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Namibia’s President Geingob one year on: A for effort, D for performance 0

As Namibians take stock of President Hage Geingob’s first year in office, they have much to ponder. This has been one of the most active years in Namibia’s one-party dominated politics for a long time. For ten years under former president Hifikepunye Pohamba, Namibians had become used to good-natured but listless leadership (ultimately rewarded with a Mo Ibrahim Prize for African Leadership at the end of his second term in 2015).

But since coming to office on 21 March 2015, the 74-year-old Geingob has sought to shake off the inertia of the Pohamba era by declaring a “war on poverty” and adopting the slogan “no Namibian will be left behind”.

This rhetoric has resonated with a Namibian populace struggling with an unemployment rate of 28% and one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. Expectations of more jobs, comprehensive welfare programmes and improved service delivery are high under Geingob.

Man of the people

Geingob has the kind of mandate that would be the envy of most political parties around the world. In national elections in November 2014, he won 87% of the vote, ahead of his own party, Swapo, which took a commanding 80%. Normally such results in Africa raise eyebrows if not claims of outright rigging. But these results were accepted by opposition parties and adjudged free and fair by local and foreign observers.

Geingob benefited from the fact that he is one of Namibia’s best-known political figures, having been the country’s first Prime Minister from 1990 to 2002, though the result was still remarkable, and all the more so given he is from a minority ethnic group, the Damara.

However, despite overwhelming public support and a small-time and fragmented opposition, Geingob has struggled to turn rhetoric into action since the election.

The new president’s intentions were clear when he established a Poverty Eradication Ministry, and he has gone on to say he wants poverty wiped from the face of Namibia by 2025, which would be the end of his expected second term.

But the Ministry has done very little in its first year apart from organise talk shops. A much-vaunted plan to introduce food banks for the poorest has yet to materialise. And while the introduction of a Basic Income Grant (BIG) has been the subject of discussions about welfare reform for years and is officially on Geingob’s agenda, its format is far from clear. The president seems to want a limited, means-tested grant while his anti-poverty minister, Bishop Zephania Kameeta, talks airily of a universal system. Either way, it looks like an unfeasible idea in the short-term as Namibia’s finances are stretched as never before.

Rhetoric vs. reality

As Geingob uttered fine rhetoric and promises during 2015, more problems seemed to crop up. After several years of high government spending in an attempt to mitigate the worst effects of the global economic downturn, debt and deficit levels have been pushed to the point where a credit ratings downgrade has become a possibility. As a result, Geingob’s administration has had little fiscal space to introduce the kind of pro-poor changes he wants to see.

Towards the end of the year, a ham-fisted attempt at introducing a so-called Solidarity Tax to fund anti-poverty schemes was met with howls of protest from Namibia’s emerging middle class, already tired of funding a bloated civil service of over 100,000 employees. The tax is temporarily off the table and is likely to be reintroduced in 2017 as a wealth tax on top earners only.

Elsewhere, Minister of Finance Calle Schlettwein cut back on travel, expense allowances and luxury vehicles for civil servants, but these efforts were undermined by Geingob’s predilection for appointing an array of special advisors, adding to an unsustainable ‘superstructure’ executive that already has 60 ministers and deputy ministers.

Meanwhile, although government has generally tried to rein in spending as revenues from the Southern African Customs Union drop, the Geingob administration has stuck to controversial projects such as the building of a new parliament building for over N$2 billion ($132 million).

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By Graham Hopwood

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi