Government sets up ministry for war veterans

In what has been seen as a victory for Namibia's increasingly vociferous former liberation war fighters, the government has created a war veterans' ministry in response to their accusations they have been ignored since independence.

The South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) government announced the establishment of the Ministry of Veteran Affairs earlier this month, 16 years after independence and within a few months of a slew of financial demands by the National Committee of War Veterans, which claims to represent 7,000 veterans of SWAPO's armed wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).

In June this year the committee demanded a lump-sum payment of N$500,000 (US$62,500) for each liberation fighter, a monthly pension of N$8,000 (US$1,000), free medical services and free education for themselves and their children, and that those who have jobs be allowed to work until the age of 70 to enjoy better pensions benefits.

According to President Hifikepunye Pohamba, "government regards all those patriotic Namibians who took part in the struggle for national liberation, regardless of whether such citizens were in exile or not, as ex-combatants".

Namibia is the second country in southern Africa, after Mozambique, to create a special ministry for former combatants. In Zimbabwe a standoff between war veterans and the government in the late 1990s resulted in President Robert Mugabe capitulating to the veterans' demands, which threw the government's economic programme seriously off track.

The duration of Namibia’s liberation war, which began in 1966 and ended in 1989, meant the age of fighters varied, so that "ex-combatants fall in various categories and, therefore, their needs are not uniform," Pohamba said, which required a focal point to address the different needs of war veterans.

However, human rights lawyer Norman Tjombe told IRIN that specifically addressing the needs of one section of society, in a country where 56 percent of the 1.8 million people live on US$2 or less a day, was a concern.

"By focusing on one group there is a real risk of a perception that others in need will be excluded. Likewise, there are a number of people who never left the country, but were in one way or the other severely affected by the liberation war, and their welfare should be attended to with the urgency it requires," he said.

Minister without portfolio Ngarikutuke Tjiriange has been appointed to head the new ministry, and staff positions are to be filled from existing ministries and state agencies in a bid to reduce costs. Tjiriange, who is not a former combatant but was exiled during the liberation war, is the secretary-general of SWAPO.

The government has undertaken several initiatives since independence to support ex-combatants, like skills training, jobs and a special pension. "Some were also given cattle to start farming activities," Tjiriange said in his first ministerial statement in parliament. "All these efforts, although commendable, were not enough."

Alex Kamwi, spokesperson for the veterans committee, told IRIN that the ministry "was one of our proposals we made to President Pohamba in June this year. Now we have an institution, we can turn to regarding all our concerns." He said the committee was in the process of "forming a proper association now, and 7,000 have become members so far".

The war veterans' grievances came to a head last month after plans to hold nationwide marches protesting their plight were averted by a last-minute intervention by Lutheran Bishop Zephaniah Kameeta, who mediated between the government and the veterans, urging both parties to "listen to one another and tolerate each other’s views".

Government embarked on a five-year housing scheme for war veterans last month, with construction of the first 45 houses scheduled to begin before the end of the year. Information and Broadcasting Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah said the programme would not only benefit ex-combatants, but also "internally brutalised Namibians" from other parties, who had suffered during the occupation by the South African apartheid government.

"The first lot of houses will be for the most needy war veterans and former political prisoners on Robben Island identified," Nandi-Ndaitwah said. "Cabinet allocated N$5.8 million (US$725,000) for this exercise, and N$2 million(US$250,000) will be set aside annually during the five years for more houses."

About 42,000 Namibians returned from exile during 1989 and 1990, about half of them members of the PLAN. Several thousand were absorbed into the newly established police and defence forces, but not all could be accommodated.

In 1998, former freedom fighters marched from the northern rural areas to Windhoek, the capital, and camped in the parliamentary gardens, demanding jobs. The following year some 8,800 obtained positions in the police and army, while others were employed as office cleaners.