Kindly leave the stage

There are clear signs that Sam Nujoma of Namibia plans to amend the constitution so that he can stay for a third term.

In a little over two years time, in December 1999, Isam Nujoma, will complete his second and final five-year term as Namibia's first president. The undisputed leader of the South West African People's Organisation (Swapo) for the past 36 years, much of the time in exile, he has been the undisputed head of his country since the 1989 election.

Although Nujoma will be 70 when his term of office comes to an end, he may be unwilling to leave the political stage quietly. There are clear signs that he is preparing to amend the constitution so that he can stand for a third term. Already the process of softening up public - and world - opinion has begun.

One of the first indications of such a plan came in March when the Swapo Elders' Council reportedly "urged" him to run for a third term in 1999. Nujoma, they pronounced in a splendid non sequitur, was still capable of leading the country and should stand for election. The council made it clear that their decision was not based on a lack of other suitable candidates. Nujoma replied that he would run "if that was the wish of the people", adding that he was still young.

Then the prime minister, Hage Geingob, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper of London said that Nujoma should be allowed a third term. The president, he told the Guardian, was "young and healthy enough" to run the country for another five years after the 1999 elections. However, he added that a two-term limit would be constitutionally entrenched in the future. Nujoma, it seems, is to be treated as a unique case.

Geingob has compelling reasons to campaign for an extension of Nujoma's political career since his own depends heavily on presidential favour. Like all members of the Cabinet, he has been directly appointed by the president, but unlike most of Swapo's leadership Ceingob is Herero not Ovambo. He is unpopular with his colleagues and lacks a solid grassroots power base.

In a follow-up interview with New Era (a mouthpiece for the Swapo government) in May, Ceingob elaborated on why the president deserved a third term, though now his argument had subtly shifted: he is favoured not so much because he is young and healthy but because he is old and wise: "In Africa", he said, "we respect age. If you look at leaders of Nujoma's age, his contemporaries, they have been ruling for 27 years, 30 years, etc.

"Psychologically people are not ready to see President Sam Nujoma go. He too may not be completely ready; because he is busy trying to build a nation. And ten years is short. He deserves as a reward if you want, to be allowed to manage the change of handing over. Psychologically he has to prepare the way. People must also psychologically know that this is his last term." Government, in Ceingob's mind, has become a form of national therapy.

Predictably, various Swapo - dominated organisations have added their voice to the third-term bandwagon -the youth league, the students organisation and a number of trade unions. But one lone white has also joined the fray: the German-speaking, Namibian multi-millionaire Werner List, whose business interests include Namibian Breweries, Model Supermarket, Rietfontein dairies, a large percentage of the country's hotels and other tourist accommodation, as well as great tracts of land. (South Africans may recall his battles to keep competitors such as South African Breweries and Pick 'n Pay, out of Namibia.)

A nice new jet

In April, List penned an open letter to the Namibian people which was published prominently in all the newspapers. In it he praised Nujoma as a doer and implored the country to support the third presidential term. "If I look back in the past I must confess that I was against Swapo, I dare say because the news media gave me the wrong information," he wrote. But, Nujoma has said to him: "Let us forget the past and join forces. I will look after politics, you look after the economy." The fawning businessman has backed the purchase of a new and larger personal jet to replace the president's present Falcon -the purchase of which five years ago caused a major rumpus in itself. And at a party to celebrate Nujoma's birthday on May 12, he announced that he was presenting the government with six farms totalling over 20,000 hectares in the fertile north of the country.

The idea of a third term for the president can only be seriously floated because of Swapo's overwhelming dominance in the assembly, where it has the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution. Its power is the legacy of its long resistance to the years of South African rule, a role recognised by the UN General Assembly in 1976 when it named Swapo as the "sole and authentic" representative of the Namibian people. In the crucial run-up period to the 1989 UN supervised elections, the party carried the authority of having conducted a successful guerrilla war against South Africa and apartheid (despite its disastrous military incursion in March 1989 just as the transition process was about to begin). Most of the delegates elected to the pre-independence assembly, which was charged with the vital job of preparing the constitution and electing the first president under transitional arrangements, were Swapo members. The assembly's unanimous choice was Sam Nujoma; he had no rivals.

Opposition's decline

Although ten political parties took part in the 1989 elections for the 72-seat national assembly, two dominated the proceedings - Swapo and the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), a multiracial coalition of parties that had participated in governance under the South African administration. Under Namibia's new electoral system {a party list and proportional representation system), Swapo won 41 seats with some 385,000 votes (57.3 per cent of the electorate), while the DTA won 21 seats with 152,000 votes (28.6 per cent). A long way behind came the smaller parties such as the United Democratic Front of Namibia - four seats with about 38,000 votes (5.6 per cent), and the Action Christian National (ACN) - three seats with just under 24,000 votes (3.5 percent). Swapo had won, but the combined performance of the DTA and UDF denied it the two-thirds majority it had hoped for.

As it has turned out that was the Opposition's finest hour. Since then it has weakened and Swapo's dominance has become ever greater. The basic reason for this is simply Namibia's population of only 1.6 million. In such a tiny community, the power of government patronage is overwhelming: in a sense Swapo is the only game in town. Moreover, while the DTA favours land reform it otherwise suffers from a lack of clear policies which might differentiate it from Swapo and help it build popular support. In the regional elections held in

late 1992, Swapo won 80 of the 95 seats on the regional councils. These councillors elect from among themselves members of the National Council, Namibia's upper house, which acts as check on the executive by reviewing and suggesting amendments to legislation.

The weakness of a fragmented opposition became starkly clear in the parliamentary and presidential elections of December 1994, when Swapo sailed over the two-thirds barrier, winning 53 seats to the DTA's 15. Although seven parties took part, only five garnered sufficient votes to win seats. Meanwhile Sam Nujoma, in his first presidential test by universal adult suffrage, won more than 76 per cent of the vote. He was opposed by the DTA leader, Mishake Muyongo, a Caprivian who was considered a weak candidate even by many of his own party. Today there is still no other challenger to Nujoma on the horizon.

During the run up to both national elections, accusations of intimidation and political violence were rife. In 1989 the situation was eased by international involvement. Two months before election day, the parties signed a code of conduct regulating freedom of political campaigning, South Africa administered and the UN supervised the election, while international observers stood by during the voting itself. There were no such safeguards in 1994, and there is as yet no legislation to regulate the conduct of political parties. As in 1989, the opposition accused Swapo of intimidation, saying that it was unsafe for them to campaign in Ovamboland - a fatal handicap since more than half the population lives in this region which borders Angola. They alleged that Swapo encouraged its supporters to "use any means necessary" to disrupt and derail opposition parties from campaigning in the area. Ovamboland was, of course, a no-go area during the long guerrilla war and in effect Swapo seems able to maintain its hegemony by the simple expedient of keeping things that way.

Whether these allegations are true or not, the fact is that the Opposition seems scared to try its luck in Ovamboland. And there is no doubt that ethnic loyalties are vital to the ruling party's success. This is not surprising given that Swapo was originally founded as the Ovamboland People's Congress, and even after it changed its name in 1960 has always relied on its grass roots support among the Ovambos, who make up 50-60 per cent of the population. Patronage and 'Ovambo-bostic

keep Swapo together. The DTA is mainly supported by whites, coloured and the much smaller Herero group from the central part of the country. It is difficult for the opposition parties to make headway among the country's largest ethnic group, many of whom are functionally illiterate rural dwellers who tend to be under the sway of their traditional leaders.

The Swapo elite is so confident in its hegemony that it often fails to distinguish adequately between the state, the government and the majority party in government. Thus, when commenting to New Era on the third term question, Geingob could say: "Swapo is the ruling party. Swapo has been calling the shots all these seven years. We make policies at the central committee, politburo and bring them to the cabinet. Therefore there is nothing wrong with Swapo calling the shots on this issue too." There is, in such statements, no sense that Namibia is supposed to be a constitutional democracy in which everyone, president and party bosses included, are subject to the constraints of a constitution.

The dominance of the Swapo party bosses was even more clearly demonstrated recently when it called the shots on local government. The minister responsible, Dr Nicky lyambo, introduced a bill to amend the Local Authorities Act, so that voting in this year's local elections will remain a party list system based on PR rather than switch to a directly elected, ward-based system as planned. This reform had been designed to counter the centralised political system and bring government closer to the people. The party list system, of course, gives patronage power to the party bigwigs, while the ward system allows the local voters to elect directly those whom they prefer. Strict PR will help the smaller parties gain seats at Swapo's expense but the key point is that Swapo is happy to accept slightly fewer seats in order to have a boss-controlled list.

The local authorities amendment was not rubber stamped however. It generated heated debate in the assembly before it was passed, but the DTA request that the bill be referred back to committee was defeated. These parliamentary committees are the only platform where Swapo backbenchers can to some extent disregard their party's line and discuss the issues at hand with politicians from other parties. Otherwise, and despite the party's majority, Swapo representatives are expected to be disciplined and toe the party line.

Any proposal to alter the constitution to allow Nujoma a third presidential term will be vehemently opposed in the assembly and may bring international opprobrium. For Namibia's constitution-making process gained many international plaudits at the time as a model of national, consensus-based enlightenment, with the final constitution drawing widespread praise as a model document of its kind. It is this process that is now being undermined, even betrayed.

Old men hanging on

The wider danger is that the new democracies of southern Africa will see the entrenchment of the sort of presidential abuses commonplace in west and east Africa. Already we have the spectacle of Mugabe, aged 73 and in power for 17 years already, claiming that he doubts the sanity of those Zanu-PF parliamentarians who would like to see a limit to the number of terms a Zimbabwean president can serve. If Nujoma gets his way - and clearly, if the Swapo government is determined to let him, he can - he is likely to win any subsequent presidential contest.

The spotlight would then fall on South Africa which also has a two term limit on its presidency. President Mandela has, to his enormous credit, limited himself to a single presidential term but in a general environment of unlimited presidential terms it would not be long, one suspects, before one would hear certain voices raised within the ANC to point out that Thabo Mbeki, if he serves two terms, would still be only 67 at the end of them - younger than Nujoma now.

How much better, though, for Nujoma to follow the advice of Justus Caroeb, king of the Damaras and a man of principle - he stepped down from parliament after a law was passed recently to prevent traditional leaders also sitting in the national assembly. Many other traditional leaders have not. Caroeb said: "A realistic person would appreciate seeing our President retiring at the height of his success," he said. And referring to the threat of growing unemployment and consequent political unrest, added: "If we really care for our president, as we genuinely should, we must spare him the agony of possible future chaos."