Learning from Namibia : The Tribune India

KP Nayar

THERE was a time when every able-bodied Namibian was a “cheetah”. And many of them had a connection to India long before the real cheetahs arrived in India this month to great joy and anticipation.

At a time when colonial legacies are being discussed, India can take its bearings from Namibia, which never existed a British colony but is a member of the Commonwealth.

In the early 1980s, shortly after South Africa granted Namibia – then known as South West Africa – notional autonomy, India became the world’s largest supporter of the territory’s struggle to break free from colonialism and racial discrimination. This support was not only diplomatic and financial, but also had a strong military side. Indira Gandhi donated almost a hundred Willys Jeeps to the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which had been fighting for Namibia’s independence since 1960. SWAPO mounted 160mm artillery pieces on them and these vehicles became crucial weapons in the fight for South West African freedom.

Traveling to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, as part of the traveling media with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I was shown black-and-white footage of the days when SWAPO fighters sped through the mostly desert terrain along their border with South Africa and fetched the better of their white oppressors. Their speed, the way they had adapted these jeeps to local conditions, and their dexterity are only matched by real cheetahs.

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The African cheetah is the fastest moving animal on earth. Such traits of these animals have been made familiar to the Indians by a plethora of television and social media reports over the past two weeks in anticipation of the ambitious translocation of cheetahs from Namibia to Madhya Pradesh.

Global automotive group Mahindra and Mahindra has been importing Willys Jeeps since 1947. A variation of these WWII workhorses is now manufactured domestically and sold as the Mahindra Thar. But when I saw videos of SWAPO fighters using Indian-tipped jeeps as attack vehicles, I understood why Joseph Stalin, who had allied with the US during World War II, begged US Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall for 5,000 jeeps and she got. “It’s impossible to have too many of these, and the side with the greatest number of these engines is bound to win,” he told US military interlocutors.

When Vajpayee became prime minister in 1998, the first foreign capital he visited on a state visit was Windhoek. He was persuaded to reach this milestone by his chief secretary, Brajesh Mishra, who was Namibia’s midwife, so to speak. Mishra was appointed UN Commissioner for Namibia in 1982. In the same year, the UN Secretary-General appointed Mishra to chair the International Conference in Support of the Namibian People’s Struggle for Independence. Vajpayee had exercised India’s nuclear option and was testing two nuclear bombs at Pokhran when he reached Windhoek. Sanctions against the tests had begun. Thus, Vajpayee was easily persuaded to travel to Windhoek when informed of Namibia’s potential as the world’s second largest uranium producer to supply the nuclear component to India. After India signed a nuclear deal with the US and received a nuclear trade waiver from the NSG, India and Namibia signed an agreement in 2009. The uranium exports from Namibia are still a work in progress and must be strategically pursued as a priority.

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In a month when the opening of Central Vista in New Delhi and the death of Queen Elizabeth have sparked domestic debates over colonial legacies, Namibia’s case is worthy of a foreign policy inquiry. Namibia was never a British colony. The United Kingdom only had a League of Nations mandate for the territory under South African administration. Before that it was a German colony. Nevertheless, Namibia is a member of the Commonwealth. Sam Nujoma, the country’s first President, recognized that this membership gave his nation an additional sense of belonging to a neighborhood made up of Commonwealth countries: Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Namibia has benefited from the organization’s transnational capacity-building programs covering areas of Africa bordering its own country.

India’s first Head of Mission in Windhoek, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, was helping Nujoma’s efforts to integrate into the Commonwealth at the time. Mukherjee recalls that at a ceremony where Namibia formally joined the Commonwealth, the British Ambassador – soon to be High Commissioner – said that if a country wishes to join the Commonwealth, it is welcome to join the organisation. This position was formalized in 2007 as a revised Commonwealth accession criterion. Two years later, Rwanda followed Namibia’s example. These are the only two members of the Commonwealth with no historical ties to the United Kingdom. In June this year, the capital Kigali hosted the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government.

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India should look closely at the experiences of these two African countries on how best to leverage its own connections with the London-based organization of 56 countries with a combined population of 2.5 billion.

During Vajpayee’s visit – and later when President Pranab Mukherjee was in Windhoek in 2016 – the Namibians showed off their well-preserved national parks. The training their rangers receive is impressive. Worth adopting after India has established a wildlife relationship with Namibia through the adopted cheetahs. In the 1990s, Africa was all about endangered wildlife species. Today, Africa is a spectacular success in containing the threat. In countries like Zimbabwe, these efforts have led to a sharp increase in the elephant population. Elephants killed 72 people in Zimbabwe last year. So far this year, 60 people have been killed and 50 injured. It tells its own conservation story.

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