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Steinmeier: 'High time to tender apology to Namibian people'

Jasko Rust in Windhoek, Namibia
February 25, 2024

The German president's visit to Namibia, primarily meant to honor the late President Hage Geingob, has heightened expectations about a possible apology over colonial-era genocide.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier bowing to the casket of late Namibian president Hage Geingob, which has been covered with the Namibian flag
Steinmeier said 'Geingob will always be remembered for his courage to reach out to the German people over the dark abyss of our history'Image: Jasko Rust/DW

Namibian President Hage Geingob was laid to rest on Sunday, following a state funeral attended by high-ranking politicians and diplomats from all over the world.

The popular head of state, affectionately known as "Father of the Namibian House" and "The People's President," died on February 4 shortly after making his cancer diagnosis public. His death sent shock waves around the country.

Members of the Namibian Defense Force stand at attention
Thousands of mourners were in attendance at the state funeralImage: Jasko Rust/DW

At the memorial service in Windhoek on Saturday, those in attendance recalled their shared path to Namibia's independence and lauded Geingob's efforts for his country. International guests, among them German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, paid their respects with heartfelt messages of condolence.

"President Geingob will always be remembered for his courage to reach out to the German people over the dark abyss of our history," said Steinmeier.

The "dark abyss" was a reference to the colonial-era genocide committed against the Ovaherero and Nama communities between 1904 and 1908, when German military forces killed approximately 50,000-65,000 of Namibia's Herero ethnic group and another 10,000 members of the Nama ethnic group.

What colonial crimes did Germany commit in Africa?

Earlier in the service, McHenry Venaani, the leader of the official opposition, was the first to directly bring up the controversial issue.

"Our people are expecting that case of genocide to be settled," he said, deviating from his prepared speech and directly addressing Steinmeier. "We plead to you, create a respectable deal on behalf of our people, so that we close this chapter."

Genocide takes center stage during memorial service

Negotiations for a joint declaration on the genocide between the two countries have been ongoing for almost a decade. A draft declaration was presented in May 2021, along with an offer by the German government of $1.1 billion (€1 billion) in development funds to be paid over 30 years as reparations.

It was rejected by the Namibian government and local communities, and has yet to be signed by both sides, amid heavy criticism from opposition politicians and descendants of genocide victims.  

In his remarks, Steinmeier himself focused on the ongoing negotiations between Namibia and Germany. According to him, Germany "is committed to the path of reconciliation." He vowed to come back to deliver the long-expected apology for the atrocities committed during the German colonial rule.

"I hope I will be able to return to this country very soon and under different circumstances, because I am convinced that it is high time to tender an apology to the Namibian people," said Steinmeier.

Herero and Nama disagree on Germany-Namibia deal

Geingob and Steinmeier last met in October. According to Steinmeier, his Namibian counterpart told him at the time that he was committed to concluding the matter within his last term in office, which would have ended in March 2025. On Saturday, Steinmeier vowed to fulfil this pledge.

The straightforward nature of Steinmeier's message came as a surprise. Shortly before the visit, Steinmeier's office said he would primarily visit Namibia to "honour an exceptional person and a pioneering figure for the Namibian democracy."

The delegation was asked by the Namibian government not to make the genocide and the ongoing negotiations between both governments a focal point of the brief stay. This meant that the initial plan to lay a wreath for the victims of the atrocities committed between 1904 and 1908 was dropped.

Steinmeier's speech criticized as provocation

Although Steinmeier received applause multiple times during his speech, his message wasn't universally acclaimed. Heavy backlash came from Sima Luipert, a well-known activist and member of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association.

"I find it painful that the German president should use our mourning period to provoke and make us believe that Germany is genuine in its so-called reconciliation process through his speech," she wrote in a statement.

Examining Germany's brutal history in Namibia

The Nama Traditional Leaders Association and the Ovaherero Traditional Authority have regularly criticized the negotiations between Namibia and Germany. Together with the oppositional Landless People's Movement, they are challenging the legality of the joint declaration at Namibia's High Court. The next hearing is scheduled for early March.  

"On one hand, we are quite excited to hear that the president of Germany is eager [for] an apology," Lifalaza Simataa, a spokesperson for the Landless People's Movement, told DW.

"On the other hand, we are a bit hesitant. We've had issues where you have the government of Namibia leaving out relevant stakeholders when it comes to these dialogues." He also questioned what an eventual apology would look like.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler