I saw this great man in 2014 vividly close-up, well-groomed and advanced in age, with clenched first in the air, epitomising his never surrender spirit making the revolutionary ‘power salute.’
At that moment, he was responding to the spellbinding lyrics of Hage the Unifier by Ndilimani, at a SWAPO campaign rally in Otjiwarongo. Back then, I never anticipated that this “Grande Personnage de la Revolution Namibie” would, the following year, become a major role-player in my long civil service career.
The leader I saw in 2014 with the clenched SWAPO fist in the air was none other than Dr. Nickey Iyambo, at the time, the longest serving Minister since independence and eventually, the first Vice President of the Republic. Seeing him that day, I recalled that he was the leader once assigned with the life-threatening responsibility of leading an advance team of exiled SWAPO Party cadres into South West Africa in 1989, to set up the Repatriation, Resettlement and Reconstruction Committee.
Back then, Dr Iyambo was also tasked with preparing the groundwork for the return of the SWAPO Party Elections Campaign Director and Head, Hage Geingob, and ultimately that of Sam Nujoma, then President of SWAPO, in fulfilment of UN Resolution 435.
That year, 1989, was an extremely volatile transitional time in which hundreds of PLAN combatants were massacred on April 1st and Anton Lubowski was assassinated on September 12th.
Most of the mainstream media at that time, supported by the South African regime’s apartheid administration of Namibia was promoting anti-SWAPO propaganda (except for the Namibian newspaper). These were grim reminders of the dangers at that time and accentuated the bravery displayed by Dr Iyambo to have risked his own life as the head of the first SWAPO leadership team that entered Namibia.
I elaborate on this home-coming incident, since it was the first time when the larger-than-life personality of Dr Nickey Iyambo appeared on my mental map. At that time, I was a 22 year-old youth.
These two incidents, seeing Dr Iyambo on the campaign trail in 2014 with his clenched fist singing SWAPO songs and the 1989 home-coming leadership role, formed lasting impressions on me about the courage and the never-die spirit of Aluta Continua which comprised the personality of Dr Nickey Iyambo.
I and my colleagues, former employees of his Prime Minister’s Bureau, were entrusted with the responsibility to help the 1st Vice President, set-up and manage the newly established Office of the Vice President in March 21, 2015.
Along with Presidential Advisor on Elders’ Matters, Mukwaita Shanyengana; Loini Ter Avest, a Personal Assistant; and Elina Kamalanga, Executive Secretary, were seconded in this respect.
I will be remiss in my recollections if I do not mention also a few of Dr Nickey Iyambo’s most loyal staff members such as Mimmie Dunaisky, Inspectors Kafita, Kamenye, Shikesho, Amunyela, and Witbooi, as well as Sgt Tomas Naluno, Josephine Kamati, Thomas Jonas, Niita Asino, Losvita Shambwila and Hesron Amutenya, under the command of Deputy Commissioner Valeria Elago, who formed the core team of cadres, of the Vice President’s Office, and closely interacted with him daily.
From 2015 to February 2018, we continued to work under Dr Iyambo’s tutelage, it was a once in a lifetime, rare, liberating experience to serve the Namibian people.
The former Vice President was an eminent personality, decades ahead of his time; a well-qualified holder of MSc, MA, and an MD in Social Sciences, Political Science and Medicine at the University of Helsinki in Finland.
Dr Iyambo was a very gentle and humble soul, who loved his family, SWAPO and the country, and yet was a meticulous planner whether it was his wedding, farm, work program or other matters. Even after his death, there are clear examples of such planning, as he never left the smallest detail to chance. He was purposeful and firm on the specifics of what should be done, by whom, when and how it should be done.
I will recount some of the anecdotes on trust, patriotism, patience and inclusive development to which we were fortunately introduced by Dr Iyambo.
On Trust - In the cutthroat competitiveness of government power politics, Dr Iyambo was an astonishingly composed leader, in part because he inspired those around him by bestowing them with unconditional trust. This in turn motivated us to aspire to always do the right and best thing, to the utmost of our capacities, to return the trust.
On Patriotism – He was the first choice of President Geingob to serve as the 1st Vice President, because Dr. Iyambo was a sincere patriot without an iota of a counterfeit gene.
He unequivocally abhorred the base idea of tribalism. To him, tribalism was akin to the discredited apartheid and therefore, a non-starter. He made this clear to me when he stated that I should ensure that we bring in employees who are qualified and competent to execute the job, but that he wanted a tribally balanced office to reflect the rainbow colors of the President’s Harambee House.
And he never allowed those who reasoned that because they speak the same language as him, they had the leverage to use such proximity, to disrespect his senior staff. If they tried, they would be cut down to size, gently.
Through Dr Iyambo, we were introduced to his circle of friends such as Dr Leake Hangala, Niilo Taapopi, and their families, and also friends from Finland, of whom I knew some before, and of course to some family members and some members of the Onayena constituency, and of course later on, his current wife, now the widow, Madam Iyambo, who we appreciated very much.
He only had one team in his office and that was the Namibian team.
On patience, one day, I was totally taken aback when during consultations, a well-known traditional chief took offense and with characteristic arrogance, railed against the fact that ‘only’ the Vice President was delegated to meet and hear his concerns. The emotionally incensed chief said to the VP, “We will not speak to a messenger.”
However, Dr Iyambo, unmoved, listened with full composure to such insulting arrogance. At the end, he responded affably, promising that he will accordingly deliver the message; he then wished the chief all the best.
I have never seen such cool headedness in my entire civil service career. If most of us were in Dr Iyambo’s shoes that day, we would have most probably told that chief where to get off. But that was the leader he was, nothing could force him away from his principle of civility.
On inclusive development – we visited the Kunene region, where he commented after having heard the cries for development at community meetings and having observed that economic life was very difficult in drought-stricken places such as Opuwo, Outjo, Kamanjab, or Khorixas, that “something must be done here, we cannot all wait for one day when we will have money.”
This is how the Khorixas Vocational Training Centre came into being as a brainchild of Dr. Iyambo. In addition, he still wanted to do more in the two Kavango regions, Omaheke region, and others, especially among the marginalized communities, but it was not to be. He took his retirement in 2018, in stride and prepared for this new role in life.
Dr Iyambo had the greatest respect for the President, being appreciative of the development challenges facing the country. He was a firm believer in the policies of transparency, effective governance, poverty alleviation, and a corruption-free Namibia, in which prosperity and progress is shared between the affluent minority and the Namibian masses. He felt that this was the only means of securing a peaceful, united and strong Namibia.
Dr. Iyambo’s spirit was as young and revolutionary as the day he first joined the liberation struggle. To the very end, he was willing to serve the people of Namibia, not for personal financial benefit, but due to his solid conviction of uplifting the Namibian people and realizing the vision for development, prosperity and economic emancipation.
He also firmly believed in the Namibian youth as the emerging leaders that can steer this country going forward. He was very conscious that the sun was setting fast on the era of the liberation struggle generation. His generation has become fewer in leadership positions and he wished for an orderly generational leadership transfer.
Most unfortunately, we were unable to write about his life experiences and thoughts in a formal book as he had wished before his passing. Perhaps such a biography can be undertaken at a later stage.
Dr Nickey Iyambo will be remembered as a fearless freedom fighter and a loyal comrade. He will also be remembered as a physician who assisted thousands of SWAPO fighters with medical treatment and as a good father, husband, brother and uncle.
But for us, who worked closely with him professionally, we will likely remember him as a rare God-given shooting star for humanity’s enlightenment, a mentors’ mentor and the ideal African and Namibian hero.
May his soul rest in eternal peace.
The author is the former Deputy Executive Director in the Office of the Vice President