Citizen Sovereignty is an Absolute Norm

Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

For the sake of clarity, it is perhaps important to first break down the key concepts flagged in this headline.

Citizenship, from which the word citizen is derived, refers to a legal status and relation between an individual and a state that entails specific legal rights and duties.

Sovereignty is a political concept that refers to supreme authority.

In a neo-liberal democracy like Namibia, sovereign power rests with the people and is exercised through representative bodies such as parliament.

The word absolute refers to a value that is not qualified, limited or that cannot, in any way, be diminished; and a norm refers to a standard or principle of right action binding on the members of a group and serving to guide, control or regulate proper and acceptable behaviour.

As we prepare for the November 2024 presidential and national assembly elections, let’s revisit some of these concepts in the Namibian context.

It is of paramount importance to remember that our rights-based Constitution is hailed as one of the best in the world, at least as far as political rights are concerned.

In short, political rights refer to freedom of speech, freedom of political association, etc.


The Constitution states: “All power shall vest in the people of Namibia who shall exercise their sovereignty through the democratic institutions of the State.”

It is important to note that the first two words here are “all power” and must be read together with the next five words “shall vest in the people”. 

Therefore, the sovereignty of the citizens hinges on these seven words in our supreme law.

Again, the supremacy of the Constitution means no one and no law is above the Constitution.

It therefore follows that the sovereignty of the people, as guaranteed in the Constitution, simply means no one is above the people; the only proviso here is that this refers to the people as a collective.

The second part of this provision reads “who shall exercise their sovereignty through the democratic institutions of the State”.

This means that when citizens vote to elect their leaders, they would be “exercising their sovereignty through the democratic institutions of the State”.

In the simplest of terms, it means the people temporarily surrender or delegate their sovereignty to their elected leaders on the basis of a “borrowed” mandate.


In our democratic dispensation, political electioneering is basically about two things.

A ruling party will tell people “we have put the mandate that we borrowed from you to good use, so give us five more years”.

Opposition parties will say “the mandate you gave to the ruling party five years ago was not put to good use, give that mandate to us”.

I must add that there is no value judgement attached to these two hypothetical positions except for the sake of clarifying a point.

The people’s sacred sovereignty finds concrete expression in the secrecy of the ballot.

As a collective, that sovereignty is exercised privately in a ballot booth by citizens as single individual voters.

The limitation to the right to vote can, for example, come about because of the gap between “formal citizenship” and “substantive citizenship”.

In terms of our Constitution and the relevant act of parliament, we are all “formal citizens”.

However, we are not all “substantive citizens” – citizens who are well-informed and empowered to claim the rights they are entitled to as “formal citizens”.

Because of a lack of education and the English language handicap, many citizens may have a “capability deficit” and therefore can’t effectively claim their rights – including the right to vote and to hold their elected leaders to account.


It is this gap – between “formal citizenship” and “substantive citizenship” – that the ECN’s voter and civic education officers, as well as other stakeholders, e.g. political parties, need to fill.

However, it is imperative that the ECN’s voter and civic education officers carry out their duties in a non-partisan manner.

The dichotomy between “formal citizenship” and “substantive citizenship” is not the only contributing factor to voter apathy. Other factors are also at play.

We therefore need all hands on deck to motivate people to exercise their democratic right to vote.

As American social critic George Carlin once said: “If you do not vote, you lose the right to complain.”

  • * Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna is a commissioner of elections. However, the views expressed here are his own and not those of the ECN.

Stay informed with The Namibian – your source for credible journalism. Get in-depth reporting and opinions for only N$85 a month. Invest in journalism, invest in democracy –
Subscribe Now!

Latest News