The Ben Ulenga Moment Could Be Lost

The Ben Ulenga Moment Could Be Lost

THE destiny of Ben Ulenga, the first president of CoD, and now the “president” of the same party, has always been mysterious in our political history.

The road Ben travelled does not enlighten, nor does it obscure much as to what we have to think of him as a politician. Here is a former freedom fighter, Robben Island prisoner and a leading trade unionist who by virtue of all these credentials could possibly have gone on to become Swapo’s president.Yet based on those very impeccable credentials, loyal to what he believed in, he chose what would ultimately turn out to be a much tougher road to the top.Also, it is exactly after the decline of revolutionary illusions a couple of years into our freedom that we came to accept the worth of Ben Ulenga in the political history of Swapo and an independent Namibia.More precisely, the Ulenga moment would come primarily as a result of his somewhat triumphal return as a convincing politician and diplomat from St James’s Court in London to form a political party.This party would emerge, not as the first scar in Swapo, the latter having known a few of those during the liberation struggle, but the first real test to its cohesion after Independence.Be that as it may, the Ulenga moment was of extreme significance, for it imbued our democracy with a new sense of excitement and possibly the first chance for constructing a durable duopoly in our politics, just like in most advanced democracies.However, the moment was partially lost and CoD was defeated in the 1999 presidential and legislative elections, idem for the 2005 elections.On these we could argue convincingly with the benefit of hindsight that the young party was still in its starting blocks.But since then, real cracks around Ulenga’s leadership have become commonplace and we need to look critically as to what Ulenga can offer to CoD’s political process.Unlike Sam Nujoma, his first mentor, Ben Ulenga never really managed to look at the party he leads as constituted of subjects in the first place, and secondly, comrades.It is on this score, that fatal pursuit of idealism with political power, which would prove costly for Ben Ulenga.Additionally, the context in which CoD was formed, its principles and motivations for more democracy, would provide fertile ground for a palace coup.And Keetmanshoop was just such a case in point, evidently with grave consequences for Ben Ulenga as the “first democrat”.What is at stake for Ben Ulenga is not necessarily the extent of the “vote rigging” as claimed by his fellow democrats per se.A political leader, just like a CEO, must have the support of his board and staff members, but he or she too must draw legitimacy from both the rank and file of the party.So, Ulenga could have won the vote at a highly divided congress and claim legitimacy as he rightly does now.But I am more disturbed about another equally crucial level of his legitimacy: Ulenga has lost the support of practically most of his political friends at the top.I could be wrong, but I think that Nora Schimming-Chase, Ignatius Shixwameni and Kala Gertze are better placed to judge what Ben Ulenga can do and can’t do, especially within the context of an eroding political party.And for these leaders, Ben has become a liability rather than an asset.Honestly, Ulenga should be more concerned about that level of his legitimacy.As I have come to realise through service, interaction and my observation of politicians, they always hope that history and politics will be kind to them.Even based on what is reasonable, their quest for power never seems to fade, oftentimes even in the face of adversity.It is the sense of the tragic in politics that politicians ignore.Ulenga is equally convinced about throwing his seven elevens, even when everything points down to snake eyes.A defiant Tony Blair chose Trimdon when he announced his resignation as Prime Minister of the Great Britain for symbolic reasons for it was the constituency that propelled him to 10 Downing Street.I think that Ben Ulenga, having possibly learned and seen the best of Tony Blair during his time as High Commissioner to the UK in the late 1990s, would have been inspired by Tony’s largely off the cuff Trimdon resignation speech.Not only that, but Blair at Trimdon also ironically reminds me of a purposeful-looking Ben Ulenga rushing through independence avenue just before the formation of CoD, looking fresh, suave, dressed in what looked like at first glance, a well-tailored Saville Row suit.There was something aggressive about that Ben Ulenga, who unfortunately contrasts sharply with the insular, jaded Ulenga of today, battling at all costs (to himself and his party) to hold onto the leadership of CoD.It is also Tony Blair at Trimdon who should either way inspire the second Ben Ulenga, notably when he quoted Aristotle’s famous aphorism “politics is the art of the possible”.And Blair even went further: “politics could be the art of the possible, but at least in life let’s give the impossible a go”.But then, the question many CoD members may have to ask and debate, and one that some members of the leadership have already asked (and answered) is: should they give, in the case of Ben Ulenga, the impossible a go? Alas, I think that Ben Ulenga has already tested the limits of the possible.* Alfredo Tjurimo Hengari is a PhD fellow in Political Science at the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne, France.Here is a former freedom fighter, Robben Island prisoner and a leading trade unionist who by virtue of all these credentials could possibly have gone on to become Swapo’s president.Yet based on those very impeccable credentials, loyal to what he believed in, he chose what would ultimately turn out to be a much tougher road to the top.Also, it is exactly after the decline of revolutionary illusions a couple of years into our freedom that we came to accept the worth of Ben Ulenga in the political history of Swapo and an independent Namibia.More precisely, the Ulenga moment would come primarily as a result of his somewhat triumphal return as a convincing politician and diplomat from St James’s Court in London to form a political party.This party would emerge, not as the first scar in Swapo, the latter having known a few of those during the liberation struggle, but the first real test to its cohesion after Independence.Be that as it may, the Ulenga moment was of extreme significance, for it imbued our democracy with a new sense of excitement and possibly the first chance for constructing a durable duopoly in our politics, just like in most advanced democracies.However, the moment was partially lost and CoD was defeated in the 1999 presidential and legislative elections, idem for the 2005 elections.On these we could argue convincingly with the benefit of hindsight that the young party was still in its starting blocks.But since then, real cracks around Ulenga’s leadership have become commonplace and we need to look critically as to what Ulenga can offer to CoD’s political process.Unlike Sam Nujoma, his first mentor, Ben Ulenga never really managed to look at the party he leads as constituted of subjects in the first place, and secondly, comrades.It is on this score, that fatal pursuit of idealism with political power, which would prove costly for Ben Ulenga.Additionally, the context in which CoD was formed, its principles and motivations for more democracy, would provide fertile ground for a palace coup.And Keetmanshoop was just such a case in point, evidently with grave consequences for Ben Ulenga as the “first democrat”. What is at stake for Ben Ulenga is not necessarily the extent of the “vote rigging” as claimed by his fellow democrats per se.A political leader, just like a CEO, must have the support of his board and staff members, but he or she too must draw legitimacy from both the rank and file of the party.So, Ulenga could have won the vote at a highly divided congress and claim legitimacy as he rightly does now.But I am more disturbed about another equally crucial level of his legitimacy: Ulenga has lost the support of practically most of his political friends at the top.I could be wrong, but I think that Nora Schimming-Chase, Ignatius Shixwameni and Kala Gertze are better placed to judge what Ben Ulenga can do and can’t do, especially within the context of an eroding political party.And for these leaders, Ben has become a liability rather than an asset.Honestly, Ulenga should be more concerned about that level of his legitimacy.As I have come to realise through service, interaction and my observation of politicians, they always hope that history and politics will be kind to them.Even based on what is reasonable, their quest for power never seems to fade, oftentimes even in the face of adversity.It is the sense of the tragic in politics that politicians ignore.Ulenga is equally convinced about throwing his seven elevens, even when everything points down to snake eyes. A defiant Tony Blair chose Trimdon when he announced his resignation as Prime Minister of the Great Britain for symbolic reasons for it was the constituency that propelled him to 10 Downing Street. I think that Ben Ulenga, having possibly learned and seen the best of Tony Blair during his time as High Commissioner to the UK in the late 1990s, would have been inspired by Tony’s largely off the cuff Trimdon resignation speech.Not only that, but Blair at Trimdon also ironically reminds me of a purposeful-looking Ben Ulenga rushing through independence avenue just before the formation of CoD, looking fresh, suave, dressed in what looked like at first glance, a well-tailored Saville Row suit.There was something aggressive about that Ben Ulenga, who unfortunately contrasts sharply with the insular, jaded Ulenga of today, battling at all costs (to himself and his party) to hold onto the leadership of CoD.It is also Tony Blair at Trimdon who should either way inspire the second Ben Ulenga, notably when he quoted Aristotle’s famous aphorism “politics is the art of the possible”.And Blair even went further: “politics could be the art of the possible, but at least in life let’s give the impossible a go”.But then, the question many CoD members may have to ask and debate, and one that some members of the leadership have already asked (and answered) is: should they give, in the case of Ben Ulenga, the impossible a go? Alas, I think that Ben Ulenga has already tested the limits of the possible.* Alfredo Tjurimo Hengari is a PhD fellow in Political Science at the University of Paris Panthéon-Sorbonne, France.

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