My first contact with the late former Vice President, Dr Nickey Iyambo, was in 1989. I was a student at Döbra Secondary School just outside Windhoek.
The memory of my exposure to him then, and subsequently in my time as a journalist, first for the New Era newspaper, and later at the Windhoek Observer, paint a part of my favourable picture of this quiet, calm and determined gentleman.
Back then, at the dawn of independence, Döbra’s land was being used by the Repatriation Committee as a first location for ‘Returnees’. It was a place for them to stay upon arrival back in Namibia and where their relatives could come to be reunited with those returning from exile. For those of us who were students there, the atmosphere was crackling with excitement. With SWAPO coming home after years of technically and effectively being banished; the first real democratic elections ever, and independence in the offing, change was coming and the future was calling. We couldn’t wait.
I recall in that anticipatory climate, Nickey Iyambo came to Döbra, it was a Tuesday afternoon. It was the first time I had ever seen him.
He was neatly dressed; very sharp! He was wearing those old-fashioned safari suits that many African leaders of those days would wear when ‘on the road’ at public events. He addressed the Returnees and was surprisingly soft spoken, calm and deliberate. His message hit home even harder as a result of this determined, but reserved delivery style.
The returning refugees gathered there were understandably nervous about their future; they felt happy to be home, but insecure. Many wondered about long separations from family, interrupted education, re-acceptance into communities, schools or other things they left behind when they went into exile. I watched their faces as they listened to Nickey Iyambo and I could see the hope and belief in their eyes, purely based on his words and the information he gave that day.
As they hung onto his every word, he addressed them using a combination of Oshiwambo and Otjiherero, to make sure as many people understood him as possible. He made a positive impression on me that day and I never forgot his quiet power.
Fast forward 15 years or so when I was a reporter at the New Era newspaper working on the political beat. My reporting work covered the 2004 SWAPO Congress where former President Pohamba emerged as the single candidate for State President, edging out Nahas Angula and Hidipo Hamutenya. The political climate was electrically charged with suspicion and hostility as Hamutenya made his break from SWAPO to form the Rally for Democracy and Progress. Once again from that standpoint, I saw Nickey Iyambo as the calm presence in the storm of emotions. Clearly articulating his points, proceeding with his work as Minister of Mines and Energy after leaving his portfolio as Minister of Regional and Local Government and Housing.
I must admit that I covered stories from his ministries with a sympathetic eye, never shying away from asking him the hard questions I needed for my articles, but remembering his calm, controlled, informed, gentlemanly demeanour from that day at Döbra way back when.
Fast forward again to 2007 when our current President, Hage Geingob, was a backbencher for SWAPO in Parliament, and moved up to the Chief Whip of the Party, then a seat in the Politburo, and up the power ladder within the party, until he was Vice President of the party later on. I covered the beat regularly and often had occasion to sit casually and discuss things with Geingob.
From my early time as a sports reporter at the New Era, I also had interacted with the current President often, due to his love of all things football. We used to have many occasions at matches and other venues to share a joke, commiserate on sports and discuss politics. I recall with favour some occasions when he used to say to me in a mock conspiratorial manner, “I’ve never told this to anyone else, but….” And he would share harmless vignettes about various government leaders, ministers and ranking party members. I’ve never forgotten those warm days and friendly exchanges. It made me trust Hage Geingob on a deep level.
During those many talks, he spoke about Nickey Iyambo and I came to know that President Geingob saw Dr Iyambo as a confidante and advisor.
As time went on, around 2013-14, quiet and hesitant rumblings were starting about who would replace Pohamba as president and yet, due to the Hamutenya RDP events of 2004, no one wanted to come out and say they wanted to be considered for high office. Such talk about succession was taboo and ambitious. No one wanted to be seen as ‘pursuing’ power. All with such desires were expectantly in the wings, waiting to be anointed by someone else rather than throwing their hats into the ring openly.
I recall statements by the Swapo Party's Oshikoto regional leader, Armas Amukwiyu, identifying Geingob as the right successor to Pohamba. Bravely, in spite of the taboo, Nickey Iyambo also came out and shared that same point of view. As other people pretended to shun ambition and persecuted anyone who came out in support of the Geingob candidacy, Nickey Iyambo calmly spoke his mind and took whatever political backlash was thrown his way. He threw Geingob’s hat into the ring and persisted with that point of view.
I shared that point of view with Iyambo in support of a Geingob presidency. I had developed a soft spot for Geingob and covered his candidacy for SWAPO and national president with a sympathetic and supportive tone. I respected Iyambo’s bravery, and once again, I saw that cool, quietly firm manner I first witnessed back at Döbra. He was impressive.
Throughout the years of my coverage of Nickey Iyambo, one clear theme emerged. The former Vice President was never a tribalist or a factionalist. There are always political skirmishes from various sides. The Omusati clique or the Ohangwena group or where politicians in power hailed from Kwanyamas or Hereros or those from the South or Northeast of the country or wherever else as their constituency base, seemed to bicker; Nickey Iyambo never played into that. He never received political backing from one group vs another, but was cross-cutting in receiving respect. He was a party leader in and of himself, based on is quality of mind, quality of commitment to SWAPO and steadying presence, not because he was from one place or another.
His calm demeanour and steadying presence will be missed. May he rest in peace.