Hage Geingob was larger than life

ON A MISSION … Gerson Tjihenuna and the then prime minister Hage Geingob on a flight to a UN General Assembly in September 1998.

They say teachers in Ethiopia used to tell schoolchildren that if former Emperor Haile Selassie were to die, the sun would not rise. Paradoxically, on 4 February 2024, the sun rose and set as if nothing had happened.

Indeed, 4 February would go down in the annals of Namibian history as the day on which death robbed us of a sitting popular president elected by his own people.

The collective emotional pain of all our people is real, regardless of ethnicity, age or gender. Since Geingob’s passing, many prominent Namibians have been weighing in on the colourful life of this extraordinary son of our soil; a soil which he bowed down to kiss upon his return from exile in 1989.

I can, equally, lay claim to my ‘pound of flesh’ from this gigantic elephant. First, I was one of his students at the then United Nations Institute for Namibia in the early 80s and secondly, I was part of the senior management team that he put together to set up the Office of the Prime Minister in 1990.

It is an ironic twist of fate that president Nangolo Mbumba, Geingob’s anointed heir, as it were (albeit temporarily), was our first secretary to Cabinet in that office.

For lack of space, I want to focus on only two of Geingob’s outstanding qualities. These are his exceptional technocratic skills and his mantra of inclusivity. During his stint at the United Nations (UN), Geingob was not only representing Swapo and studying, he also worked as a junior officer at the world body.

It goes without saying that the UN has one of the best administrative systems in the world and this was where he honed his skills. He used to tell us about his Nigerian supervisor at the UN who would always return reports he had written back to him corrected all over with a red pen. He later came to appreciate that exposure at the UN.

These were the same high governance standards that he upheld throughout his political career. Some of the flagship projects that we undertook under him and in which I was directly involved were: The 1991 First National Land Conference; two consultative conferences on anti-corruption strategies that paved the way for the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission; and the creation of the Cabinet Committee System, as well as the introduction of mechanisms to monitor the implementation of Cabinet resolutions by offices, ministries and agencies (OMAs).

He strongly believed in the ethos of a public service that was not only responsive to the needs of the citizens, but also accountable. It was against this background that he created the weekly NBC television and radio programme that came to be known as the ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time’. He would patiently respond to the citizens’ written questions on that programme. The Efficiency and Charter Unit, with its nine principles under a department that I headed, was equally created to allow the citizens to hold OMAs to account.

Geingob did not only preach inclusivity in the Namibian House, he was the very embodiment of that ideal. When he took office as the first prime minister, he surprised everybody by appointing a white Afrikaner from the previous dispensation as his head of security.

He was a refined nationalist to his fingertips, with no single bone of tribalism in him. The multi-cultural management teams that he put together throughout his political career were testimony to that.

As prime minister, he had the difficult task of restructuring the new public service, i.e. bringing new civil servants into the system while protecting the jobs of those who were found in the system, (whose jobs were constitutionally guaranteed).

Making a presentation at the senior management meetings, which he personally chaired, was like defending a PhD thesis in front of a strict professor. If you came with half-baked ideas, he would tear your presentation to pieces.

When the news of his passing emerged, I thought to myself: How could someone who had such a commanding presence, become all of a sudden, so absent and silent? It was difficult to put the words “Hage” and “death” in the same sentence.

Geingob entered the political theatre of Namibia both as an actor and director. The roaring lion from the Otjozondjupa mountains, whose huge physique and heavy-accented tone were so intimidating, has left huge imprints, not only in Namibia, but also on the global stage.

Hage (which means he has come in his mother tongue) has now exited the stage of life, but his roaring continues to echo across our valleys, mountains, rivers and the majestic Atlantic Ocean

An obituary published in The Namibian (5 February 2024) states: “Few people exerted such a profound influence on Namibian politics, aside from founding president Sam Nujoma, the way Hage Geingob did. I couldn’t agree more.

Benjamin Pogrund, the author of Robert Sobukwe’s biography of the same title, inserted a subtitle on that book, that reads: ‘Can man die better’.

As we mourn our departed president, who was, beyond what words can express, larger than life, our question should be: Can man die better?

  • Gerson Tjihenuna was a member of senior management in the Office of the Prime Minister in the 90s under then prime minister Hage Geingob. He currently serves as a commissioner of elections.

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