Shafiihuna Nujoma

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Shafiihuna Nujoma

Shafiihuna Nujoma (born 1929) led the Southwest African People's Organization (SWAPO) from exile for almost 30 years. In 1989 he became the first president of independent Namibia.

Shafiihuna (Sam) Nujoma was born May 12, 1929, in the Ongandera area of northwestern Namibia. His name, Shafiihuna, means "a time of trouble," and in fact Nujoma was born during Namibia's period of British rule under a treaty mandate which removed the colony from German control at the end of World War I. Colonial governance was later assumed by an independent South Africa.

The northern part of Namibia in which Nujoma was born and grew up is known as Ovambo (land). He is Ovambo, a member of the largest ethnic group in Namibia, today comprising approximately 60 percent of the population. This relatively fertile and more densely populated land was far from the focus of European interests, which concentrated on Namibia's mineral wealth and ranching lands to the south. Except as a labor reserve, colonial administrations ignored Ovambo, leaving any externally-initiated development efforts to missionaries.

As a child Nujoma attended one of the few schools in the north, which was established by Finnish missionaries. However, Nujoma's education ended very early, and consequently, he cannot be considered a member of the educated elite. Although Nujoma did eventually receive a standard six certificate, in night school, he never sought a university degree.

Labor Activism

It was while working in the south as a railroad steward that Nujoma became politically active. As had become routine for men living in Ovambo, Nujoma was forced by economic necessity to contract to make his living far from home, separated from his family. During this period of young adulthood, Nujoma became well aware of contract system abuses. He was helpless but to watch as a fellow railroad worker suffered a painful accident and was then sent home by his employer without compensation. This event contributed to Nujoma's decision to pursue the life of an activist, first for workers' rights and later for Namibia's independence.

In 1957 Nujoma was fired from the railroads precisely for such activity, when he attempted to form a union of railroad workers. He and a small group of other Namibians on contract formed the Ovamboland People's Organization (OPO) in the late 1950s to mobilize workers to fight the abuses of the contract system and demand better working and living conditions. Nujoma was elected president of the OPO in 1959 and played an important role in helping to organize various strikes and peaceful demonstrations. However, the South African administration countered any and all dissent with repression.

In 1959 police killed 11 people and wounded over 50 when blacks demonstrated against forced removals from their homes in the "Old Location" section of Windhoek, an incident remembered as "the Windhoek Shootings." This and other acts of repression led to a growing impatience with passive resistance in the nationalist movement. In 1960 the OPO changed its name to the Southwest African People's Organization (SWAPO) and broadened its appeal to attract Namibians from all regions and ethnicities. By the early 1960s SWAPO had also developed into a leading organization calling for Namibia's full independence from foreign domination. As the president of SWAPO, Nujoma was a target for police intimidation. He was arrested and jailed by South African authorities, and upon his release in 1960, Nujoma made the difficult decision to go into exile.

Civil War

Nujoma would spend the next 30 years of his life away from his home, championing the cause of Namibian independence around the world. Nujoma played a particularly active role at the United Nations, which recognized SWAPO as the legitimate representative of the Namibian people. Nujoma became widely known throughout the international community for his fiery speeches and rhetoric, calling not only for an end to South African domination of Namibia, but also an end to all foreign exploitation (particularly by multinational corporations). Concerns over nationalization and varying degrees of alliance with South Africa distanced leading Western powers, including the United States, from Nujoma and SWAPO.

Contributing to this distance was South Africa's portrayal of Nujoma as a communist seeking to drive whites into the sea. As a central figure within SWAPO, Nujoma was instrumental in directing a liberation war against South Africa. After years of peaceful resistance and no reward, and after much of the SWAPO leadership was driven underground through South African crackdowns on all dissent, SWAPO leaders made the decision in 1966 to adopt armed resistance as part of a multifaceted program for independence.

In a guerrilla war that was fought through 1988, SWAPO never posed a conventional military threat to South Africa, but support for independence grew, most notably among newly independent southern African states, Eastern European states, and the Soviet Union. Although the guerrilla movement could not win, it proved remarkably tenacious against the larger and better-equipped South African forces.


Eventually, a political solution freed Namibia. After years of fruitless negotiations at the United Nations, a breakthrough came in 1988. Through a trilateral agreement involving Cuban withdrawal from Angola, the South Africans finally agreed to give up Namibia and allow a UN-sponsored electoral process to begin April 1, 1989. Free and democratic elections for a constituent assembly were held in November of that year, and the assembly then constructed a constitution and set a date for independence.

Although not specifically a party to the trilateral agreement, SWAPO applauded the process and launched a vigorous campaign, led by Nujoma from exile. Despite a 30-year absence, Nujoma was such a well-known figure in Namibia that his picture alone became a campaign symbol for the party. His return home in September 1989 to register to vote for the first time in national elections was a day of celebration for SWAPO supporters.

Elections proceeded fairly smoothly, and Nujoma's party won a 58 percent majority of the votes. The results disappointed SWAPO, which had hoped to win as much as two-thirds of the vote, but were hardly surprising in light of South Africa's heavy financing of the opposing Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA). The resulting balance of power necessitated a period of coalition building and compromise by all sides, many of whom had been archenemies both before and during the election process. As a leader of the majority party in the parliament, Nujoma fostered a spirit of conciliation. SWAPO made significant concessions, such as limiting the powers of the presidency, while Nujoma facilitated a smooth South African withdrawal.

As the top political figure in Namibia, Nujoma cleared the way for cooperation with the West, calling for investment in Namibia's egalitarian and mixed economy. Completing a life-long dream, Namibia formally became independent on March 21, 1990, and Sam Nujoma became the country's first president.

Namibia's First President

As president, Nujoma continued to polish his skills in reconciliation. Though he asked his newborn country to leave behind memories of the war for independence, many demanded that perpetrators of atrocities on both sides be brought to justice. SWAPO was particularly embarrassed by allegations released in a book in 1996 that the movement tortured comrades accused of spying for South Africa. A civil rights group demanded information on the fate of detainees reportedly held in prison at the end of the war. Nujoma took the unusual step of attacking both the book and its author on national television, prompting charges that he misused that medium in an attempt to trample free speech.

Critics also dogged Nujoma's administration with charges of corruption among high officials, but over 76 percent of the electorate granted the President another term in 1994. Despite opposition warnings that a two-thirds plurality in the National Assembly would permit SWAPO to tinker with the constitution, the party won 53 of 72 seats. (Opposition fears were realized in 1997 when the party proposed that a special congress be convened to consider changes in the constitution, including a provision which would allow Nujoma to stand for election to a third five-year term as president). Analysts attributed some of the party's success to South African President Nelson Mandela's announcement just before the election that he would forgive Namibia's $800 million debt, explaining that South Africa would "no longer saddle Namibia with a burden inherited from an oppressive regime."

While South Africa remained the foremost influence in Namibia's economy, accounting for 80 percent of imports and 35 percent of exports in the mid-1990's, Nujoma took an active role seeking investments and trading partners worldwide. He also repaid debts to those who helped Namibia gain independence. In at least one instance, this put him at odds with other African leaders when he expressed support for an unpopular military regime in Nigeria. Namibia under Nujoma maintained relations with countries estranged from the West, such as Cuba, Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Still, Nujoma recognized the importance of economic ties with the United States and European countries, including Sweden, Germany, Norway, Finland, and France.

Though critics accused Nujoma of heavy-handedness and insensitivity to the fragile rights essential to a healthy democracy, supporters pointed to Namibia's smooth transition under his rule from a colony to a solidly democratic state.

Further Reading

There is no widely published biography of Nujoma. Descriptions of life in colonial Namibia are contained in Ruth First, South West Africa (1963); and Robert J. Gordon, Mines, Masters, and Migrants: Life in a Namibian Compound (1977); The resistance movement in Namibia is specifically discussed in Peter Katjavivi's A History of Resistance in Namibia (1988); and David Soggot's Namibia: The Violent Heritage (1986).

Accounts of Nujoma's terms as president can be found in the southern African press, including the South African Weekly Mail & Guardian dated December 9 1994, February 3, 1995, March 15, 1996, April 4, 1996, April 26, 1996, May 16, 1996, and November 15, 1996; and through Africa Online, an Internet service of Prodigy Inc. Company, in releases dated May 8, 1997; and June 2, 1997. □