written to me resigning as Treasury-General because of the ongoing fights with Gertze. I, as the head of the party, refused to accept her resignation because I felt there was a problem in the leadership which needed to be addressed and could not allow her to resign, and I persuaded her to stay on. She agreed to stay on and came back to the party a couple of times, but the fight with Gertze was too much for her and she decided to resign again. I, however, maintained that she was elected by congress and, because of the manner in which the party finances were being handled, there was a need for a treasurer. But Gertze was determined to sideline some people in the party, including myself. In the end, I was accused of being an autocrat for stopping Kavari from resigning. Q: How did he sideline you? Ulenga: I was not informed about any decisions being taken at the office. A classical example even happened on Monday afternoon when I accidentally intercepted a telephone call, just to learn that Gertze and Ellen Dienda had to go to Sweden to represent the party. I was not aware of the trip. It was not the first, because earlier this year Gertze left on a party mission to Finland and I was not aware of it. As the SG, he presented a reform plan to our sister organization in Sweden and asked for funds without firstly presenting the proposal to the party leadership. In the past, when Ignatius Shixwameni was the SG, he would inform about all the developments concerning the party. Gertze did not only sideline the office of the president but also made the party dysfunctional. In fact, I believe there was no need to call an extraordinary congress to address the problem facing the party because the problem was simply that the leadership did not work together. Q: Why did you not call Gertze to order? Ulenga: It was simply impossible because every time you try, the vice-president, Nora Schimming-Chase, will try and defend him. There was a rift in the top party leadership and we could simply not agree on simple matters such as how we should call the National Working Committee (NWC) or National Executive Committee (NEC). As the chairperson of the two bodies, I thought I should be the one calling the meetings, but the leadership had a different opinion and you find occasions when the SG will be calling such meetings. Gertze made the party a one-man show and even received an amount N$80ÃƒÆ’Ã†’Ãƒâ€ ‘ÃƒÆ’ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒ…ÃƒÆ’Ã†”Ã…Â¡ÃƒÆ’Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â 000 from our partners in Sweden and did not inform anybody – or at least me – about this money. Q: Is there an element of tribalism in the squabbles? Ulenga: It pains me, but I have to admit that there is. Although nobody said it officially, there was always that feeling that I am an owambo and should belong to Swapo Party. There is also a tendency growing that the CoD is a party for minorities, and the minorities should lead the party. But when we formed the CoD, it was not intended for minorities. I will defend the CoD against such notion. The build-up to the congress, especially the proportional representation formula, awakened the tribal feeling. The presidential race between Shixwameni and myself antagonized the relationship between the Kavangos and Owambos, which should not be the case. Individual ambition should not divide the party. Q: What is the way forward for the CoD? Ulenga: The CoD leadership should unite, but it also does not help to force people to unite. The party cannot afford to deal with people standing outside and, if anybody has genuine grievances, the party is willing to address them at the various structures of the party. I will not accept a situation where people stay together and grow to hate each other. The new leadership has to take up the challenge of building the party and strengthening it on the ground. The people outside now might have disagreed with the party, but it does not mean that they hate the party. The CoD is a young party and should move away from being a party of personalities but should be identified with its principles and vision. I have no intention of staying president forever but the principles need to be rooted. I decided to stand at the last congress because I believe I can still contribute to the party. Q: Given the rift between the CoD parliamentarians, do you expect the team to remain the same? Ulenga: There is absolutely no reason to change the parliamentary team now, but I will also not allow them to rock the boat. We will need a high degree of cooperation given that we are only five to make a serious impact in parliament. For now, we are awaiting the financial forensic audit, which will give us a better picture.
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