June 17, 2005 Washington, DC - Hifikepunye Pohamba, who three months ago became Namibia's second president since independence in 1990, was one of five African leaders who met with President George Bush at the White House on June 13. Pohamba succeeded the founding head of state, Sam Nujoma, who led a decades-long struggle against South African rule. Pohamba, a long time aide to Nujoma in Swapo, the ruling party, has emphasized continuity while also outlining a range of priorities for his administration. As minister of lands in the last Nujoma cabinet, he had responsibility for the complicated issue of addressing the expectations of the landless majority without alienating the wealthy, white populace and outside donors. "Land expropriation does not mean confiscation, but means selling land to the government at fair prices as provided in the constitution and the relevant laws," Pohamba said, just before he assumed office in March. While in Washington, DC this week, he reaffirmed to members of the Congressional Black Caucus that he is committed to a policy that redistributes land, follows legal procedures and is fair to all parties.
In an interview with AllAfrica, Pohamba discussed a number of other issues he is facing as the new leader.
The five presidents who met with President Bush made the case for development assistance. One of the arguments often made against more aid is that it will be misused. In your inaugural address, you spoke of combating corruption in government and using state resources efficiently and economically - and you came to Washington by commercial flight rather than the presidential jet. What message are you trying to send?
I spoke about many things on the day of the inauguration, but indeed, corruption was one of the items that I emphasized. Corruption is a cancer. It must be fought against. It should not be tolerated because it is a cancer that can eat up the fabric of society. Wherever corruption is detected, action must be taken against those who are involved. They must be taken to the courts of law so that the court either finds them guilty or not guilty.
With regard to coming here in a commercial plane, I see no point why you can not use commercial flights, because they are cheaper than getting a plane from, for example, Windhoek to Washington DC. So we always feel that we should minimize our expenditure. I am not introducing a new thing. I am just doing what my predecessor also did. However, if we find out that there are no flights to the place where we want to go, there is no reason why we cannot take one of our planes to take us there.
Many African leaders start by encouraging and practicing frugality. But after a couple of years in power, the same people may lead the most luxurious and flamboyant lifestyles -
Are you saying that I will follow the same pattern? (General laughter.)
We hope you don't! What guarantees are there that the individuals and institutions that help check and expose corruption and help keep the government on its toes, like media, journalists, the courts, will not be clamped down upon?
I don't intend to do so. In Namibia, we have a guideline document called the constitution. So I wouldn't like us to be [compared] to other people who have got their own system, different from ours. Some countries in Africa got their independence in a different way. We have lost thousands of lives during the course of the struggle. But there are always differences. If you perhaps refer to my predecessor, then you are wrong - I make a correction that what you are saying concerning my predecessor is incorrect. Otherwise, we have a different situation from other countries that you are referring to, and I beg you to direct questions to me on issues concerning Namibia.
Could you summarize your approach to the huge problem of Namibian poverty that you cited in your inaugural address?
The problems that we have concerning poverty emanated from the historical colonial set-up in our country. The Namibian people - I am referring more to the black people, who are in the majority - we were treated like slaves in our own country. We went to war because of that. So you have disparities, between, for example, a small group of formerly advantaged citizens who happen to be whites, and that group, where I belong, of the blacks, who were not allowed to enjoy the same privileges. We inherited a lot of problems. We tried first to create jobs for so many people we found unemployed. If you have a people who are not working - if there is no work - you cannot expect to get rid of poverty. On the contrary, you find that poverty increases. Jobs have been created, but they are not enough to accommodate all people who have been unemployed. The creation of work in the country is moving slowly, the reason being that in spite of the fact that the country is potentially rich, we don't have the means to exploit the riches.
The "means" I am referring to is two-fold. We don't have the skilled people. As you may recall, in spite of the fact that South Africa has been there for many, many years, they failed to put up a university. So this one of the problems - human resources we have been building are not yet sufficiently qualified. For example, we have minerals in the ground, under the soil of Namibia, but we have not been able to train geologists. That is why the founding president, my colleague Sam Nujoma, after leaving office, went to school to study geology. He is now a student of geology!
Secondly, there is the problem of capital. In order to exploit all those things, you need to have money. We have never had money. The little money that we are getting or making, we have to spend, particularly in the field of education. A large portion of our budget goes into education. You have all these problems facing you at the same time. We are trying the best that we can to grow the economy. And once we grow the economy, automatically, people will get jobs. Automatically we will find that households where the bread used not to come, now that there are children who are working or members of the family working, the bread is coming. You will find that even the children in those houses who never went to school with lunch boxes, they will start going to school with lunch boxes because, in the house, there are now bread winners, the people who are working.
It is a long way that we have to go, but they say that where there is a will, there is a way. There is a political will on the part of the ruling party, the SWAPO party, and indeed, its government, to make things work. So I have no doubt that with the will that we have, we will be able to reduce poverty as time goes.
As you know, in Africa, one of the main factors exacerbating poverty is HIV/Aids. Namibia is severely affected. In Uganda, which has reduced its prevalence rate, and Senegal, which has kept its rate low, there are continuing national efforts that involve every government official, every school teacher, every business leader. Do you think you need to do more in terms of intensive nation-wide campaigns?
Yes. HIV/Aids is killing, and we look at it no longer as an issue of health alone. It has become also an economic obstacle. It affects the growth of the economy badly. We have a system of learning from one another. You have mentioned Uganda. On more than two occasions, we have sent people to go to Uganda to learn how they did it. We have taken a lot from Uganda to apply to our situation.
So we are working harder and we are very happy to say that there are friends who are assisting us on this. The government of the United States and the president of this country himself is one of such friends who are assisting us from a practical point of view to curb the spread of Aids and to assist those who are already victims of Aids, to prolong their lives, and we are very grateful for that. And we have set up a lot of mechanisms of training and telling the people what they should do.
About a month ago, I was very happy to note that in some areas, through the public awareness campaigns that we have set up, there is a reduction of two percent. I said that we had gone to Uganda. Uganda has been doing what we are doing now. Say, for example, somebody died of Aids and at the burial, you are told that, no, he died of pneumonia. People are not told the truth. The time has now come for us to tell our people that your friend whom we are now burying, the cause of death is Aids. Be careful. And in order to be careful, there is A, B, C, D that you can follow and then you will save your life. I think we are not doing too badly. When I look at the report that I that there is a two percent reduction, it makes me happy, it makes us happy, and encourages us to continue the campaign.
Namibia seeks to industrialize and promote manufacturing. Consequently, the country intends to build a dam on the Popa Falls, an idea that has not been received favorably by some in Botswana. What does Namibia intend to do about this?
Well, Popa Falls is not a huge falls but we are trying to augment what we already have when it comes to energy. According to the international set up, I understand, I am not an internationalist, is that shared rivers, whatever you do on them, there should be agreement among all the member states. The Kavango river you are referring to is shared by three countries. It originates in Angola, it forms the bank of the Kavango river on the Southern part of the river, which belongs to Namibia. And the banks on the Northern side belong to Angola. It goes to Botswana and in Botswana, it throws the water in the swamps there. So anything that is to be done on the river has to receive an agreement from the three countries.
When we talk about electricity or energy to be generated by either Popa Falls or Ruakana, we talk about the resources to be shared by neighboring countries. I was told that Botswana can benefit from some of the electricity that is generated in Namibia - like we do in our region of Caprivi, we get the electricity from Zambia. This is to be or is being done in line with what SADC [the Southern African Development Community] has agreed upon. So there may be some technical issues that can be amicably resolved between Namibia and Botswana in respect of Popa Falls.
However, I want to emphasize that Popa Falls is not a huge thing, but it is very important. If you get some energy from there and then you hook to the grid, either the grid from Zambia or the one from Ruakana, at least you add something. We feel that the energy generated from there could also be utilized in the nearby villages on the Botswana side. To us, that will be a good thing, because it is in line with what we have agreed in SADC when it comes to the overall development of Southern Africa.
How could travel and tourism contribute to Namibia's development?
That is one of the industries that we feel, potentially, can assist us. But again, you need to develop it. We have already moved to develop the tourism industry in our country, and it is our hope, if we can get some other people coming in to assist us, by coming in, to invest in the tourism industry, we will appreciate that, for we believe tourism will help, particularly when it comes to unemployment.
Both Botswana and Namibia are considered to have middle-income status and are not eligible for certain benefits from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act or debt relief from the HIPC initiative. How much is this a problem for you?
What I think is, and I am speaking not as an economist, is the accepted norms of the word per capita. People outside Namibia do not understand the situation on the ground. You have a group of Namibians who had been in the advantaged category during the colonial time. It is a small group with a very high income, and then you have a group comprising the majority of Namibian people who did not have any income at all. They did not have any income at all.
The experts, when they distribute the income of the well-to-do people among the population, then per capita income is considered to be higher. This is where the problem is. Yes indeed, we are, because of that, being excluded, especially when it comes to the Millennium Challenge Account. We are not included because we are considered as a middle-income country. We look at this as being unfair, done by some experts sitting somewhere there, who have not been to the ground to see the actual situation. This is one of the things that during our few days' stay here, we have been trying to explain - that it is not fair that because of the rich, small group within our society, the people who are really poor are excluded [from benefits]. It is not fair. Hence, our appeal, particularly to the Millennium Challenge Account administrators, to take a second look at the situation, so that we are placed where, in actual fact, we belong. Where we have been put is not where we belong. Something should be done for us to be placed where we should belong.
Have you had some success? How did your visit to Washington go?
Yes, indeed, we had a busy time. We have been able to meet the right people and be part of the wonderful meetings with the president of the United States at the White House. We are happy that we accompanied him when he addressed the press conference where he publicly informed the people of the United States and the world that America is committed to assisting Africa. We appreciate that. We also had the opportunity to meet some members of Congress, and we met the USAID administrators, because most of the assistance that comes our way comes through them, and it was a great pleasure for us to meet them. We did also meet some business people, some very influential people. We explained the situation in Namibia and asked them to come to Namibia and see where they would wish to take part. I said we have almost everything, potentially, in Namibia. So we have made invitations to business people to come.