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Twenty Years of Namibian Independence
Diplomatic Pouch / April 5, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Little-known Namibia, one of Africa's most sparsely populated nations, is also one of the continent's most stable. In late March, Namibia's ambassador, Patrick Nandago, held a reception in Washington to celebrate "20 years of independence, freedom, democracy and the rule of law in our beautiful country."

Several hundred people gathered at the Omni Shoreham to help Nandago mark the occasion — singing both "Namibia, Land of the Brave" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" as color photos depicting the country's flora and fauna flashed on large screens.

Among the guests Nandago singled out for special recognition were Susan Page, the current U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and Chester Crocker, who served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1981 to 1989.

"In the heat of the armed liberation struggle in Namibia, and the civil war in Angola," said the ambassador, "Dr. Crocker was the man who developed the strategy that produced the treaties signed by Angola, Cuba and South Africa which culminated in the ceasefire between South Africa's UNITA rebels and SWAPO [the South-West Africa People's Organization], leading to the first democratic elections in Namibia."

South Africa's former colony finally obtained independence on Mar. 21, 1990, after 106 years of foreign occupation.

"Since then, Namibia has held free, fair and peaceful elections every five years, with the most recent one held in November 2009," he said. "Over the years, we have witnessed successful transfers of power, and our country is known to be one of the most democratic on the African continent. Our economic and political stability makes it an attractive location for investors."

Turning the evening into a sales pitch for his country, Nandago explained that the four pillars of Namibia's economy are agriculture, mining, fisheries and tourism. With only two million people in a country considerably larger than Texas, Namibia should be quite wealthy. And in fact, its exports of diamonds, uranium, copper, gold and zinc are legendary.

Yet its long legacy of colonialism has hindered the country, and the AIDS epidemic is creating a generation of orphans. Just over 21 percent of Namibia's citizens are HIV-positive, one of the highest rates of prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa. That's caused life expectancy to drop from 61 years in 1991 to 47 today, says the U.S. Agency for International Development.

And according to the UN Development Program, Namibians suffer from the most unfair distribution of income in the world; an estimated 55 percent of the country's wealth is in the hands of the richest 10 percent of the population, while the poorest 35 percent of Namibians live on less than $1 a day.

"Namibia is faced with many challenges, including the availability of potable water, access to quality health care, housing and education, and the challenges of unemployment HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria," said Nandago. "Namibia did not escape the brunt of climate change, and for the last four years, the country has witnessed severe drought and devastating floods."

Nor, he said, did the global economic crisis spare Namibia. "A considerable number of our citizens have lost their jobs, and companies have scaled down operations or closed up, but we remain hopeful that things will turn around."

As part of its strategy, the government has set up the Namibia Investment Center and has signed agreements with neighboring Botswana and Zimbabwe to acquire dry-port facilities in Walvis Bay, Namibia's deep-water port on the Atlantic Ocean; Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are negotiating for similar arrangements.

Page, speaking on behalf of her boss, Johnnie Carson — assistant secretary of state for African affairs — said Namibia has a lot to celebrate on its 20th anniversary.

"Since its separation from apartheid South Africa in 1990, Namibia has pursued a path of democracy and free-market economy. It has distinguished itself from other African states by having held 10 national, regional and local elections," she said, noting that Namibia is one of the 15 "focus countries" under the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). That entitles it to more than $100 million annually to help Namibia "mitigate the suffering of HIV-AIDS patients."

Last September, the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corp. signed a $304.5 million compact with Namibia aimed, among other things, at boosting the quality of education and rectifying the country's unequal distribution of income.

"Now that President [Hifikepunye] Pohamba has been sworn in for a second term, we hope he will continue to take a strong stand against corruption and gender-based violence," Page told the assembled guests. "The United States is seeking to build mutual trust in addressing the many challenges Namibia faces, including the fight against HIV-AIDS and tuberculosis, and the need to create jobs and reduce poverty."

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