Dr Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari
The political debate in Namibia is less about substantive policy questions that are central to our progress. Foreign policy, in light of its erroneously perceived distance from domestic politics is an even bigger orphan in the paucity of conversation.
It enters the fracas through proverbial negative media affirmation and oversimplification when the President is to undertake external missions. At this deceptive level, Namibians are fed a diet of the travelling allowances the President would allegedly hoard, the size of the travelling party, including alleged amounts for hotel accommodation. I don’t know of any country that discusses foreign affairs with such somnolent cynicism, and from aberrant vantage points.
That is hardly a sane place from which to pursue an enlightened conversation about the President and foreign policy, including connecting the dots between that policy and national development.
Part of the deficit and inconclusive wrangling emanates from chronic skills shortages on international affairs. Namibia does not have academics or think tanks with qualifications in foreign policy analysis and international relations.
One-liners are occasionally sourced from academic snipers in public administration, law and generalist political science. But that is hardly sufficient to cover specialist information gaps.
Inevitably, academic deficits suggest that journalists with foreign affairs expertise don’t exist in our newsrooms. The deficits evoked imply that knowledge on foreign affairs resides on the functional desks of practitioners in government.
Arguably, a more direct pedagogical approach about the directive aspects of foreign policy and its implementation is to be expected from government. Still, it would be one-dimensional and lacking in foreign policy analyses. What should be done to enlarge a constituency of informed critique? The current state of play points to material with which to engage the role of the President in international affairs. The Presidency has introduced by way of press releases, and diverse media platforms unprecedented transparency about the President’s business travel and external interactions. Moreover, President Hage Geingob sought to cohere with intensity our foreign policy around the doctrine of a ‘New Africa’ and the praxis of small state diplomacy as the multiplex through which Namibia interacts with the rest of the world.
Even with unprecedented transparency and a doctrine framed on 21 March 2015, the issues are yet to emerge with eloquence as a coherent core in public debates. Oddly, the media – which ought to serve as the informational channel through piercing analyses of statements and speeches – is bunkered in the sensational.
By doing so, it has woefully missed the opportunity to make foreign affairs the serious enterprise it ought to be for our small state. To be a small state and to tailor diplomacy accordingly implies that we abandon the inferno of insular political conversations about presidential travel.
Namibia is a small state, with limited resources (financial and human) to deal with its multiple conditions of underdevelopment. In a rapid transforming world dominated by bigger states, we have limited authority to alter the world around us, let alone our own region.
In order to achieve our twin goals of poverty eradication and shared prosperity, our diplomacies should seek to expertly maximise gains in the external environment. Since we engage the world from a small-state diplomacy perspective, where our vulnerability is constant, our survival and progress lie in top-level engagements in external missions.
It is why the President – whose commitment is shared prosperity – ought to be present and engage in the global arenas that could deliver on that mandate. After all, the President’s voice and presence abroad represents the gravity with which Namibia engages with the domestic agenda. Presidential presence and diplomatic competencies can transcend our smallness, turning deficits into opportunities.
Presence at events, remarks at leading academic institutions and think tanks advances our arguments and our soft power. Soft power in itself is key in the canon of small-state diplomacy. In fact, invitations from leading think tanks, universities and industry – courtesies not always extended to all leaders – point to the esteem a President and a country enjoys in international affairs.
If the President misses UN summits where poverty, innovation, science and technology are under discussion, we will struggle to convince multilateral organisations, bilateral partners and industry about our commitment to these issues. Our presence at summits, notably through the President, is an explicit reflection of capacity, policy learning, openness and issue-urgency. It is for our voice to be heard, focusing attention to our country.
We should be irritated with lost opportunities stemming from our absence from the World Economic Forum in Davos, or the Geneva CEO summit. These are premier forums with key industry leaders and investors as annual pilgrims. It is naïve to expect opportunities from participation to be visible the following morning. It is just not how the real world works! They may take time. But the consistency with which a small country engages as present and open is unquestionably a winning formula for the future. There is also the elemental point worth raising: Namibians voted overwhelmingly for the President to direct the affairs of the state. They don’t intuit that the President as their voice in foreign affairs would travel for amusement. Certainly, not one who has introduced unprecedented austerity measures. Similarly, they don’t assume that their President would travel without diligent consideration of the benefits to be accrued. Those who have worked with President Geingob would recognise that he is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics, discipline, an obsession with results and public spirit.
It is those qualities that he took to the Presidency. It is why we should disarticulate presidential participation in forums of global governance from the trivia of allowances and hotel rooms!
A reflective constituency that includes the media should emerge. It should appeal to enabling analyses of presidential actions in external missions through the landmarks of ambition, urgency and possibilities.