UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has applauded the withdrawal of Namibian troops last month from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a positive sign for the peace process after three years of conflict.
Speaking in Kinshasa at the weekend, Annan said that the pullout of Namibian forces, the first to be carried out by a signatory country of the Lusaka ceasefire agreement, needed to be matched by other foreign forces as soon as possible.
Amid domestic criticism, Namibia sent some 2,000 soldiers to the DRC in 1998 - alongside the more substantial forces of regional allies Angola and Zimbabwe - to prop up the government against Rwandan and Ugandan-backed rebels. On 24 July, Windhoek’s Independence Avenue came to a standstill when hundreds of people flocked to the city centre to welcome home the Namibia Defence Force (NDF) soldiers, marking the end of their controversial deployment in the central African country.
In the streets of Kinshasa there is a saying: “Namibia-Congo moto moko”, meaning “Namibia and Congo are one people”. The allied forces - ostensibly under the mandate of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) - did succeed in preventing the rebels from taking over. But Namibian Defence Minister Erkki Nghimtina confirmed that at least 30 soldiers died during their tour of duty while many others were reportedly injured. Back home, President Sam Nujoma and his government faced intense flack from opposition parties, as well as international donors.
Western governments, especially European countries, were concerned over whether development aid was being used indirectly to help fund Namibia’s deployment in the DRC. At the height of the tussle, Nujoma branded the European Union (EU) as “selfish imperialists and liars”. “We cannot allow Africa to be ruled by foreigners. Africa must be controlled by Africans. These Europeans: they formed a political union (the EU) and again they want to get our raw materials without paying us,” he thundered.
Nujoma’s headaches did not end there. Finland cut its aid to Namibia due to the country’s involvement in the DRC war and saw its outspoken Ambassador Kari Karanko expelled. The official word was that the career diplomat was told to leave the country because of his outspokenness and “undiplomatic behaviour”. Finland announced it would phase out its development aid to Namibia by 2007 after being one of Namibia’s main donors spending US $50 million at today’s exchange rate over the past 11 years.
There was also a brief but furious diplomatic row which saw South Africa suspend a shipment of 160 Samil military vehicles and 24 140 mm G-2 cannons to Namibia. Ultimately, most of the trucks and six of the cannons made it to the Grootfontein military base, which served as forward supply base to the Namibian forces in Kinshasa.
But now Namibia is leading the withdrawal of foreign troops from the DRC and has just 150 soldiers left in Kinshasa, although it does intend to strengthen business links with the mineral-rich country. At the triumphal parade last month, Nujoma hailed the “heroic military exploits” of the NDF which compelled the “enemy” to join the negotiating table. But he instructed the armed forces to “remain vigilant and be in combat readiness at all times” for the next assignment - reportedly that of eliminating Jonas Savimbi and the Angolan rebel movement UNITA.
“The carnage that our brothers and sisters in the Republic of Angola continue to suffer at the hands of Savimbi’s UNITA, as well as the negative spill-over effects that the war in Angola has on Namibia, is still a source of great concern to my government and all our citizens especially those who are living in the Kavango and Caprivi regions,” he said recently.