NOTE: The President was quite civil in his recent State of the Nation address. We commend him for it.
What is it that makes the Namibian head of state feel so under attack at all the times that he feels the need to use every major national platform to bash the media and civil society at length.
It has now certainly become clear to many that President Hage Geingob displays an attitude of high defensiveness and has resorted to adopting sentiments and a tone which is quite disturbing.
At a ruling party rally at Keetmanshoop recently, the president directed a barrage of harsh words at some civil society actors and sections of the media.
The same tone and sentiments were then repeated in an interview published shortly before Independence Day and then briefly in his official statement on Independence Day. In between the same sort of sentiments have been echoed by various Cabinet members, whether in parliament or outside.
What is characteristic of these sentiments is that they are disconcertingly undemocratic, or at least discouraging of democratic engagement on the political landscape by civil society actors. Basically, politicians appear to be of the opinion that civil society is overly critical of the ruling party government and they appear to be taking it highly personally, which is understandable to a degree.
However, a discernible increase in vitriolic content has come to mark these attacks – in a way, civil society is now increasingly cast as an enemy of government, which should give everyone pause, for these sentiments in a broad sense are aimed at silencing critical voices. Ordinary members of the public certainly can’t have helped taking notice of this by now.
Attempting to silence voices, no matter how subtly, that raise legitimate issues and concerns related to governance, is a dangerous road to travel down as society.
Already most Namibians do not feel free enough to express themselves on topical political issues for fear of being put in the spotlight and then victimised – in what has become known as a ‘culture of silence’. This is a reality. For senior politicians to now attempt to intimidate civil society voices (and we have to be clear that it’s not threatening violence) does come across as a low-grade attempt at suppression.
And it is against this backdrop that it has become pressingly necessary to remind politicians and government officials of certain important things they really should by now be very aware of.
In the first instance, it is time to remind politicians of the bill of rights in the Namibian Constitution, specifically Article 21(1)(a) and (b) with regard to their skirting unconstitutionality in respect of freedom of expression and thought with their utterances and Article 17(1): “All citizens shall have the right to participate in peaceful political activity intended to influence the composition and policies of the government.”
Similarly, the much vaunted Vision 2030 states in paragraph 4.4.10, concern- ing ‘Civil Society and its Organisations’, which states: “The laws and institutions that promote democracy in any country are only as strong as the way they are used by the citizens. Democracy implies some degree of activity – of participation … Citizen involvement in community or social organisations increases their potential for political involvement since organisational involvement means social interaction, and social interaction can lead to political activity. Civic culture is, therefore, conducive to a stable democracy because it creates a balance between the power of government elites and the responsiveness of government to the demands of its citizens.”
Furthermore, President Geingob needs to be reminded of how he glowingly spoke about the role of civil society in politics and development in his own doctoral thesis.
And then there’s his Harambee Prosperity Plan (HPP) which also quite explicitly mentions that civil society or the non-governmental sector has a very important role to play in supporting the state in achieving its objectives o delivering a more equitable and prosperous society.
In light of this, perhaps it would be more appropriate for politicians to ask why many of the voices rising critically from civil society are addressing certain issues which appear to be uncomfortable to their sensibilities.
In the final analysis, it has to be said, that the President and some of his senior political colleagues appear to be increasingly suffering from a lack of perspective.
What’s happening in the country – considering the realities and conditions of many people and communities – does strongly hint to that actually being the case.
Ultimately, any attempts to cow the citizenry into silence can only produce push-back. We see this happening already. It’s better to be open and to understand that confrontation and disagreement are integral to the healthy functioning of democracy.