The Namibian Society for Human Rights (NSHR) has called for an independent investigation into the killing last week of five alleged Caprivi secessionist rebels in the northeast of the country by the security forces.
"We are calling for an autopsy by an impartial body to determine the real cause of their deaths," NSHR director Phil ya Nongoloh told IRIN. "Only an honest investigation will really tell us what happened."
According to the defence ministry, its special forces ambushed and killed the five alleged members of the separatist Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA) on Situngu island on 4 November. Two bodies were recovered, the remaining three were believed to have been lost in the Kwando-Chobe river.
"We do not have the so-called liberation army in Namibia, therefore these elements who are calling themselves by the name 'Caprivi Liberation Army' is but a group of disgruntled elements and terrorists who entertain the idea of secessionism," Defence Minister Erkki Nghimtina said last Thursday. "They should, therefore, be seen as bandits with a mission to terrorise the people in the Caprivi Region."
However, there is controversy over the identity of the men. "We think they were poachers, they are not really secessionists as made out by the government," ya Nongoloh said. He alleged they had also been captured and then shot.
An NSHR statement said its human rights monitors had seen the two dead bodies at the hospital in the regional capital Katima Mulilo and claimed that both had gunshot wounds to the head. "It seems likely to our investigators that the so-called rebels were captured, had their arms [tied] together and then executed," the statement released last week claimed.
Situngu, a tiny island on the border with Botswana, is rich in game and news reports said the security forces found, along with the personal possessions of the slain men, dried elephant meat and a cheetah skin. An army patrol had reportedly been on the island a week before the shooting to carry away the body of a poached elephant. The Namibian newspaper quoted security sources as saying that one of the five men who had apparently shot at the commando unit was guarding the carcass of an animal.
Police Chief Inspector Hophni Hamafungu told IRIN that although investigations were continuing, and no formal identification had yet been made of the bodies, he was satisfied the men were CLA. "That's the only conclusion we have come to so far. The only armed troublemakers we have in the region are CLA," he said. "The discovery of the [camp] was not incidental but based on intelligence information we have followed up for some time now. The base must have been there for at least a month."
Hamafungu also denied that the men had been executed. "When I heard these allegations I contacted the regional commander in Caprivi and he said they couldn't verify that. He said the way the bodies were lying with their weapons, these people were running away." He added that the police had found four AK-47 or AKM assault rifles. "All the guns looked old, but all of them had ammunition, not a full magazine, but maybe five or six rounds each."
While some analysts in Namibia have doubted the government's claims, defence spokesman Vincent Mwange told IRIN the authorities believed that among the men discovered on Situngu were Caprivi refugees who had returned to Namibia this year under a tripartite agreement between Botswana, Namibia and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"Some Namibians who initially ran to Botswana after the 1999 [CLA] attack on Katima Mulilo were later repatriated back to Namibia by UNHCR. Some of these guys are involved in banditry activities. We have been able to identify them," Mwange alleged.
UNHCR, in conjunction with the governments of Namibia and Botswana, has helped repatriate a total of 913 refugees to Caprivi from Dukwe since August, out of the 2,400 that fled secessionist unrest in 1998 and 1999. But the majority of the returnees have been San bushmen from Western Caprivi, who were not linked to separatist politics but reportedly fled a security crackdown.
UNHCR Representative for South Africa Bemma Donkoh, who is also responsible for UNHCR's Botswana office, told IRIN that returnees carried clear identification documents. But UNHCR had not been informed by the Namibian authorities of a link between any of the men killed and the repatriation exercise.
"It would be very easy to establish whether they were, or were not, from Dukwe," she said. "The head of the liason office in Botswana has not been approached to definitely identify that the deceased were allegedly former residents of Dukwe."
Hamafungu said he would not like to speculate on where the men had come from. "They could have come from Angola, Zambia or even Botswana. Wherever, they were involved in clandestine activities. They could have crossed backwards and forwards from Botswana without reporting themselves to the authorities," he suggested.
BACKGROUND TO CAPRIVI UNREST
Secessionist activity emerged in Caprivi in 1998 led by Mishak Muyongo, a politician and a traditional leader of the Mafwe ethnic group. He claimed the 100,000 Caprivians had been starved of development aid and politically marginalised by the government in Windhoek.
In August 1999 the situation worsened with a dawn attack on government installations in Katima Mulilo by the CLA which left 12 people dead and led to a fresh influx of refugees into Botswana. At the time the CLA was believed to have links with the Angolan rebel movement UNITA, which was launching raids into northern Namibia in retaliation for Windhoek's military support of the Angolan government. It was also associated with similar secessionist unrest in western Zambia.
Caprivi - a colonial anachronism - is a fertile strip of land running across northeastern Namibia, sharing borders with Angola, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Historically the region was under the sway of the Lozi Barotseland kingdom in Zambia, and the cultural ties remain. During South African colonial administration, Caprivi was governed directly from Pretoria rather than Windhoek, reinforcing for some the sense of its separate identity.
Muyongo, a member of the Mafwe royal family that trace their lineage to pre-colonial Barotseland, was a vice-president of the ruling SWAPO party until he was expelled over the issue of Caprivi self-determination. He then became a leading light in the pre-independence ruling Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, and president of the party in opposition until he was removed in 1998 following reports of his sponsorship of the CLA.
He wielded significant political power in eastern Caprivi, in part through an alliance with a former Mafwe chief, Boniface Mamili. Both men fled to Botswana in 1998 after the discovery of a CLA training camp in their Linyanti home region. Muyongo was granted assylum by Denmark in 1998, and three other CLA leaders were settled in Finland.
CONCERN FOR REPATRIATION PROGRAMME
UNHCR's repatriation programme was conditional on guarantees from the government on adequate security for the returnees. However, with 123 people still awaiting trial charged with treason over the attack on Katima Mulilo, the Caprivi issue has not disappeared. In October, the eighth detainee died in detention.
"The 123 detainees have families and relatives and the government's delays over the trial is seen as an injustice. It keeps the Caprivi issue in the minds of people and maintains feelings that Caprivians are discriminated against," the director of Namibia's Legal Assistance Centre, Clement Daniels, told IRIN.
"It's very difficult to understand exactly what's happening given the remoteness of the Caprivi. They can't express themselves politically about secession because the government takes a very tough stand on anyone that promotes it, they are seen as enemies of the state, even though under Namibia's constitution there is freedom of expression ... Sitting in Windhoek it's very difficult to tell what kind of support secessionism has," Daniels said.
In October the police said they had discovered pro-CLA leaflets in Katima Mulilo which carried Muyongo's portrait. Although insisting the CLA and its sympathisers were only a small group of Caprivians, Hamafungu said: "You don't expect feelings of this kind to be suppressed in a day. Some people believe whatever their politicians tell them."
UNHCR has monitors on the ground in Caprivi as part of a confidence-building measure linked to the repatriation programme. The next group of voluntary returnees were due to arrive in March 2003. But the news of the Situngu killings has reached the remaining refugees in Dukwe.
"It could erode the confidence of the refugees, particularly those who were already politically inclined," Donkoh said. "We were hoping there would be a natural rhythm [of repatriation] with the pace picking up and the Mafwe joining."
Both the army and police said they did not expect to beef up security in Caprivi in the wake of the Situngu incident. "We have enough men for the job," Hamafungu said.
Daniels, however, pointed out that stability in the region depended on how the government responded to the returnees and perceived secessionist sympathisers. "It will really depend on how the government is going to deal with the refugees, whether they are suspicious of all of them and try to harass them," he noted.