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Germany adheres to contested Namibia genocide deal

Daniel Pelz
March 23, 2023

The Nama and Herero have asked Namibia's highest court to stop a planned 'reconciliation' deal between Namibia and Germany. A decision is pending but Germany appears set on implementing the deal.

A group of people in Windhoek, Namibia protesting against the genocide agreement with Germany
Protesters in Namibia demand reparations from Germany for the colonial-era genocide of the Herero and Nama peoplesImage: Sakeus Iikela/DW

At the end of January, an explosive lawsuit came before Namibia's highest court: the judges were asked to stop a planned 'reconciliation agreement' with Germany.

The case was brought by opposition leader Bernadus Swartbooi and prominent representatives of the Herero and Nama peoples — who were victims of genocide under Germany's colonial-era rule.

A court decision is still pending. But if the plaintiffs were hoping to put pressure on the German government with the lawsuit alone, their plan may not work.

The Left Party Member of Parliament Sevim Dagdelen criticizes the agreement. DPA Bildfunk
The Left Party Member of Parliament Sevim Dagdelen criticizes the agreementImage: Britta Pedersen/zb/dpa/picture-alliance

Government talks are ongoing 

"The federal government and the Namibian government stand by the joint declaration and are of the opinion that outstanding issues are to be clarified by way of renegotiations," the German lawmaker Sevim Dagdelen from the Left party was told in a letter by the German Foreign Office after she made an inquiry to the Bundestag.  

The letter did not explicitly mention the lawsuit. The reason given was that it does not comment on domestic legal proceedings. It said representatives of both governments had met four times in November and December to discuss open issues.

Dagdelen criticized the response. "The German government is cowardly stealing from its responsibility by referring to the Namibian government, which is the defendant, instead of at least making it clear out of respect for the judiciary that it will refrain from implementing the Joint Declaration until the court has reached a decision," the lawmaker told DW. 

On other issues in dispute, the German government is putting up stop signs: The renegotiations are to continue, only at government level. There will be no giving in to the demand by the Herero and Nama for direct talks.

No 'agreements' with Herero and Nama 

Since independence in 1990, Namibia has had a democratic government that represents its entire people, the letter to Dagdelen states. "In this respect, intergovernmental arrangements with individuals or with individual groups within Namibia are prohibited."

This stance infuriates Herero and Nama and many others in Namibia. "Relevant stakeholders were not consulted," says Lifalaza Simataa of Namibia's opposition Landless People's Movement party, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"No elected representatives of the Namibian people participated in the drafting of the Joint Declaration and important representatives of the Herero and Nama people were excluded from the conclusion of the declaration," Simataa told DW.

The German and Namibian governments regularly point out that other representatives of the two ethnic groups took part in the negotiations. It is unclear, however, how many Herero and Nama they represent.

Tough stance on reparations

The German government also remains tough on the contentious issue of reparations. Germany is offering Namibia €1.1 billion over 30 years. The money is expected to be used for development projects that benefit the Herero and Nama. Some Herero and Nama are however demanding official reparations.

"For lack of a legal basis, there are neither individual nor collective claims for reparations by individual descendants of victims or their associations against the German government," the Foreign Office wrote to Dagdelen.

Two children playing in dust near a row of brightly painted cottages
Generations of descendants of the Herero and Nama who were subjected to German colonial rule and atrocities have lived in abject povertyImage: Claus Stäcker/DW

The German government "is only interested in buying its way out of history with the Namibian government," says lawmaker Dagdelen.

Herero, Nama and their allies see it the same way. "We are talking about a crime here. And whoever commits a crime must pay a penalty," Nandiuasora Mazeingo, Chairman of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation (OGF), told DW.

The so-called "reconciliation agreement", Mazeingo says, is an agreement on bilateral cooperation and development aid — the kind that Germany has with many countries.

"This is different from reparations."

Namibia: The price of the genocide

Jasko Rust (in Windhoek) contributed to this article

This article was originally written in German.

Adapted by Martina Schwikowski

Edited by Benita van Eyssen