SADC's secret shame: Embers of forgotten conflicts

The Nambian refugees during a previous pretest at SADC. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
The Nambian refugees during a previous pretest at SADC. PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

By yesterday afternoon, about 250 Namibians had been repatriated to their motherland. Another 2,000 or so of their fellow countrymen together with Zimbabweans and Congolese remain at Dukwi Refugee Camp, like children seeking shelter in a neighbours' house. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes.

The trucks that sped out of the Dukwi Refugee Camp on Tuesday and Thursday transporting hundreds of Namibians to their motherland also carried two other things.

One was the fear of refugees returning to an uncertain future, a homeland they left in conflict 20 years ago, fleeing to safety through crocodile infested waters in Chobe District to Dukwi.

Another was the shame of a region for whom the Namibians at Dukwi have increasingly become an uncomfortable reminder of a conflict they would like to forget and move from.

With the departures this week, Dukwi now houses an estimated 2,000 Namibians, Zimbabweans and Democratic Republic of Congo refugees, all SADC citizens who fled conflicts that date back to the 1970s.

The 750 or so Namibians will leave next week in batches as part of the repatriation agreed amongst Botswana, Namibia and the UNHCR.

SADC, with its Old Boys Club beginnings, has historically been unwilling to self-censure, papering over inter-country conflicts, human rights abuses and other violations in the region with rhetoric and appeasement.

Analysts explain that the regional organisation evolved from the Frontline States grouping whose primary purpose was to fight apartheid.  The fraternal bonds formed in battling a common enemy carried over to SADC, in a situation that lent itself poorly to peer review and self-correction.

In different ways, SADC’s previous leaders folded their arms when conflict ravaged the Caprivi Strip (now known as Zambezi Region) in 1998 and Zimbabwe in 2008. SADC was, however, more engaged in the DRC’s troubles in the years after 1990 when the country joined the regional body.

The Namibian and Zimbabwean refugees at Dukwi have become a reminder of the region’s failures and at each summit where leaders meet, one of the elephants in the room is that some countries’ children have sought safety in others’.

It’s perfectly safe to come home, the parents urge, but the children are unconvinced. Many times they turn to the SADC Secretariat to intervene, with no success. Twice the Namibians at Dukwi took their frustrations and protests to the SADC headquarters in Gaborone, even staging hunger strikes.  A group of 12 matriarchs also attempted to stage a sit-in at the headquarters, only succeeding in handing over a petition.

The last protest at SADC ended in arrest of the Namibians and their detention.

“We want a peaceful resolution to our issue of separating Caprivi Strip,” Felix Kakula, one of the leaders of the refugees told Mmegi at the time.

“Caprivi Strip is not Namibia. SADC must help us secure peaceful talks.”

SADC officials at the time were visibly unimpressed with the repeated protests.

“Even if you sleep here, our principals are not here. We will take your petition and give it to them, but they are not here,” an official told the refugees at their last protest in June 2018.

The matriarchs had no better luck.

“We are refugees from Caprivi, colonised by Namibia and we have been in Botswana for 17 years, during which we have been asking SADC to intervene,” Sandrah Simasiku, one of the women, told Mmegi at the time.

“SADC has been quiet all this time and that’s why we are here to get exactly why they are quiet.”

The matriarchs staged a sit-in protest asking SADC to intervene by appointing a mediator for a settlement between them and the Namibian government over the Caprivi Strip.

As is common with people who have been protesting a cause for a long time, the matriarchs carried thick bunches of well-thumbed, creased files and correspondence from SADC over the years.

“We are compelled to seek your intervention because the Caprivi political query has taken more than 50 years as it dates back to the 1960s and 1964, the South African apartheid regime and the South West Africa/Namibia respectively,” one letter from 2012 read.

“We believe your institution has the capacity to deliberate and engage a mediator in search of a peaceful settlement.”

During the matriarch’s protest, an official who identified herself as the acting SADC executive secretary assured the group that their grievances would be assessed to see if the regional group had a mandate. SADC officials reportedly claimed ignorance about previous letters and petitions written by the refugees.

Even as the Namibians resettle in Caprivi, Zimbabweans at Dukwi know that their turn is approaching soon. Reports indicate that the governments of Botswana and Zimbabwe are finalising the repatriation of the 700-or so refugees at Dukwi, with the UNHCR set to consider the proposal.

SADC leaders will hope that the clearance of the Zimbabweans and Namibians from Dukwi will go some way to bolstering their claim that the region has turned the corner from conflicts of the past and is now “open for business”.

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