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A German offer of €10 million for genocide in Namibia?

Cai Nebe
August 13, 2020

There was surprise and disillusion all round when Namibia's president pinned a figure on Germany's compensation offer for colonial-era genocide — then rejected it. What's holding up the negotiations — money or words?

A man and a woman looking at two skulls and bones encased in glass t
In August 2018 Germany returned the remains of some 20 Herero and Nama people who were killed by German colonial troops in Namibia in the early 20th centuryImage: AFP/J. McDougall

Namibia's President Hage Geingob's remark in June, that the German government had offered €10 million ($11.7 million) in compensation for the genocide of the Herero and Nama, came out of the blue.

"First they offered €10 million...honestly it is an insult. We said that's an insult," Geingob was quoted in media reports as having said in Parliament. Geingob did not elaborate.

On Tuesday, Namibia rejected Germany's reparations offer. A statement issued by Geingob's office said the German offer "is not acceptable to the Namibian government" and needs to be "revised". He objected to the terminology used by Berlin but did not mention the €10 million. 

Now, Geingob's cash-strapped government faces questions — at home and in Germany — over its handling of the delicate negotiations that began in 2015.

What money?

Ruprecht Polenz, the German envoy for the talks with Namibia, told DW that an offer of  €10 million was never on the table. "I don't know where that number comes from. I've never spoken with the Namibian side about such concrete figures." 

It was up to the Namibian side to signal the way forward in the negotiations, according to Polenz.

"Germany would rather apologize today than tomorrow for these crimes," Polenz told DW. "As it is, when one wants to apologize, one cannot say 'we want to apologize, so get on with it'. The Namibian side should have all the time it needs."

In June, the German government declined to be drawn on an announcement by Geingob that it will apologize for colonial-era genocide.

Hendrik Witbooi, a strategic political fighter

Words matter

Geingob cited Germany's use of the term "healing the wounds" rather than the word "reparations" in his statement on Tuesday. The terminology will be debated further, he said. Namibia's Herero and Nama leaders favor the word "reparations".

It is politically important for the Namibian government to see payments being made as reparations, says Frederico Links of the Windhoek-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

"If they don't get that recognition of it being reparations, whatever triumph they tried to spin out of it would be diminished," Links told DW.

Yet, for legal reasons, Germany refuses to use the word "reparations" in negotiations. Descendants of the victims of the genocide want reparations and an apology.

Read more: Germany's colonial-era brought to light amid global protest

A man and a woman looking at two skulls and bones encased in glass t
In August 2018 Germany returned the remains of some 20 Herero and Nama people who were killed by German colonial troops in Namibia in the early 20th centuryImage: AFP/J. McDougall

Ida Hofman, the chairperson of the Nama Genocide Technical Committee, told DW that financial payment without acknowledgement would be unjust. "They cannot just come with reparations without any apology for what they have done to us. It is a sign that they are thinking nothing of us, and how they treated our ancestors."

Tough negotiations

Geingob said Namibia's special envoy, Zed Ngavirue, would continue to negotiate for a "revised offer".

Money and words aside, Herero and Nama leaders dispute the very foundation of the talks between the governments of Namibia and Germany. 

DW asked Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro what he thought of Geingob's August 11 statement on the negotiations. In a written response, Rukoro dismissed it as a "colossal waste of taxpayers money in our name, without our consent and participation".

"Totally unacceptable to the descendants of the Victim Communities (primarily Herero and Nama) who have been deliberately excluded from the bilateral discussions," he wrote. 

Namibia Vekuii Rukoro Stammesoberhaupt der Herero
Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro would like the negotiations to include Herero and Nama representativesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Bätz

Ida Hofman of the Nama Genocide Technical Committee says her community has had no meaningful part in the talks either. "If he (Geingob) said that the Germans wanted to apologize — yes, it's fine. But with whom? Who are these people who have started this discussion? We don't even know what kind of agreement they have signed," Hofman told DW.

Germany has always favored bilateral negotiations with Namibia's government over dealing directly with Herero or Nama leaders. Berlin usually refrains from making public statements about the talks. Namibia's top politicians regularly bring up the matter in public.

Read more: US judge dismisses Namibian genocide claims against Germany

Präsident Hage Geingob von Namibia
Hage Geingob who has been Namibia's president since 2014, is seen as using the talks for political gainImage: AFP/R. Bosch

In Namibia, the lack of transparency or involvement of Nama and Herero leaders has eroded public trust in the negotiations, according to the political analyst Frederico Links.

"The trust is further undermined when news comes out of these sort of figures that are being bandied about when you have these groups pushing for multibillions in terms of reparations," said Links.

Broken economy

Germany has repeatedly refused to pay direct reparations for the genocide. However, it has channelled over €800 million to Namibia in development aid since Namibian independence, the special envoy Polenz noted. 

But Namibia has been in recession since 2016, and two severe droughts and the COVID-19 pandemic has quickly made things worse. Geingob's government is also facing a slew of corruption allegations.

Read more: Difficult past clouds Namibia's 30 years of independence

"There isn't a lot of money going around in the country. The government is looking for some way to dig itself out of a fiscal hole, and it sees this process as probably a way to do that," said political analyst Links.

"I think they're hoping to walk out of this with much more and, then to spin it as a triumph for the president and for his team because of where Namibia is at the moment." 

Exactly this is unacceptable to leaders like Herero Paramount Chief Rukoro.

"Although the President's statement repeatedly used the word 'reparations,' it's clear from the context that the German government has emphatically rejected such a notion and instead has only agreed to impose targeted funding of projects it agreed with," Rukoro told DW.

A Herero activist
In August 2018 Germany returned the remains of some 20 Herero and Nama people who were killed by German colonial troops in Namibia in the early 20th centuryImage: picture-alliance/AA/A. Hosbas

On Tuesday, Geingob said that as part of its negotiations with Germany, Namibia has identified seven regions or provinces to develop, among others, electrification, road network construction, housing and agriculture.

The fear is that the development will not benefit parts of the country where Herero and Nama communities are concentrated.

 "It won't even reach our region. All those things just go to the north," said Ida Hofman. "When we come together and decide on an amount, that money cannot go into the bank of the government. It cannot!"

My City Windhoek