CoD's long goodbye kiss

In the Namibian political context, CoD definitely does not stand for 'cash on delivery'. But what the now ailing and all but irrelevant Congress of Democrats did promise to deliver, at its genesis, was a truly reconciled Namibia built around the aspirations of its world-class constitution.

01 November 2019 | Columns

They say a week is a long time in politics, as it ebbs and flows in this or that direction, but in the same breath Namibia's amnesiac voters seem to have forgotten the history of the once feared Congress of Democrats (CoD).

As the novelty of an independent presidential candidate, who is choosing to stick to his Swapo colours, seems to be getting more shine, there was in fact a time when those unhappy with the then Swapo leadership had the courage of their convictions to forge their own way in the political maelstrom.

One such man was Ben Ulenga, who left Swapo amid a flutter to establish the CoD.

It may be hard to believe now, but there was a time in Namibia where some thought Founding President Sam Nujoma was eyeing the emulation of his African peers who refuse to relax their grip on power, such as Paul Biya, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Denis Sassou Nguesso, and closer to home, Nujoma's friend Robert Mugabe, who only gave up power when staring down the barrel of a gun.

These are men who have created dynasties of friends and cronies, and whom only death will recall them from the thrones they are firmly glued to.

With Nujoma's henchmen having convinced him to stay for five more years, having already served his first two terms, Ulenga protested.

The former Robben Island prisoner was so angry that he relinquished his cushy government job as Namibia's high commissioner to the UK to form what the media and analysts said would break Swapo's two-thirds majority, if not smoke it out of power altogether.

Ulenga's CoD started off with steam. It robbed Swapo of some of its sharpest talents, such as then deputy minister of information Ignatius Shixwemeni, a rising youthful star then.

They couldn't stand that a country's constitution was being amended to stroke the ego of one man – perhaps a good stance.

Ulenga contested the 1999 presidential election against Nujoma and received 10.5% of the vote. In the parliamentary election the CoD gained seven seats, replacing the then DTA as the official opposition.

In the 2004 election, the party won 7.2% of the popular vote and five out of 78 seats, before plummeting in 2009 and securing only one seat along with the All People's Party (APP), which came from its own rib as an off-ramp born out of factionalism.

The APP was born out of a falling out between an Ulenga faction and one led by his former blue-eyed boy Shixwameni.

Their poll performances have been increasingly dismal, as first the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP) and then the DTA became the official opposition in subsequent elections.

In 2014, CoD failed to win a seat in the National Assembly.

In 2015 Ulenga tendered his resignation from the party he had founded.

“I am no longer in that field. I cannot say much. I will leave it to the party as they have people who speak for them. I am no longer relevant,” he told The Namibian at the time.

Ulenga brought about, according to analysts, a vibrancy when he launched his party, but like all other opposition parties, its challenge to Swapo faded.

Rumours then spread that Ulenga, undoubtedly a decorated soldier of the liberation struggle, had rejoined Swapo.

Not true, he told Namibian Sun yesterday. “I am a member of the CoD,” he declared, but hastening to add that he is now an ordinary member of the once feared movement, with no formal position in its shaky structures.

The CoD's good policies and strong reconciliation leanings drew commendations in its heyday.

However, the old story of infighting and subsequent smaller splits milked the party's support dry.

Political commentator Graham Hopwood said one of the problems with the CoD was that it was set up to channel protest against certain developments during the third term of President Nujoma, but did not have a longer-term vision.

“Most of the issues that it took on were time-limited, such as the third term issue, Namibia's involvement in the DRC war, and the spillover of the Angolan civil war into northern Namibia.

“The party didn't find new issues to focus on once the third term was over.

“There was also a clash of personalities among the top figures in the party - mainly between Ben Ulenga and Nora Schimming-Chase,” Hopwood said.

He added that for small parties these divisions could often prove very damaging, “as we have seen subsequently in RDP”.

“It's difficult to garner public support when many of the headlines in the media are about the party's internal arguments, rather than what the party thinks on the issues of the day, and what policies it would like to introduce.

“In 1999 the party gained 10% of the vote, which was a creditable and encouraging start, but they were not able to build on this due to the factors I've outlined earlier.

“I don't think they will ever get back to their 1999 level of support. Namibia's generous electoral system could conceivably result in them gaining one seat, by attracting a few thousand votes, but I don't think that will happen at this election,” Hopwood added.


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