And even though, at the time of its adoption, it was widely hailed as a model for Africa, the Constitution suffers from a number of serious defects - especially its failure to address the latent conflict between the country’s ethnic minorities and the Ovambo majority.
The recent outbursts by non-Ovambo members in the Swapo-led government, and others, reflect the deep-seated disillusionment and even anger among ethnic minorities at their exclusion both from political decision-making and from economic opportunities. There is a general perception that Ovambos dominate Namibia’s political and economic life and that other ethnic groups are marginalised even in their traditional areas.
This perception is not surprising. When it became evident in the 1970s that Namibia was on the road to independence, leaders of ethnic groups expressed their fears that a one-man-one-vote election would result in the Ovambo domination of the country. They argued that Swapo, because of its overwhelming support among the majority Ovambo, would win elections and that, once in power, it would oppress minorities and favour the majority. This, according to them, is exactly what has happened.
At the time of the Constituent Assembly, there was ample evidence, both from Africa and elsewhere, that the most effective protection for minorities is when they have a degree of autonomy over the geographical areas where they live. This may be in the form of federal states or forms of regional or local autonomy.
A second defect of the Constitution is the vast, dictatorial power it grants to the president. The president has power, inter alia, to appoint ministers and deputy ministers, irrespective of how competent they are, to shunt them about from one ministry to another and to demote them as he pleases. He further has the power to appoint commissioners to all kinds of bodies, including the Delimitation Commission, the Public Service Commission and the Electoral Commission. And invariably ethnicity plays a role in these appointments. The first group of 10 ambassadors, for example, were all Ovambos. The simple fact is that the president can discriminate against ethnic minorities because he does not need their electoral support either to be elected or reelected, as long as he has the support of the majority.
This is what the American founding fathers refer to as “the tyranny of the majority” and to combat it, they inserted a number of anti-majority mechanisms in the US Constitution. The most important of these relate to the election of the president.
In America, nine states together make up more than 50% of the population. If a simple majority ensured the election of a president, then all a candidate has to do is to concentrate on these nine states and ignore less populous states. To avoid this, the founders created an Electoral College, in terms of which these nine states have only 225 votes when 270 of the 538 total are needed to be elected as a president.
A similar anti-majority mechanism was introduced in the 1979 Nigerian Constitution. At independence, Nigerian politics was dominated by the more populous Hausa - Fulani people in the north. Following the Biafran war and a period of soul searching, the Nigerians decided in 1979 that to be elected president, a candidate must win a plurality of votes nationwide plus at least 25% of the votes in no fewer than two thirds of the (then) 19 states.
To manage or reduce ethnic conflict in Namibia, it is essential to decentralise power to territorial units and to curb the president’s excessive power. These, and other constitutional and socio-economic reforms, are necessary if we are to create an inclusive and pluralist society.