Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Free
Population: 1,900,000
GNI/Capita: $1,960
Life Expectancy: 49
Religious Groups: Christian (80-90 percent), indigenous beliefs (10-20 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Black (87.5 percent), white (6 percent), mixed (6.5 percent)
Capital: Windhoek


Frustration grew over the slow pace of Namibia's land reform program in 2003, with black farm workers threatening to occupy 15 designated white-owned farms in November. Namibia was seized by German imperial forces in the late 1800s. Thousands of people were massacred by German troops in efforts to crush all resistance to colonial settlement and administration. The territory became a South African protectorate after German forces were expelled during World War I and was ruled under the apartheid system for 42 years after 1948. After 13 years of violent guerrilla war, Namibia achieved independence in 1990. During a UN-supervised democratic transition, Sam Nujoma was chosen president that year by a freely and fairly elected National Assembly.

The Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) scored a sweeping victory, and Nujoma was reelected in 1994. Nujoma, the leader of the country's struggle against apartheid, adopted an increasingly authoritarian governing style. He was easily returned to power with 77 percent of the vote for a third 5-year term in the 1999 presidential election. The party had succeeded in passing a bitterly contested constitutional amendment to allow Nujoma to seek a third term. He has repeatedly said he does not intend to seek a fourth term in elections scheduled for 2004.

A concurrent legislative poll saw SWAPO retain its two-thirds majority in the 72-member National Assembly, increasing its number of seats from 53 to 55. The Congress of Democrats and the Turnhalle Alliance each got 7 seats. The United Democratic Front won 2, and the Monitor Action group got 1 seat. The ruling party's main base is among the country's largest ethnic group, the Ovambo, whose prominence within SWAPO has evoked allegations of ethnic discrimination.

In April 2002, the Angolan government and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) signed a ceasefire agreement. Fighting in Namibia's Caprivi region had flared in October 1998 and in August 1999, and UNITA was accused of supporting Caprivi insurgents. Under a 1999 mutual defense pact, the governments of Angola and Namibia agreed that each could pursue suspected rebels on the other's territory. Caprivi, a finger of land poking eastward out of northern Namibia along its borders with Angola and Botswana, differs geographically, politically, and in its ethnic makeup from the rest of Namibia. It was used by South Africa in that country's operations against SWAPO guerrillas.

In 2003, whites, who make up about 6 percent of the population, owned just under half of Namibia's arable land. The country's land policy of "willing buyer-willing seller" has resulted in the state's acquisition of 123 farms thus far, only about 2 percent of the area estimated to be owned by white farmers and far short of the program's target. Soaring land costs have also hindered government efforts to resettle black farmers. Although Nujoma said last year that he supported the controversial land seizures being carried out by the government of President Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, the Namibian government warned in November 2003 that it would not tolerate any farm invasions. The farm workers' union is currently in talks with the government and commercial farmers.

Capital-intensive extractive industries, such as diamond and uranium mining, have drawn significant foreign investment and are the centerpiece of Namibia's economic growth. Most Namibians, however, continue to live as subsistence farmers, and many lack basic services. Insecurity in the northern Kavango region has taken its toll on the country's important tourism industry.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Namibians can change their government democratically. The 1999 elections were judged to be largely free and fair and allowed Namibians to exercise their constitutional right to choose their representatives for the third time. There were some instances of government harassment of the opposition, as well as unequal access to media coverage and campaign financing.

Namibia's constitution guarantees the right to free speech and a free press, and the country's press in considered one of the freest on the continent. Private radio stations and critical independent newspapers usually operate without official interference, but reporters for state-run media have been subjected to indirect and direct pressure to avoid reporting on controversial topics. There are at least eight private radio stations and one private television station. The state-run Namibia Broadcasting Corporation has regularly presented views critical of the government. There are no government restrictions on the Internet, and several publications have popular Web sites.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed and respected in practice. The government does not restrict academic freedom.

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed, except in situations of national emergency. Local and international human rights groups operate freely without government interference. Constitutionally guaranteed union rights are respected. Collective bargaining is not practiced widely outside the mining and construction industries. Informal collective bargaining is increasingly common. Essential public sector workers do not have the right to strike. Domestic and farm laborers remain the country's most heavily exploited workers, in part because many are illiterate and do not know their rights.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the government respects this. However, in rural areas, local chiefs use traditional courts that often ignore constitutional procedures. In November 2003, after a four-year delay, the trials began of 120 defendants accused of high treason and other crimes in relation to the separatist rebellion in Caprivi. Human rights groups have called for independent investigations into the deaths of 13 Caprivi suspects in police custody since 1999. Authorities have dismissed allegations of torture. Conditions in prisons and military detention facilities generally meet international standards.

Respect for human rights in Namibia is good, and the country's National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) said that the overall civil and political situation in the formerly volatile Caprivi, Kavango, and Ohangwena regions improved considerably. Nevertheless, Caprivians accuse the government of neglect in the province, which is among the country's poorest. Despite some improvements, the NSHR warned that the overall human rights situation in the country deteriorated in 2003. It cited the continued demonization of opposition political parties and the assassination of Bernard Nakale Shevanyenga, the head of a local organization campaigning for the Namibian-Angolan border to be shifted from north of the Kwanyama tribe's communal areas to a line inside Angola.

The Herero and Damara peoples are among the minority ethnic groups demanding larger government allocations for development in their home areas. Herero leaders have filed a $2 billion lawsuit in the United States to demand reparations for abuses they suffered at the hands of German colonists. The Herero were nearly wiped out during colonialism. The government has made efforts to end discrimination of indigenous San (Bushmen), although the NSHR says that the San remain marginalized and subject to rights abuses.

Despite constitutional guarantees, women continue to face serious discrimination in customary law and other traditional societal practices. Violence against women is reportedly widespread, although greater attention is being focused on the problem. Women are increasingly involved in the political process, but remain underrepresented in government and politics.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.