Opposition say ‘not overshadowed’ by Swapo, Itula clash

By Eliaser Ndeyanale

WITH less than a month to go until Namibians vote in a general election on November 27, suspense and tension are running high and the insurgent campaign of the maverick Dr Panduleni Itula, who is ostensibly a Swapo Party member running against the party’s presidential nominee Dr Hage Geingob, appears to have momentarily overshadowed the opposition parties’ campaigns.

However, renowned political commentator and long-time Swapo member, Prof Henning Melber believes it is unfortunate that a lot of time and energy is focusing on the debate whether or not Itula is an independent candidate, while Iitula simultaneously claims to be a member of Swapo.

A statement issued by Swapo secretary general Sofia Shaningwa last week said Iitula had excommunicated himself by going against the party rules. “I think he himself does also not do service to his aims by fueling such debate. The discussion should rather deal with his political programme than with the formal affiliations,” Melber said.

“He declares himself to be a candidate for all Namibians and [he is] not campaigning for Swapo. In his manifesto he states that his presidential policy would not be based on party allegiance – so why make party membership a contested affair, which only detracts, rather than campaign as independent candidate in the true sense of the word?”

He observed that voters will mostly decide whether to back Itula or not based on what he stands for, not based on his affiliation or not to the Swapo Party. “Therefore the current debate is a detraction from the real issues, but unfortunately [it was] triggered by Dr Itula himself.”

A general lack of public interest in discussing the parties’ manifestos is also a reason for non-delivery, he said, noting that all parties seemed to be struggling to communicate their plans of action and were “not really able to translate their programmes into a public domain and knowledge.”

“It is very difficult to find out what the parties have to say. Some of these might lack the material means to create visibility, others have not even a policy programme, which could be distributed. And in Namibia the tendency remains intact to vote on the basis of emotional affiliations, not guided by policy programmes.”

Political analyst Ndumba Kamwanyah argued that the momentum of excitement was on Itula's side and that even Swapo’s campaign seemed largely directed towards ring-fencing and countering the potential threat posed by Itula.

“What I don't know is how much of that excitement will translate into actual votes for Itula. The [peculiarity of the] Geingob - Itula battle is that both are fighting for voters from the same pool, the Swapo Party members and supporters. So, the result is the overshadowing of opposition party campaigns.”

He added that the tribal overtones emanating from some quarters, especially from various loose-cannon supporters and party members on social media, present a clear and present danger to society. “Parties must do the right things and repudiate such irresponsible and toxic behaviours of their respective members or supporters,” Kamwanyah cautioned.

Opposition reaction

Official opposition party leader McHenry Venaani of the Popular Democratic Movement (PDM) was not fazed about the new contender and ascribed the sudden and fleeting interest in Iitula’s campaign to the fact that he is “new on the block”.

“I don’t feel like Itula has overshadowed us, because he is just new on the block and voters have a tendency to [be interested in] new people, it creates a euphoria but it eventually dies. Namibians are curious people and we as a party we are not perturbed by what is happening.

“Candidates can’t just decide to rise up in one month and decide to run the country. Where do they stand on corruption and mismanagement of the country, politics does not work that way,” he said.

On the opposition benches, it seems they have learned that it’s best not to interrupt your enemies when they’re fighting. Ignatius Shixwameni, leader of the All People’s Party, said the Swapo - Itula saga would not eclipse their campaign efforts, as the APP was watching closely and “working our ways on the ground.”

“Swapo is fighting with itself and it is a very interesting development. We’re not really much perturbed whether Itula or Swapo is in or out, because we’re doing our own work and that for us is our biggest task at hand now. We have been campaigning in Khomas, Hardap, Karas, Kavango East and West, the northern regions and Zambezi,” he said.

Return of the prodigals

Some formerly prominent leaders of the ‘Team Swapo’ faction appeared to have changed their minds and have lately thrown their weight behind the party’s candidate,  Dr. Hage Geingob. This shift saw three former rivals attending different party events at the weekend in support of the candidature of Geingob.

This move has been widely applauded in certain quarters on the grounds that Team Swapo – which opposed the candidature of Geingob and his slate in the run-up to the Swapo 2017 congress – is disintegrating and that reconciliation was needed for the sake of party unity, especially at a time when the party faces what may be the most fiercely contested election in its history.

Those who showed up at the events are former information minister Joel Kaapanda, who was the main speaker at a Swapo event at Okahao on Saturday last week. Others who attended Swapo events are former justice minister Ngarikutuke Tjiriange and Khomas regional information secretary Martha Namundjebo, who was reportedly accused of bankrolling the campaign of independent candidate Dr Panduleni Itula, although the allegation has not been conclusively established.

Swapo SG Sofia Shaningwa called Namundjebo to the podium on Saturday, using a term of endearment, “my sister.” “They are saying that she is funding the independent candidate but she is here with us today. Why is she here if she funds the independent candidate? I take my hat off to her,” Shaningwa said to Namundjebo-Tilahun, who pulled out a long ululation when she was asked to say something.

Asked this week if her presence at the Swapo rally at Keetmanshoop means that she endorses the candidature of Geingob, Namundjebo-Tilahun said she has always been a Swapo member. “Leave those things. I have never resigned from Swapo,” she answered.

Itula told Confidente last week that his decision to contest for presidency is protected by constitutional provisions, which he said gives every Namibian the right to participate in public affairs, whether they belong to a party or not, and or through freely chosen representative. He also rejected the notion that he has a tribal agenda, as perceived by some people.

However, Melber warned that once ethnic affinity turns into a means to secure access to positions and benefits, rather than on the basis of professional competence, society reaches a stage where ethnicity turns into a major socio-political problem. In recent years ethnicity and the increased use of the term ‘tribalism’ seem to indicate the presence of a growing problem.

“This is worrying and damages national policy since it also influences voting behaviour; maybe more strongly it is a negative tendency for democracy. People should vote for what they believe is the party with the best policy. But best policies and practices should not be based on ethnicity,” Melber insisted.