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Namibians unimpressed with Germany’s compensation offer for colonial genocide

August 04th, 2021
topic: Genocide
by: Cyril Zenda
located in: Namibia, Germany
tags: Africa, colonialism, genocide, herero and nama

Germany’s guarded “admission” that the 1900s mass killing of about 100,000 Namibian tribesman was an act of genocide and the accompanying $1.3 billion development aid offer have only served to infuriate Namibians.

“The amount is insulting,” said Vekuii Rukoro, the Paramount Chief of the Ovaherero people of Namibia. He was reacting to the $1.3 billion development aid package that Germany recently offered Namibia as part of a deal to atone for a colonial era genocide in which tens of thousands of Herero and Nama tribesmen were slaughtered for resisting German occupation. 

“But the people who came up with the amount, I understand, they do not understand each other, they are not the rightful representatives of the affected communities,” the disappointed paramount chief added. “Now they are saying they are giving these poor black people of Namibia - these naïve Namas and Hereros - they are paying for them, as they say it ‘reconciliation’, reconciliation with whom? For €1.1 billion?”

Hollow Declaration?

Rukoro’s fury, which is shared by the generality of Namibians, follows a statement issued by the German Foreign Ministry on 28 May of the outcome of its six-year negotiations with Namibia over the contentious matter.

“We will now officially refer to these events as what they are from today’s perspective: genocide,” German Foreign minister Heiko Maas said in statement carefully crafted to avoid any legal culpability.

“In light of the historical and moral responsibility of Germany, we will ask forgiveness from Namibia and the victims’ descendants for the atrocities committed,” he said. Maas’ statement went on to point out that as a gesture “to recognise the immense suffering inflicted on victims”, Germany would also support the “reconstruction and the development” of Namibia through a financial programme of 1.1 billion euros ($1.34 billion). 

While Germany has been commended for being the first Western colonial power to open discussion with its former colonial subjects with a view of correcting the past wrongs, many analysts still feel Berlin’s steps have not gone far enough to meaningfully heal any wounds.

German South West Africa

Namibia, formerly German South West Africa, was a German colony from 1884 to 1915. But after Germany’s defeat in World War I, Berlin lost all its overseas colonial territories, resulting in Namibia becoming mandated to South Africa by the League of Nations (1919-1990).

The genocide took place between 1904 and 1908, when the Herero and Nama tribesmen revolted against the occupation of their land by German colonial forces. Following an extermination order issued by General Lothar Von Trotha, an estimated 100,000 Herero and Nama people were killed in a four-year campaign that became the first genocide of the 20th century. 

Survivors were put in labour camps where they were made to work to death, while others were driven into deserts where they died from hunger, dehydration and disease.

The execution of the extermination order saw the death of 80 percent of the Herero, and 50 percent of the Nama, populations.

Full Package Not Delivered

It is this half-baked “reconciliation agreement” unveiled by Berlin that disappointed many, both within Namibia and beyond. The crafting of this “admission” in a language that does not make it legally binding, along with Germany’s intransigence on payment of any reparations, have raised eye-brows about Berlin’s sincerity in this reconciliation effort. 

The announcement of the “agreement” was met with immediate protests by some ethnic leaders outside the Germany embassy in the Namibia capital, Windhoek, while similar protests took place in Berlin. 

When the Namibian government hijacked the negotiation process over the exclusion of the victims’ descendants - most of who remain landless to this day - it promised to deliver on all the three contentious issues: an official German government apology, unreserved acknowledgement of genocide and payment of adequate reparations. But after about a dozen negotiation sessions over six years, it did not deliver this package in full. 

Agreement Roundly Condemned

“This is an insult. None of the three pillars of the initial points of the negotiations is being addressed or has been met,” reacted Namibian lawmaker, Inna Hengari. “The three pillars are apology, acknowledge genocide and reparations. Where are they in this offer?” she asked. “The discussion was never about projects but reparations. Germany has not been negotiating in good faith,” she added.

Paul Thomas, the secretary of the Nama Genocide Technical Committee,

told FairPlanet that the deal is not acceptable in its current form. “Yes, we are rejecting the deal,” Thomas said.  “We are rejecting it because of the amount offered and the way the deal was negotiated.” He said the only deal acceptable to his community is one in which the affected communities take part in negotiations that are centred on actual losses that were suffered. 

Apart from the loss of life, the communities also lost over 25 million hectares of land, over 80 000 cattle and some survivors were put into forced labour. This is in addition to the loss of cultural and social identity among other things.

Namibian writer and political analyst, Professor Joseph Diescho, also dismissed the agreement as falling short of expectation. “For the most part, the two governments talk past each other all the time. Germany wants to get rid of the permanent guilt by getting ‘this thing’ over and done with,” Diescho observed. 

“The current Namibian government wants money to make up for the 31 years of mismanagement and stealing. The Ovaherero and Nama communities are left out and afflicted, this time by both the German and Namibian politicians in power!”

Christian Kopp, a historian and founder of the Berlin Postkolonial Association also observed that the so-called admission by Germany is woefully incomplete. “Contrary to what the majority of global media reports suggest, there is no question of full recognition of the genocide in the legal sense and with consequences under international law,” said Kopp.

Exclusion of Victims’ Descendants

Chief Manase Zeraeua, speaking on behalf of a group of Herero chiefs, also released a statement rejecting the arrangement for its failure to meet Namibians’ expectations.

Analysts say that given the severity of the genocidal murders perpetrated, the amount offered by the Germans for reconstruction work over a 30-year period has understandably been deemed unacceptable by the chiefs.

The chiefs are also asking how the German government arrived at that figure. 

According to these chiefs, descendants of the Ovaherero and Nama victims were not consulted during the talks, which took place behind closed doors.

“In fact, the real problem is not Germany, but the Namibian government that failed to get its house in order before engaging Germany,” said Diescho. “There can be no resolution if the Namibian government’s ardent wish is to gain credit internationally, or receive a bucket full of Euros from which to loot, yet does not accept the reality that there are still thousands of Ovaherero and Nama descendants as affected, victim and interested communities for whom this matter is not merely academic, but real and existential.”

Emsie Erastus, a Namibian analyst, also agrees with the idea of affected communities being the primary negotiators in the matter. “To ensure a successful outcome, it is necessary to examine the harms inflicted by colonialism by hearing directly from the individuals who were affected,” Erastus suggested.

How Much Is Enough?

The German government has previously acknowledged “moral responsibility” for the killings, but Berlin has always carefully avoided an official apology to ward off compensation claims. Since the negotiations started in 2015, various reparation figures have been thrown around, figures that range from $4 billion, N$510 billion ($37,8 billion) and even €480 billion

There was anger last year when it was suggested that Germany had tabled a €10 million offer. Apart from Germany’s fear that paying reparations to Namibian victims could open an avalanche of similar claims from other parts of the world, it is the unreasonableness of demands and offers put on the table that usually make it impossible for two sides in such talks to find each other.

A Possible Way Forward

Amid this chorus of condemnation, only the Namibian government appeared satisfied with the outcome of its own negotiation process. “The acceptance on the part of Germany that a genocide was committed is the first step in the right direction,” President Hage Geingob’s spokesman Alfredo Hengari said. “It is the basis for the second step, which is an apology, to be followed by reparations,” he said.

However, analysts insist that the Namibian government is just supposed to be a facilitator of the negotiations, not to be a negotiator itself, as this role should be left to tribal chiefs and inclusive civic society groups that have been formed for this purpose.

Erastus, who sees the offered development aid as “patronising”, suggests that the 

German government also needs to change its attitude towards Namibians.

“But [Germany] also needs to come to terms with the origins of a racialised view of the world, placing Western authorities at the top and Africans at the bottom,” Erastus wrote in an opinion piece.

“In the colonial era, Africans were regarded as ‘barbarians’ who lacked the abilities to bring about economic and technological change, justifying the intervention of the imperial powers. This view defined how the West perceived and presented Africa in the past, and the echoes of that view may be found today,” Erastus further wrote. 

“Development aid can still be presented in a patronising way, maintaining an unequal relationship. If it is being seen as an alternative to reparations, with fewer legal ramifications, it does not dismantle the relationship that allowed the genocide to happen in the first place.”

Image: Raymond June

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Namibia Germany
German Foreign minister Heiko Maas delivered an admission statement carefully crafted to avoid any legal culpability.
© Sean Gallup/ Getty Images
Members of the Herero and Nama communities take part on the Reparation Walk 2019, holding a poster demanding reparation for the genocide by German colonial forces in the early 20th century.
© Christian Ender/ Getty Images
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