Smart diplomacy and issue activism key to unlocking our potential

20 June 2013

Namibia is a small state in regional, continental and global terms. By any measure or criteria, the country’s economy does not matter more than that of a South African city like Cape Town. Our national budget is almost the size of what the Department of Higher Education in South Africa spends on Universities and colleges.

The country is as a consequence less likely to influence in any meaningful terms the course of events in the region and on the continent. Since we are a microstate, it also goes without saying that we are not in a position to influence global processes.

We do not have the means to do so because our diplomatic reach with roughly 24 missions is rather scant and thin. Also, we do not have a robust and well-trained diplomatic service with sufficient technical expertise and experience that would allow us to punch above our weight. Yet, punching above our weight ought to be the essence of our diplomacy as a small state.

Being a small country is not always a fatality in international affairs. It is possible for a country of our size to shape the agenda as part of an ensemble of states that care about the issues that we ought to care about as a small, but democratic state.

What are these issues? More important, how should we as a country proceed in terms of promoting these issues? It deserves mention we have more or less been more influential in regional debates under the founding President, Sam Nujoma by virtue of the liberation capital the latter enjoyed.

Under President Hifikepunye Pohamba we seem to have become pretty normal for a few obvious reasons. First, he does not have the same notoriety as the founding president. While President Pohamba is a liberation leader, his role and that of others within Swapo have been significantly dwarfed by the towering nature of the founding president in Africa’s liberation landscape. Our transition to the third president in 2015 is less likely to generate any excitement since certain African democracies, including Senegal have witnessed former opposition parties assuming power at the expense of incumbents.

Second, as the years have been wearing on, excitement about Namibia’s transition has waned. If our transition was considered to be model in 1990, many other post-Cold War political transitions have equally been peaceful and exemplary, including South Africa under Nelson Mandela.

Third, we share borders to the north with an oil-rich neighbour Angola, whilst to the south we share a border with Africa’s largest economy, South Africa. To the east, we share a border with a country that is more or less similar in size to ours, but arguably more ambitious, at least in normative terms. Botswana has been grabbing the headlines in recent years with some of its foreign policy positions, including a stronger stance against human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, questioning Chinese practices in the national economy. Far afield, Botswana was also one of the first countries to have openly declared that Alassane Dramane Ouattara was the winner of the presidential elections in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010. Botswana also played a decisive role in getting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma elected as African Union Commission Chair in 2012.

We have been fairly absent on the normative issues, ducking under the cover of liberation politics and South-South solidarity when it comes to governance challenges on the continent. Yet, our democratic domestic order suggests that our voice ought to be heard on issues of democracy and progressive governance.

As Africa is embracing more democracy and not less, and as a fairly sound democracy ourselves, we ought to add our weight to countries that condemn unconstitutional practices on the continent. We ought to have been present when Botswana raised her voice in support of Alassane Ouattara. More important, we should add our voice by way of public statements when rebels overthrow elected governments, as was the case recently in April in the Central African Republic.

This does suggest that cabinet pronouncements among others should also be used to speak to foreign policy. Our diplomacy should also assume a more aggressive stance with regard to promoting Namibian candidates to key positions in continental and international institutions.

Ever since the departure of Tuliameni Kalomoh from the United Nations Headquarters, and Bience Gawanas from the African Union Commission, Namibians are not visible in these institutions. We have not been nurturing talented Namibians in foreign affairs, thereby creating opportunities for them to rise to the top of multilateral organisations.

In fact, we fare badly compared to Botswana in the June 2013 list of African candidates to key positions in multilateral organisations. As a small country, we may not grab the headlines, but an activist approach toward certain issues that we ought to construct can generate benefits for the country, thereby unlocking our potential.

Alfredo Tjiurimo HENGARI is Head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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