We are concerned that the German Ambassador to Namibia, Christian Schlaga, may be inappropriately inserting himself into the very sensitive issue of genocide and reparations where his role as a policy implementer and not as a policy maker, should restrain him.
The genocide issue is critically important in the lives of many Namibians. The necessary back-and-forth between the victims of genocide, the Namibian government and the German authorities to achieve fairness and receive restitution for that country’s murder, theft and decimation of the Nama and Herero people in 1904-1908 is nothing less than a struggle for justice.
Schlaga’s reported dismissals of the relevance of respected Namibian leaders of various communities and statements about the genocide are arguably undiplomatic and possibly inappropriate as the official German chief negotiator is Ruprecht Polenz.
There are specific roles for specific people for very important reasons in multi-faceted, complicated negotiations. Infringing on those boundaries, can be problematic as unfortunate statements can sour ongoing discussions and meetings.
Over the decades, there have been various interlocuteurs on the genocide issue. The role of an Ambassador in all cases is never as a policy maker, but that of their government’s official spokesperson or clarifier.
An Ambassador plays a key role carrying much dignity and respect; he can bind his government with a statement or a signature. But this person is a policy implementer only. Doing or saying anything else without specific instructions from his/her appointing authority, means the ambassador is over-reaching.
Ambassador Schlaga has chosen to make several statements publicly that have made us concerned that he is over-reaching.
We take note of reports where he links German bi-lateral development assistance to Namibia since independence with the need for an apology and reparations for the Herero and Nama genocide. The Namibian government’s position on this has been to reject this linkage, and the affected communities, who are victims of the genocide, dismiss it out of hand. The two issues cannot be melded and absolution for genocide cannot be gained through a donor aid chequebook.
Indeed, insensitive comments made by Schlaga’s ambassadorial predecessor to the then Prime Minister Hage Geingob, foreshadowed the pattern of subtle downplay of the genocide issue by Germany.
In February, 2013, then German Ambassador Onno Hückmann was disrespectful and discourteous when he was quoted as saying that repeated talk of reparations could tarnish the flourishing bilateral relations between the two countries. In other words, be quiet and do what we say, or we won’t give you any money. Geingob rightfully bristled at such high-handed arrogance.
Political parties in Namibia called for Schlaga to be removed as early as 2016 when a genocide reparations committee meeting reportedly disintegrated after the German negotiator Polenz supposedly made insulting statements to some of the Namibian representatives from the affected communities and Schlaga controversially attempted to prevent those wishing to walk out of the meeting, from doing so.
In January this year, Schlaga was reported as publicly stating that the German government insists that the mass killings committed during between 1904 and 1908 must be downgraded and termed as “atrocities” and not genocide in spite of United Nations official lists and definitions already naming the colonial German actions against the Nama and Herero people as genocide.
Reports state that on 6 February, 2018, Schlaga said the lack of a central data repository and sound data has made it difficult for policy makers to determine who owns what property in the country. Such undiplomatic words can be interpreted as a ‘put down’ of the country (albeit the statements were made in a discussion at the launch of the Economic Association of Namibia’s (EAN) online data repository referring to NEEEF). Comments like that can raise questions about whether Germany respects Namibia as an equal negotiation partner in any context.
Matters heated up when on June 15, 2017, he reportedly made insulting statements while delivering a speech at the AGM of the German School Association at the German Private School, DHPS, in Windhoek.
In that speech (delivered in German), according to one local reporter, he supposedly said: “Germany believes that the atrocities committed against the Nama and Ovaherero people during the 1904-1907 genocide were justified.”
He now vehemently (and convincingly) denies making such an outrageously insensitive statement. Indeed, saying such a thing would be very ill-advised. However, had he aggressively challenged the comment, made a factual rebuttal, released the text of his speech, and issued a complaint to the media ombudsman back then, the incendiary report of words he allegedly said may not have taken root.
But the German Ambassador’s delayed action opened the door to the various counter-reactions that are occurring now.
Bob Kandetu, in an open letter in a local daily, responded in anger at the incendiary words attributed to the German Ambassador back in June as well as other statements made and actions taken, presumably at the behest of the German government.
Ambassador Schlaga as an experienced diplomat should have known that a wound (even a perceived wound) left untended, festers. He should have known the existing anger in the very fibre of this country about the genocide, colonialism, white supremacy, land, and apartheid. He should have anticipated the negative fallout that would come when such a statement was attributed to him (rightly or wrongly) and immediately taken remedial steps to set the record straight.
Instead, his muted reaction to the scandalous comments attributed to him last June (whether he made them or not) have been interpreted in some quarters not as silence allowing an emotional controversy to die down, but as arrogance in not taking genocide victims seriously. This is quite a junior error for such a senior diplomat.
Outraged at the words attributed to Schlaga, Kandetu wrote an open letter on February 21. Immediately, in a February 27, 2018 speech, a determined denial of the June statement and attack on the highly esteemed Kandetu left Schlaga spinning his wheels in mud of his own making.
In a Feb 16, 2018 meeting at State House where Schlaga was a part of the EU delegation meeting with the Head of State, Geingob reportedly told the experienced German diplomat that, “We are the citizens of this country, and not you. So, when we are trying to address this, do not condemn us,” as Schlaga attempted to throw water on the NEEEF issue as well as other priorities of the Namibian government.
If Ambassador Schlaga didn’t know it before, he should know it now, the Nama and Herero genocide is a no-nonsense, deep-rooted, emotional issue and he should tread carefully, but credibly, as he speaks on behalf of his government. There is no room for him to ever speak out his personal points of view on this sensitive topic.