There is no doubt that Namibian Defence Force (NDF) soldiers killing and assaulting unarmed civilians is unacceptable and such cases must be handled in the courts according to the relevant laws.
In addition, it is evident that having soldiers who are trained to kill and not trained to police, on civilian streets was a proscription for trouble from the outset. And yet, we are witnessing decision-makers struggling to balance their election year public relations needs and some local support for the NDF, with the many reports of heavy-handed, untrained soldiers (with no knowledge of policing) preying on the public.
When the soldiers first appeared on patrol in the neighbourhoods around the capitol city, we editorialized about our grave concerns that appropriate police training was not done before the soldiers were let loose. After the bullying, harassment, rights violations and murder of one person, we note that our concerns were justified.
Inspector General of the Namibian Police Force Sebastian Ndeitunga is offering condolences and justifications for NDF excesses, while remaining steadfast in support of an NDF armed presence amongst civilians. Though withdrawing Operation Kalahari Desert on Sunday, the Inspector General claims the action is not due to the legal case threatened by a civic group or the negative blowback against armed soldiers in civilian areas. Ndeitunga used the euphemism that a “phase” of the operation has been concluded as the reason the current operation is coming to an end. Regardless of how you dress it up, the bottom line is that the soldiers will be leaving the streets (for now at least) just after the NDF’s physical brutishness has caused pre-elections, public relations nightmares.
We carried an article from a distinguished retired military general stating support for the armed soldiers patrolling civilian areas and have covered the many official statements supporting both Operations Hornkrantz and Kalahari Desert. However, in the middle of this emotionally-charged debate, we take note of the silence from State House and the Commander and Chief of the Namibian armed forces. If there was ever a moment for a personal presidential statement, (particularly with one civilian dead as a result) now is the time for high level reassurance and clarification.
Those who are against untrained soldiers being used as a policing force, cannot assert that they speak for everyone. There have been comments from some quarters in the public demanding more respect for law enforcement officers and stating that the soldiers are making their streets and homes safer.
There have been speeches from the police noting ‘falling’ crime rates as a result of either Operations Hornkrantz or Kalahari Desert. However, as those collecting this data are also those who benefit from figures in their favour, we are uncertain about the accuracy of the statistics offered. Nevertheless, there is an insistence that the presence of the soldiers has changed things for the better in the view of some.
Any debate on this issue cannot ignore that the Namibian police force is grossly underfunded, under-equipped, under-staffed and poorly motivated in many cases. The lack of funds for protecting the people has stalled recruitment and training and blocked the purchase of necessary policing equipment (like vehicles).
It is a fact that many people who need protection the most have been under-served by Nampol. Whether adding untrained soldiers to the mix changes this situation, is debateable.
We also take note that the presence of NDF soldiers did not supplant regular police patrols. Those uniformed army patrols have been first sign of any kind of official law-and-order presence in some areas around Windhoek, for some time.
It should not be a surprise therefore, that there are some comments coming from the areas being patrolled by the army that are positive.
Should the comments of those in support of an NDF presence in the community hold less value than those against it? We think not. All data must inform positions taken.
At the same time, we would have been interested in a court ruling on the legality of using armed soldiers in domestic civilian areas without a declaration of martial law or national emergency.
There is another reality that should be a part of this debate. If these soldiers were not patrolling amongst civilians, would they be sitting around, under-utilized at various bases? With the NDF forced to recruit many who could not get jobs elsewhere, having bored, and under-educated, idle, armed soldiers, is a longer-term problem of another kind.
If military patrols in their current form are deemed to be legal in the end and if the ‘Operations’ are re-instated, we believe that training on policing skills, non-violent conflict resolution and the constitutional rights of citizens, are a must for every soldier ordered to interact with the public.
Soldiers must be taught to drop the ‘macho man’ swagger they have just because they are armed. They are not demi-gods who can demand obeisance and never be questioned (some Nampol officers need to learn this too). These are lessons that must be taught before soldiers should ever hit the streets again.
Since government apparently has not completely dropped the idea of using soldiers amongst civilians as a deterrent to crime, they must note that respect cannot be forced at the barrel of a gun, but only earned by actions.