Indigenous Himba take fight to the UN
The Namibian government can usually ignore the demands of indigenous groups - safe in the knowledge that their voices will seldom be heard. And even if they are that the groups are too isolated and marginalised to cause the ruling party any difficulty - apart perhaps from some temporary embarrassment.
But the government will have more trouble ignoring the latest call from the Himba people of Kaokoland, who have long seen their rights trampled upon and decisions about their future imposed from afar. Not only has the lengthy list of abuses and justified demands been signed by all 36 of the traditional Himba leaders but they have also appealed directly to the United Nations and the international community to intervene.
In a remarkable statement (that can be downloaded at the end of this article), the leaders take the government to task over their rights to land, traditional titles, cultural identity, lack of consultation relating to mining and dam construction and routine oppression. And they demand that the Namibian government ends land grabbing, halts plans for a new dam, stops interfering in ancestral tribal institutions, provides culturally sensitive schools and allows the Himba to move freely across the border with Angola.
The leaders words are extremely powerful - highlighting the complete marginalisation of their people by the government of Namibia. They make the following key points and demands:
"The statement affirms that the indigenous Himba people, are the original inhabitants, caretakers and true owners of our Kaokoland that we have inherited from our ancestors.The borders were reaffirmed as well as documented by all three colonial governments that ruled our country before Namibia became independent. Within Kaokoland, we traditional leaders rule and care for our people and land in our areas according to our ancestral governance structure.
But to our grievance, the Namibian government has destroyed our ancestral traditional governance structure, disposing and withholding the official recognition of 33 of us as rightful traditional leaders. We and other traditional leaders from other tribes went to the High Court, and we won the case on December 13th 2001, and the Government of Namibia was ordered to re-install us in our rightful positions as Traditional Authorities. But the state did not comply to the Court order to this very day, and we remain the not recognized leaders, removed from our legal powers.
Our people and we strongly object to the state’s ruthless interference by the Government of Namibia our people to choose their own leaders and destiny.We are not consulted, included in any decision making processes, nor we are heard when we object. We are therefore the marginalized and oppressed tribe in our country Namibia.
Because we are no longer allowed to govern, and are not recognized by the Government of Namibia as the legitimate leaders of our people and land, we see our traditional territory being invaded by the ruling Owambo ethnic group that controls the ruling SWAPO Party. We are currently facing a law that allows any citizen of Namibia to apply and receive 20 hectares of our land. (Communal land Reform Act 5 of 2002). We strongly object this law that is forced upon our throats against our will and consent.
This is a land grab! We are losing our land. Our land is being fenced by outsiders.
We, the original people of this Kaokoland are semi nomadic people. We are roaming with our cattle, goat and sheep from place to place. We react to the change of climate in our semi dessert environment, and follow the needs of our livestock and move them to grazing areas that are sufficient for them, especially during dry season. The fencing of our land is therefore not only a land right issue, and threatening our way of life, but more so a matter of our very survival. We won’t be able to adopt and mitigate the negative effects of climate change when we are no longer able to access and roam freely our land.
We also face other forms of invasion into our territory by large-scale mining companies which will destroy huge areas of our environment without our free, prior and informed consent. We are not even informed what resources are taken out of our grounds, what dangerous chemicals are used in the processes, nor do we receive any benefits from our stolen natural resources. But if our own people want to apply for small-scale mining permits, we usually cannot obtain them, and we are told that area already belongs to other companies often owned by non-Himba outsiders.
In the recent past we have successfully opposed the construction of the Epupa Hydroelectric Dam. Our leaders such as Chief Hikuminue Kapika and Chief Paulus Tjavara and others went to the UN and informed the Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson herself about the injustice done to us. As a result, the World Bank removed its financial support for the Dam, as has Japan and other international financiers. Today the Government of Namibia claims that they have listened to us, but in reality they have been forced by the international pressure to cease the construction of the dam.
Today, we now also hear that the Government of Namibia wants to build again a dam in our territory, this time in at Baynes Mountains, downstream of Epupa area. But as we have done so in the past, we strongly oppose and object to this. Again, the affected communities and traditional leaders have not been consulted, nor have we been included in any steps of the planning and decision-making levels. We will never give our consent to have our river being blocked, the life in the waters and dependent of it being threatened, and to have our environment being destroyed and our land being taken away from us.
We would use our graveyards and sacred places in those areas that would be flooded or destroyed through the construction of the dam. The population would become refugees, forced to move away with their animals to other areas that are already inhabited by others from our community. It would cause overpopulation and poverty due to overgrazing in the neighboring areas. Moreover, the beneficiaries of the hydroelectricity will be those who live in the cities and not us.
One of our main grievances is the lack of culturally appropriate schools for our communities. As semi nomadic people we need mobile schools that allow our children to be well educated while moving with their community and animals. Since Norway that had funded that funded schools has yielded their responsibility for these schools to the Government of Namibia, we see that these schools are either closed, the school tents and materials are no longer maintained, the transport to move the school tents and materials is now missing and we fear that the moving schools will decrease and no longer exist in the near future.
Starting from Grade 4 onwards, our children are forced to remove their traditional haircuts and attires, their whole cultural identity, and must cut their hair and dress in their western school uniforms if they want to be allowed to attend governmental schools. Many of our children refuse to do this. This school uniform rule is causing an enormous stress for our people, as we fear this will cause the loss of our culture and traditions by forcing our youth to change. Many of us don’t send our children to school, because we do not want that. Also, we are compelled to pay school fees and the uniforms that many of us cannot afford.
- We demand that our Kaokoland to be legally recognized by the state as our territory, that we have traditionally occupied and owned for centuries.
- We insist that the government stop the implementation of the Communal Land Reform Act that is resulting in the fencing off of our land and grabbing in Kaokoland.
- We demand that Namibia halts its plans to build a dam downstream of Epupa in Baynes Mountains.
- We further demand mining companies to be removed from our territory, and or otherwise we must be included in the entire process of giving out the mining permits and too the access on the benefits.
- We insist that the government cease and desist from further interference, manipulations and disempowerment of our customary tribal ancestral institutions.
- We demand that our traditional governance structure to be fully respected and our traditional authorities of Kaokoland by the government without delay.
- We demand that the school laws to be amended to become culturally appropriate.
- We further demand that our children be taught in our own language, while receiving highly qualified English lessons that would ensure that they speak and write the mainstream language well.
- We demand that we can cross, trade, sell and buy freely back and forth of the borders of Angola and Namibia as we are one people, and not to be separated and limited by borders.
- We demand better health care and more hospitals and clinics in our areas, and that translation into our language is always facilitated."
Download Statement by Himba Leaders
Richard Lee is the Communications and Campaigns Manager at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), a growing African institution committed to deepening democracy, protecting human rights and enhancing good governance in the region.