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Namibia deliberates suing Germany over reparations

Daniel Pelz
March 21, 2017

Pressure is growing for Germany to compensate victims of a genocide in colonial-era Namibia. The government in Windhoek wants to sue Berlin but both sides are still set on continuing with ongoing negotiations.

Herero on horseback commemorate the anniversary of the German genocide
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Bätz

Namibian media recently announced that the government was considering a lawsuit against Germany before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. Windhoek is likely to ask for about 28 billion euros ($30 billion) in reparations for the slaughter of 85,000 people from the Herero and Nama tribes between 1904 and 1908 in the former colony of German Southwest Africa. The possibility is being analyzed by a team of Namibian and British lawyers, Namibia's Attorney General Sacky Shangala confirmed in an interview with the daily "The Namibian."

Berlin said it was not aware of any plans by Windhoek to sue.

"For Germany, it doesn't really matter what the newspapers write. What the Namibian government does is relevant. We have not been informed of any deliberations in that sense," the German government's special envoy on the talks, Rupert Polenz, told DW.

Polenz said that bilateral negotiations will continue and government representatives from both sides are preparing a meeting which is to take place in Berlin shortly. Negotiations on how to deal with the genocide by German colonial troops have been ongoing since 2014.

Negotiation tactics?

It is far from clear whether Namibia will sue. Vice-President Nickey Iyambo told the government newspaper "New Era" that his government wants to continue negotiating with Germany.

A historical picture showing memebrs of the Herero ethnic group in 1907
German colonial troops pushed the Herero and Nama into the desert, where many perished Image: picture alliance/akg-images

It is likely that talk of a lawsuit is meant mainly for domestic consumption as the pressure on the Namibian government is growing. Since bilateral talks began, representatives from the Herero and Nama ethnic groups have been insisting on being included in negotiations with Germany. Both governments have declined the request. In January, Herero leader Vekuii Rukoro and Nama representative David Frederick filed a class-action suit against Germany in a US court. They are hoping to force Berlin to accept their participation in the negotiations and also want to be paid direct compensation. They argue that they are not being adequately represented by the Namibian government.

The lawsuit was not rejected by the New York court, as had been widely expected. A second hearing has been scheduled for July.

"I believe the Namibian government is planning for all eventualities. It is studying the possibility of a lawsuit in case it is unable to negotiate reparations with the German government," Jürgen Zimmerer, an expert on African history, told DW.

Zimmerer also pointed out that support for the Namibian government would crumble if the Herero and Nama lawsuit succeeded and negotiations did not:

"That's what the government wants to be prepared for. It is pursuing a dual strategy," he said.

No precedent

What seems clear at this point is that bilateral negotiations will not reach a conclusion anytime soon.

"We said from the beginning that we would like to present results to the parliament in the current legislature. But for that to happen there have to be some results. That doesn't seem likely to happen in the coming two or three months," said Polenz.

According to analysts, the talks are not going well, despite claims to the contrary by the Berlin Foreign Ministry. It maintains that "negotiations are taking place in a constructive environment of mutual trust."

"If talks are going so well, it begs the question why they are being delayed all the time," asked Zimmerer.

Reagan Kamboua and Victor Mc Katuro, Herero living in the US, in full military regalia, in front od the New York court where the class-action suit against Germany was filed.
Reagan Kamboua (left) and Victor Mc Katuro, Herero living in the US who are part of the class-action suit against the German governmentImage: Picture-Alliance/dpa/J. Schmitt-Tegge

A likely reason is the dispute about reparations. Namibia is a recipient of considerable financial aid from Germany. But Berlin rejects payment of direct compensation in order to avoid creating a precedent. 

"The federal government sees this not as a legal issue, but as a political and moral question. Which doesn't mean it is less, but it is different," said Polenz. He added that Berlin is still looking for a compromise on contentious questions but it has got to be clear that "this is not about fictional compensation sums with interests compounded throughout hundreds of years."

That is because other former colonies might get the idea to ask for reparations too.

"Everyone is following these talks very closely to see how they turn out. The way Europe handles its colonial past touches on very fundamental questions,” expert Zimmerer told DW.

A public debate has risen in Tanzania on whether the country should ask Germany for reparations for colonial crimes. Great Britain has already paid out compensation to more than 5,000 Kenyans for injustices suffered during the colonial era.