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Namibia Botching the Peace

4 minute read
William R.Doerner

It took eight years of painstaking diplomacy to craft the interlocking pieces of an international agreement to bring independence to Namibia, the last remnant of colonialism in Africa. It took just a week to unravel all that meticulous preparation in a bloody botch.

Under terms of the pact, South Africa, which has ruled the Turkey-size territory for 74 years, agreed to permit independent elections and withdraw its 40,000 troops. That was to be done in coordination with the phased departure of 50,000 Cuban troops backing the Marxist regime in Angola, which gives sanctuary to the militant exiles of the South West African People’s Organization, whose guerrilla army has been battling Pretoria’s rule since 1966. The U.S.-brokered agreement was signed last December under the auspices of the U.N., which took on responsibility for policing Namibia’s transition with an international peacekeeping force (UNTAG).

But as the transition period dawned on April 1, some 1,300 SWAPO troops armed with AK-47 rifles swarmed into Namibia from their bases in southern Angola. Even as thousands of red-green-and-blue-clad SWAPO supporters chanted “Freedom is in our hands” at noisy celebrations in the capital of Windhoek, the guerrillas were coaxing donkeys carrying rocket launchers and other artillery through the thick sand of the bush. According to captured prisoners, SWAPO commanders told their troops that UNTAG would allow them to establish military bases in Namibia, where they would be “confined to barracks” like the South African battalions. But their deployment was a flagrant violation of the cease-fire agreement, which calls for SWAPO forces to remain north of the 16th parallel, some 100 miles beyond the border.

The well-trained forces of the South West Africa Police, including former members of the notorious “Koevoet” (crowbar) counterinsurgency unit, were waiting for the guerrillas. In the first large-scale clashes near the border town of Ruacana, 38 SWAPO guerrillas were mowed down by machine-gun fire, while two policemen were killed and 14 wounded. Elsewhere, the guerrillas fared little better. All told, at least 260 guerrillas and 28 Namibian security police were killed. UNTAG, which had less than one-fourth of its planned force on hand and barely 200 soldiers in the area of fighting, could do no more than look on ineffectually.

The SWAPO incursions allowed South Africa, which agreed to the independence plan only grudgingly, a rare opportunity to cry foul. Calling the violations a “grave situation,” Foreign Minister Roelof (“Pik”) Botha warned that the Namibian peace process “could collapse within hours.” Pretoria applied pressure on UNTAG’s Finnish commander, Martti Ahtisaari, to reactivate some South African military forces and ordered others back to service on its own. Backed by Western public opinion for once, South Africa continued to threaten an end to the treaty. Declared Foreign Minister Botha: “SWAPO must surrender, lay down their arms, hoist a white flag.”

But all parties have too much invested in the agreement to discard it lightly. In hopes of cooling off the violence, Pretoria called for a meeting over the weekend of the commission set up to monitor the progress of the border peace agreement.

Though few had predicted violence in Namibia on the scale that erupted, UNTAG was woefully unprepared even for the minor clashes that were all but inevitable. Scarcely 1,200 of the 4,560-man force from Kenya, Malaysia and Finland that is scheduled to oversee the transition period was in place. At week’s end UNTAG officials were considering emergency airlifts to bring in military personnel, many of them aboard navy vessels days away.

Exiled SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma insisted that his men had already been inside the country, but his eleventh-hour bid to establish a military presence made little sense. Militarily, the guerrillas invited maximum reprisals by Namibian security forces that were all too ready and able to oblige. Politically, the bloody incursions gave the guerrillas’ opponents ammunition to challenge their claim that they are the “sole and authentic” representative of Namibia’s 1.25 million people.

SWAPO is still expected to win a majority in next November’s elections. But to gain complete control over the assembly that will write Namibia’s new constitution, a party must capture two-thirds of the total vote, and there is considerable doubt that SWAPO can do that. It will face at least six opponents, the strongest being the moderate Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, a mixed-race consortium of ethnically based parties with considerable appeal to Namibia’s 80,000 whites. Says Alliance Chairman Dirk Mudge, a white former Finance Minister: “It won’t be a SWAPO landslide, believe me.” Last week’s violence cast doubt not only on whether the frail peace plan can hold but also on whether Namibia’s political future might yet be settled by other means.

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