Learning from Namibia : The Tribune India

Learning from Namibia

Even as there is buzz over cheetahs, the country is worthy of foreign policy research

Learning from Namibia

INTO THE WILD: The impressive training of Namibian rangers can be adopted, now that India has established a wildlife relationship with Namibia through cheetahs. PTI



K. P. Nayar

THERE was a time when every able-bodied, fighting-fit Namibian was a ‘cheetah’. And many of them had an Indian connection well before the real cheetahs arrived in India this month to great joy and expectations all around.

At a time when there is a debate over colonial legacies, India can take a cue from Namibia, which was never a British colony, but is a Commonwealth member.

Early in the 1980s, shortly after South Africa granted notional autonomy to Namibia — then known as South West Africa — India became the biggest supporter globally of the territory’s fight to rid itself of colonialism and racial discrimination. Such support was not only diplomatic and financial, but also had a heavy military side. Indira Gandhi gifted close to a hundred Willys Jeep to the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), which had been fighting for Namibia’s independence since 1960. SWAPO mounted 160mm artillery guns on them and these vehicles became critical weaponry in the struggle for South West Africa’s freedom.

When I went to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, as part of the travelling media with PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I was shown black-and-white reels from those days of SWAPO fighters zipping around the mostly desert terrain along their border with South Africa and getting the better of their white oppressors. Their speed, the way they had adapted these Jeeps to local conditions and their dexterity are matched only by real cheetahs.

The African cheetah is the fastest-moving animal on earth. Such qualities in those animals became familiar to Indians last fortnight through a surfeit of television and social media coverage in anticipation of the ambitious relocation of cheetahs from Namibia to Madhya Pradesh.

The global automotive conglomerate, Mahindra and Mahindra has been importing Willys Jeeps since 1947. A variation of those World War II workhorses is now manufactured domestically and sold as Mahindra Thar. But when I saw videos of SWAPO fighters using Indian-gifted Jeeps as assault vehicles, I understood why Joseph Stalin, aligned with the US during World War II, implored US Chief of Army Staff Gen George C Marshall for 5,000 Jeeps and got them. ‘It is impossible to have too many of them, and the side having the largest number of these motors is bound to win,’ he told his interlocutors in the US military.

When Vajpayee became PM in 1998, the first foreign capital he went to on a state visit was Windhoek. He was persuaded in this milestone by his Principal Secretary, Brajesh Mishra, who was the midwife, so to speak, in the birth of Namibia. Mishra was appointed UN Commissioner for Namibia in 1982. The same year, the UN Secretary-General appointed Mishra as head of the International Conference in Support of Struggle of Namibian People for Independence. Vajpayee had exercised India’s nuclear option and had tested two atom bombs in Pokhran by the time he reached Windhoek. Sanctions against the tests had kicked in. So, Vajpayee was easily persuaded to travel to Windhoek when he was briefed about Namibia’s potential, as the world’s second largest producer of uranium, to supply the nuclear component to India. After India signed a nuclear deal with the US and got a waiver for trade in nuclear material from the NSG, India and Namibia signed a deal in 2009. Uranium exports from Namibia are still a work in progress and need to be followed up as a strategic priority.

During a month when the opening of New Delhi’s Central Vista and the death of Queen Elizabeth have sparked domestic debates about colonial legacies, Namibia’s case is worthy of foreign policy research. Namibia was never a British colony. The UK only had a League of Nations mandate for the territory under South African administration. Before this, it was a German colony. Yet, Namibia is a member of the Commonwealth. Sam Nujoma, the country’s first President, recognised that this membership gave his nation an extra sense of belonging in a neighbourhood made up of Commonwealth countries: Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Namibia was able to benefit from the organisation’s transnational capacity-building programmes which covered areas of Africa contiguous to its own.

India’s first Head of Mission in Windhoek, Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, helped in Nujoma’s efforts at that time to integrate with the Commonwealth. Mukherjee recalls that at a ceremony where Namibia formally acceded to the Commonwealth, the British Ambassador — soon to be High Commissioner — said if a country wanted to join the Commonwealth, it was welcome to join the organisation’s fold. This position was formalised as the Commonwealth’s revised membership criteria in 2007. Rwanda followed Namibia’s example two years later. These are the only two members of the Commonwealth without historic ties to the UK. In June this year, its capital, Kigali, hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

India ought to closely look at the experiences of both these African countries on how best to exploit its own links to the London-based organisation of 56 countries accounting for a combined population of 2.5 billion.

During Vajpayee’s visit — and later when President Pranab Mukherjee was in Windhoek in 2016 — Namibians showed off their well-preserved national parks. The training that their forest rangers receive is impressive. It is worth adopting, now that India has established a wildlife relationship with Namibia through the adopted cheetahs. In the 1990s, talking points in Africa were about endangered species of wildlife. Today, Africa is a spectacular success in rolling back endangerment. In countries like Zimbabwe, these efforts have led to a big increase in elephant population. Last year, elephants killed 72 people in Zimbabwe. So far this year, 60 people have been killed and 50 injured. That tells its own story of conservation.

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