President Hage Geingob was a guest this week on Voice of America’s Straight Talk Africa, where he spoke to Shaka Ssali (top right) on Namibia’s path to a prosperous future and his vision for the New Africa. We reproduce the first part of the broadcastin print.
How should I address you? Mr President, Comrade or Hage?
I am Hage. You can call me Comrade Hage, officially I am Comrade Hage Geingob.
You have been president for one and a half year, how does it feel to be a president of a country? Can you walk us through a day in the life of President Hage Geingob of Namibia?
I wake up very early and I do not leave the bed. I start to read my papers and listen to the world news just to know what is happening and then I go to work. If I stay at State House it is not far, so I just walk over. If I stay at my own place, which I do, I drive with two cars only, no escorts, no stopping of the streets. The life of a president, I do not feel it yet, I’m still new.
When I looked at your CV and of course knowing what I know about you is that you are a very unique and qualified Head of State. You spent 14 years as senior UN executive, you spent another 14 years as prime minister, you have worked at Global Coalition for Africa at the World Bank for a couple of years, you have been minister of trade, how does that feel like?
It makes me feel old now, the way in which you are now describing me. I must say it is a challenge. People put me there with a massive majority, but I always say it’s not about popularity. It is high expectations and the greatest responsibility rests on my shoulders. In fact, one person cannot do it. I had to set up a team and it must be teamwork. I do believe that instead of personalities we have to start to think of the processes, systems and institutions, not individuals.
It seems that you knew a long time ago what you wanted to be in life? Did to you get the opportunity to prepare yourself?
I was in the struggle. All the assignments I got were through Swapo. I didn’t apply for any of those jobs, but they exposed me to life, education – luckily enough – and I met Africans. I was mentored by very good African leaders here at the UN, who mentored me as an ordinary petitioner, like Professor [Adedeji] Adebayo and Salim Ahmed Salim, as well many of them. I’ve seen Africa, I lived in the DRC those days. Tough times, as We couldn’t communicate with the people in DRC [due to the language barrier], but Africans are Africans. I can live anywhere in Africa and I will feel at home. The job I have now, it is an assignment by the Namibian people for a period of five years. If they want me back… but that is not yet on the cards.
Do you have heroes in your life? Or is there any particularly individual that inspired you?
There are people who played an important role in my life. Starting with Sam Nujoma, my president. We grew up together and decided to set up the party. We worked together, but as we were moving with the revolutionary struggle I must say the man who made an impact on me is Fidel Castro.
In what way?
Firstly, we went to Cuba in 1977 with [then Swapo] president Nujoma and Castro met us. That was the time when we were going from fighting to [United Nations] Resolution 435. President Nujoma was going to explain to him that he is not going to fight, but that they are going to vote. President Nujoma took a long time and it was not easy, over an hour, Castro just sat and listened. I was at the UN and our African brothers, younger than Nujoma, would have interrupted, but here was President Castro for one hour just listening. When Comrade Nujoma finished, he asked: ‘Look, it is your country, you came to ask for weapons, we gave you that, now you want to add ballot papers, you get that too. But are you going to win the elections?’ Comrade Nujoma said, ‘Yes, with hard work, because Swapo was not formed outside the country but within the country. We have support there.’ That is the man. To sit and listen that way and [remember] Cubans died in the interest of Namibia and Africa and they will tell you that they didn’t get gold and so on, only the bodies of their people to take back.
What is your vision for the people of Namibia, the region and indeed the African continent?
My vision in Namibia is encapsulated here [in the Harambee Prosperity Plan]. I’m saying nation building is like building a house. You first clear the area and then you dig a strong foundation and then you use the bricks to build the house. In Namibia, we cleared the field with the UN supervised elections, then we sat down to draft the Constitution that is our foundation, and now I’m telling Namibians since we come from different backgrounds that we are now the bricks. The Damaras, Ovahereros, Owambos, whites and Germans: all of us. The mortar, which keeps our bricks together, is our laws, but the lesson is that once you build up the wall firmly, you plaster it. Once you paint it, you no longer see individual bricks. You no longer see individual tribes. Therefore, in this Namibian house, let us live as one Namibia, one nation. Let us hold hands and move in the Harambee spirit, in the same direction. Same for Africa, I believe in an African house, where all Africans from different regions would one day in this Harambee spirit pull in the same direction. And so is it for the world.
Walk us back to 1989 when you were the chairman of the Constituent Assembly. The Constitution took three months but was supposed to have taken you two years. What kind of magic did you use?
No magic. It was just to reconcile people. I went to all the leaders, including opposition leaders – and some of them were my former enemies. I went to see one of them, De Wet, who said we hate Afrikaners and do not want to speak Afrikaans. When I came to his wife he was speaking to her in Afrikaans and I said in Afrikaans, ‘I also want to have rooibos tea’. That broke the ice and we went inside the house and relaxed and I said, ‘Mr De Wet, as you know I am through and through Swapo, but you have elected me, meaning the [Constituent] Assembly and, therefore, I will be your chairman. So, I would like to know what your fears are about having a black government. In our case we just want to have three meals per day for our children, we want them to go to school unmolested, live their lives, and to study.’ He said: ‘That is the same for us’ and I said, ‘You see Mr De Wet, the fear of the unknown.’ That is how it started.
Interesting. What about when you went to report or brief the chairman of Swapo himself, Sam Nujoma?
You see, I had to always in between go to keep them abreast. When there were difficult issues we would adjourn, either for consultation, or to brief the chairman and the rest of the comrades. We moved so fast, because I looked at the different drafts and I looked at commonalities and asked why should we waste time on things we agree on. So, we got rid of them and only talked about material differences that we had on the issue of the type of parliament, the presidency and prime minister. Others were saying presidents in Africa are dictators, because they have too much power, [so] they came up term limits for executive presidents. I agreed, then I went to meet my boss. I was beating around the bush and said ‘these puppets want to block us from having an executive president, but we will get them’. He said: ‘That is fine, because I’m already old enough’. I nearly collapsed I was so shocked.
Why? Did you think he would be like the vast majority of African leaders?
No, I won’t go there. Definitely he said that and I said: ‘Thank God’. I ran back [to the Assembly].
Having said that, what happened back in 2000?
Sometimes, you have to look at the Constitution, the conditions in the country and deal with realities on the ground. He came to talk to me and said: ‘Time has run so quickly.’ I could agree with that too and most of them are confidential things we discussed. We came to the conclusion and I said: ‘You have been all the time in the bush. Some of your colleagues have been there 20 years and later on became term-limited presidents. We will give you extra five years to sort things out, as you are saying and I’m going to pull it [off].’ We didn’t change the term limit clauses. The Constitution had a transitional clause, which said, the first president shall be elected by the Constituent Assembly and shall serve for two five-year terms. We only put three five-year terms.
Are you suggesting Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi might have taken a leaf from Namibia?
Why not, if it is done for a good cause? Today, I’m the third president… That is how sometimes we impose things on people and when things go wrong in Africa we say ‘Look at the Africans!’ I averted that. Today we have a thriving democracy.
* See the second part of this interview in our Monday edition.