Obituary: Geingob, A President Who Shaped Namibia

Hage Geingob

President Hage Geingob crafted Namibia’s modern democracy, including contributing to drawing up a Constitution that enshrined human rights, which he believed would safeguard the nation.

Despite the drafters’ best intentions, corruption scandals flared under successive administrations.

Geingob died early yesterday in Windhoek at the age of 82, with just about a year left in his final term in office. Three weeks ago his office revealed that he needed treatment for cancer.

Few people exerted such a profound influence on Namibian politics, aside from founding president Sam Nujoma.

Yet Geingob often eschewed the pomp of his office, walking without phalanxes of bodyguards. Dressed in a tracksuit and his trademark black-rimmed glasses, he would show up on the beachfront, at concerts or in shebeens.

There he’d joke with constituents, pose for selfies, or talk about football – especially his beloved Liverpool, and the Brave Warriors.

EARLY YEARS

The president was born on 3 August 1941 to a strictly Christian family on a farm owned by Germans in the Grootfontein district.

He later learned about Namibia’s diversity. That instilled in him an abhorrence of tribalism and racism.

Academically he was always gifted, but he was also a passionate footballer, earning the nickname ‘Danger Point’ as a right fullback.

In 1958, he went to Augustineum – when it was still at Okahandja – to study to become a teacher.

At the time, the school was becoming a political hotbed. He soon became involved in Swapo and joined a march to Windhoek to protest the quality of his education. That act of defiance got him expelled.

He was later readmitted to school, but the seeds of his political activism were already sprouting.

“Politics at Augustineum was hot,” he said in 2021.

“It was meant to be a place of apartheid to divide us from white people. Manifestly, to divide us. But blatantly, it served as a unifying place. It was the first time I met someone from the deep south (Nama speaking) and the north. They all started to talk about politics, such as that a black man is ruling in Ghana.”

EXILE BECKONS

As a teacher, Geingob chafed at the restrictions of the Bantu education system. He walked and hitch-hiked to Botswana where he joined up with the struggle in exile.

In 1964, he left to study in the United States, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

But his political role kept growing.

Shortly after arriving in the United States, he was named the Swapo representative to the United Nations and to the Americas.

His role grew as Swapo leader Sam Nujoma entrusted him with arguing Namibia’s case for independence at the United Nations (UN).

In 1975, he set up the UN Institute for Namibia in Lusaka, which essentially trained a cadre of future civil servants who could start running the government of an independent nation.

Still, Geingob’s political career was in its nascency. It was no surprise when Nujoma named him as Swapo’s elections director for the UN-supervised ballot of 1989.

“I embraced the soil of Namibia after 27 years in exile. Looking back, the journey of building a new Namibia has been worthwhile,” he said in a Twitter post in 2020, with a photo of his younger self kissing the tarmac after landing back home.

A NEW ERA

After Swapo’s victory, he became prime minister and headed the Constituent Assembly that drew up independent Namibia’s Constitution.

He won praise for his skilful handling of debates between previously warring foes. That proved instrumental in ensuring that the supreme law received unanimous backing.

That became his proudest accomplishment, and he referred back to the Constitution often, especially when asked about any efforts that might undermine it.

He called it “a living document, a document that regulates life and government activities”.

“The Constitution is there to limit the power of government and determine citizens’ rights,” he said. “The Constitution allows one to know what is right and what is wrong.”

He was also keenly aware of the power of popular culture. He helped bring Michael Jackson to Windhoek in 1998, and he was often spotted at music awards.

He remained as prime minister until 2002, a period in which he oversaw the restructuring of a public service that had been fragmented along racial and ethnic lines.

Geingob left the government in August 2002, when he declined an effort by Nujoma to move him to the local government portfolio.

He resigned from Cabinet.

No official reason was given for Nujoma’s decision and Geingob himself said he was puzzled by his sudden removal.

THE PRESIDENCY AND ITS PITFALLS

Never shy about his political ambitions, Geingob jockeyed for the Presidency more than once.

Once Hidipo Hamutenya had been sidelined by Nujoma in 2004 and later left Swapo, Geingob became the more obvious heir apparent to Hifikepunye Pohamba.

When his time came in the 2014 elections, he took an astonishing 87% of the vote – more than any of his predecessors.
He won his second term with a comfortable victory in 2019, although his support level slumped to 56%.

The economy had fallen into recession in 2016, which only heightened Namibia’s stark inequalities.

The Fishrot scandal and the collapse of the SME Bank added to the feeling that Namibia was falling behind, losing the battle against corruption despite Geingob’s strong anti-corruption rhetoric. His mantra of ‘transparency + accountability = trust’ no longer seemed enough.

That sense mounted in his second term as president, when Namibia became linked to the cash heist at South African president Cyril Ramaphosa’s Phala Phala farm.

Economic problems also mounted as the pandemic only made it harder for him to find the fiscal space for significant spending plans.

He was keenly aware of those challenges, and didn’t seek to minimise them.

“It’s true people are complaining, they are crying,” he said in December.

“When you have no hope, you sit and suffer quietly. But when you have hope and see the light at the end of the tunnel, you will make noise because the goal is reachable, and keep saying as long as you are making noise, you are doing the right thing. You have hope in your country.”

LOVE, LEGACY AND LOSS

Geingob has publicly addressed several health concerns over the past decade. He underwent brain surgery in 2013.
The following year he announced that he had survived prostate cancer.

In 2023 he had a heart operation in South Africa. Last month, he announced he had cancer.

He was married three times – in 1967, 1993 and again in 2015 – and had as many children. His current wife, lawyer and businesswoman Monica Geingos, was by his side with his three children when he died.

Had he been able to serve out his term, he would have no doubt focused on achieving the outcomes of his second Harambee Development Plan and seeking to secure his administration’s green hydrogen ambitions. These tasks will now be left to others.

Considering his life as a whole, his lasting legacy is his achievements in developing Namibia as an open democracy that upholds fundamental freedoms.

“Legacy has to be told by people. I cannot say I did this and that,” he said in December.

– Additional reporting by Graham Hopwood, the executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, and Griffin Shea, an author and communication consultant.

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