Why Namibian chiefs have rejected Germany’s €1bn ‘apology’ for colonial genocide

Ethnic leaders are demanding €440bn in reparations for killing of up to 75,000 people

German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass announces the deal with the Namibian government
German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass announces the deal with the Namibian government
(Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Namibian ethnic leaders have rejected a €1.1bn (£945m) aid package offered by Germany to atone for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Herero and Nama people during colonial occupation.

Under an agreement finalised last week following six years of talks, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is to acknowledge that his country committed genocide during its rule over the southwest African nation and apologise to the Namibian parliament. The reparations payment will then be delivered over a 30-year period to fund reconstruction and development projects.

However, representatives from the Herero and Nama ethnic groups have dismissed the offer as “insulting” and are demanding that Germany hands over €480bn (£412bn).

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Bad blood

An estimated 65,000 of a total population of 80,000 Herero people, and a further 10,000 of the 20,000-strong Nama community, were slaughtered in Namibia between 1904 and 1908, as German settlers “crushed an uprising” against colonial rule, The Times reports.

Many survivors of the violent raids in what was then known as German South West Africa were driven into the desert, “where thousands died of starvation or dehydration”, the paper continues. Others were “corralled into concentration camps, where at least half of the inmates died of disease, malnourishment, overwork, beatings and executions”.

Historians have described the mass killings as the first genocide of the 20th century. But while Germany has long accepted “moral responsibility” for the massacres, the European superpower has previously “avoided making an official apology, to ward off compensation claims”, Deutsche Welle says.

This refusal to formally apologise for what has been dubbed “the forgotten genocide” has “soured ties with the West African nation for decades”, the Bonn-based broadcaster adds.

Successive German governments have provided “development support” since Namibia became fully independent in 1990,notes the BBC, but “a half-hearted apology delivered by a German development minister in 2004” was “roundly criticised”.

However, says the broadcaster, resulting “clamour from the devastated communities for an unequivocal acknowledgement of the genocide, an apology and compensation” left Germany with “no choice but to address the elephant in the room”.

Truth and reconciliation

Following drawn-out negotiations, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said last week that Germany would “officially call these events what they were from today's perspective: a genocide”.

“In light of Germany's historical and moral responsibility, we will ask Namibia and the descendants of the victims for forgiveness,” Maas added in a statement.

In response, a spokesperson for Namibia's President Hame Geingob said that the “acceptance on the part of Germany that a genocide was committed is a step in the right direction”.

But while the Namibian government has “welcomed Germany’s acceptance of the atrocities as genocide”, descendants of the affected communities have argued that “true reconciliation could not be achieved without their inclusion in the negotiations”, Al Jazeera reports.

“We are worried that the social projects proposed by the German government won’t actually benefit us,” Laidlaw Peringanda, chair of the Namibian Genocide Association, told the broadcaster. “If they are not including us in the negotiations, how will they suddenly involve us when it comes to these projects?”

Calling for the German government to “give us our dignity back”, he added: “We have lost our ancestral land. A lot of us, of our community, live in poverty today. Some of us live in shacks and have to go without eating for a week. A lot of us inherited trans-generational trauma.”

The amount of money offered by Berlin “is much smaller than some had hoped”, says the BBC, and is also “very specifically meant for reconstruction and development projects” - so it is “still not clear who will benefit”.

That the payment is being described as “development aid” is also “problematic”, adds the broadcaster, which suggests that Germany “needs to come to terms with the origins of a racialised view of the world, placing Western authorities at the top and Africans at the bottom”.

Many Namibian politicians, including members of the governing Swapo party, are critical of the deal too. Former minister Kazenambo Kazenambo has described the Namibian negotiators as “clowns” and accused the government of being “a puppet of Germany”.

Meanwhile, Chief Manase Zeraeua of the Zeraeua Traditional Authority, a Herero association, has expressed his “surprise” at the outcome of the negotiations and dismissed the German offer as “insulting”, Bild reports.

Groups representing descendants of the victim communities have launched an online petition calling for Germany to pay reparations directly to these people rather than to the government.

We demand that Germany accepts its responsibility towards the genocide also according to international law,” write the petition organisers. “We want to get rid of this so-called ‘Reconciliation Agreement’- not REPARATION AGREEMENT, which we see as a Public Relations coup by Germany and an act of betrayal by the Namibian government”, they continue.

Despite the widespread criticism, however, the Namibian parliament is expected to approve the agreement next week. Foreign Minister Maas is then due to travel to the country’s capital, Windhoek, next Friday to sign the accord and seal the deal.

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