The battleground that is the 6th Swapo congress

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Toivo Ndjebela

Windhoek-The somewhat carnival atmosphere that has prevailed at political meetings of the two camps battling for the soul of the ruling Swapo Party ended yesterday in Windhoek, where both factions brought the curtain down on their campaigns.

After weeks of hardened campaigns, selfies and pledges of loyalty, the elective congress of Swapo kicks off in Windhoek today as the governing party searches for its new substantive president, after the abrupt resignation of its former leader, Hifikepunye Pohamba, in 2015.

Sexagenarian Jerry Ekandjo and septuagenarians Hage Geingob and Nahas Angula, are vying for the vacant post of president. The winner, as per the party’s succession policy, will automatically become the Swapo candidate in the 2019 national presidential election.

Also up for grabs are vice-president, secretary-general and deputy secretary-general positions, while 84 central committee positions are also up for the taking.

This congress is historic in two main ways: it will be the first time that the party goes into congress without a de facto president in post and, secondly, the first time the leader in charge of the party is being challenged in an election.

Geingob took on the role of acting president after Pohamba resigned in 2015. His supporters did not take kindly to their candidate being challenged, and had initially called for him to be endorsed as the sole candidate for the presidency.

They anchored their argument around the party’s revolutionary tradition, decorum and institutional memory, which records that both former Swapo presidents Sam Nujoma and Pohamba were never challenged in an election while they were the incumbent leaders of the party.

But Geingob’s rivals, who are pushing for a new dispensation in the party, argued that the idea of sole candidacy was farcical and that it had no basis in modern politics or the party constitution.

The new dispensation would be one in which the party blends its liberation ideology and practice with a new order grounded in democracy, diversity of perspectives and pluralism, they held.

President Geingob, while chairing a politburo meeting in October, informed aspiring challengers that they were free to take him on in an open and democratic contest, as provided for in the party constitution.
“Those cadres that qualify to contest for elections have the right to do so, as per our constitution,” he said on October 6.

But in the space of a single month – October – Swapo has changed from a party that presented a united front, to a turf-war characterised by vulgarity, defamation and tribal undertones from certain quarters.

“I think this is the first congress where social media has played a significant role and it hasn’t been pretty,” observed Graham Hopwood of the Institute for Public Policy and Research (IPPR).

“There seems to have been quite a bit of nasty material from supporters of both sides popping up on social media and WhatsApp groups.

“I’m thinking of things like ‘The Curious Citizen’, the ‘breaking news’ announcements and more generally insults and petty comments that have been traded on Facebook and to a lesser extent on Twitter.”

Indicative of the fallout between what were hitherto comrades-in-arms during the country’s liberation struggle and their army of supporters was the harsh language exchanged between the two camps, including calls last weekend that President Geingob dismiss cabinet ministers in the opposing camp for their alleged perpetual undermining of his authority during the campaign period.

“Also, some sections of the media have adopted very strident, partisan positions, which have spread from their editorial pages to their normal reportage. This hasn’t been a healthy development for journalism in Namibia and I’m concerned that young reporters have been used by owners and editors to pump out propaganda, rather than report on developments with a balanced perspective,” Hopwood said.

The IPPR director remarked that Team Harambee, as President Geingob’s campaign has become known, were coherent in the sense that they tied together the Harambee Prosperity Plan, NDP5 and the Swapo manifesto in their campaign.
“However, it will be interesting to see how much the general pessimism about the state of the economy weighs with delegates. I was surprised that Team Swapo did not use this more in their campaigns, although issues such as the country’s junk status did come up,” he observed.

Team Swapo, he said, placed strong emphasis on the internal aspects of the party’s governance that they think have been badly handled.

He said it was hard to see both sides embracing each other after congress and fast forgetting the insults that have been traded during campaigns.

“There is also the prospect of a cabinet reshuffle, which will unnerve those who end up on the losing ticket,” Hopwood noted.

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