REVIEW: Article

The United States and Namibia: Promoting Success in a Young African Democracy

Just 27 years old, the Republic of Namibia is among Africa’s youngest countries, but one that stands out on the continent for its functioning multiparty democracy, open market economy and history of peaceful transitions of presidential power. The reasons for Namibia’s success lie in the international process that created it and in the pragmatism of its people. That international process and the United States’ involvement in it have also complicated the U.S.-Namibia relationship in the last three decades. But the United States has long recognized that an investment in the success of a country like Namibia is a strategic long-term investment in our own security. With that in mind, the United States has invested heavily since Namibian independence in 1990 to help ensure that the young country succeeds. 

In many respects, Namibia is a country of extremes. It is both the driest African country south of the Sahara and, with an area twice the size of California’s and a population of just 2.4 million, the world’s second-least densely populated nation. Namibia is home to the desolate Skeleton Coast, to one of the world’s driest deserts and to the world’s oldest sand dunes, but also to lush, flood-prone forestland lying along some of Africa’s great rivers. Namibia is a major source of diamonds and uranium, but has one of the highest income inequality rates in the world. And Namibia’s people are a multiethnic, multiracial mix that encompasses everything from descendants of German colonists to the San, the world’s most ancient human population.

Namibia’s colonial experience featured similar extremes. After one of the First World War’s early military campaigns ended 30 years of German colonial rule in 1915, the League of Nations placed the former German South West Africa under the mandate of the Union of South Africa. The successor Republic of South Africa later refused to surrender that mandate, instead imposing the full oppression of apartheid and seeking to incorporate South West Africa into its territory.          

The South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), a Marxist liberation movement formed in 1960, carried on an insurgency against the apartheid regime for three decades as the United States and other Western nations sought a negotiated route to independence. In 1978 the United States co-sponsored United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 to establish a framework for Namibian independence, but an eight-year mediation begun by the Reagan administration in 1981 linked independence to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. That linkage is still viewed by many Namibians as having delayed their country’s independence for a decade. Thirty years later, the United States continues to confront perceptions that Namibia would have achieved independence years earlier if not for Cold War concerns in the West about Communist influence and support to SWAPO from the old Eastern Bloc.

Namibian independence in 1990 was the culmination of a unique negotiation and self-determination process administered by the United Nations pursuant to UNSCR 435.  Nearly 25 years later, I presented my credentials as the tenth U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Namibia, just two days before general elections that would sweep the country’s third president, Dr. Hage Geingob, into office with 87 percent of the popular vote. No stranger to government, Dr. Geingob chaired the assembly that drafted the Namibian constitution in 1989 and served as the country’s first prime minister. Harkening back to the international effort that created what Namibia is today, President Geingob likes to say that his country is “a child of international solidarity, midwifed by the United Nations.” 

At independence, the SWAPO liberation movement became the popular political party that has ruled Namibia continuously since 1990. While the restyled Swapo Party put aside most of its Marxist principles when faced with the reality of governing, Namibia’s foreign policy has remained strongly shaped by gratitude to its erstwhile allies and adherence to its non-aligned, liberation-era ideals. At the same time, however, Namibia’s approach to its foreign development partners has generally been marked by pragmatism and a desire to be, as the country’s current president puts it, “friend to all and enemy to none.”

The United States has sought since Namibia’s founding to support the new country in its building of a modern, democratic state. Even before the Namibian flag was raised for the first time, the United States offered major assistance in removing the explosive remnants of war—an intense effort that required more than a decade to complete. The Peace Corps answered a plea for help from Namibia’s new leaders in 1990 by sending a cadre of educa­tion volunteers. In the quarter-century since, Peace Corps has maintained and ex­panded its presence in Namibia. More than 1,600 volunteers have served in the country since 1991, offering their skills in education, health and community economic development. 

The Peace Corps was not the only U.S. government agency that lent a hand with education. A decision at independence by Namibia’s new leaders to make English the national language prompted a 15-year, USAID-administered assistance program to convert the national education system from Afrikaans, train the country’s teachers to instruct in English and improve school infrastructure.  

Namibians say theirs was the first country in the world to enshrine environmental pro­tection in its constitution. Support provided by the United States through USAID in the 1990s helped establish Namibia’s internationally renowned, community-based conserva­tion system. The country has a larger wildlife population now than at any time in the past century and is home to nearly half of the world’s remaining black rhinos and most of the world’s cheetahs. The Namibian conservation model built together with USAID created 82 registered communal conservancies that allow local communities to benefit from the sus­tainable use of wildlife through tourism and sport hunting. In 2013, the conservancies generated about $7 million in direct revenue and in-kind benefits. The success of the model has created a powerful incentive for those living within conservancies to protect wildlife and manage natural resources responsibly. Indeed, the conservancies are largely responsible for the rebound in Namibia’s elephant population from 7,500 in 1995 to more than 20,000 in 2016.

In 2007, Namibia qualified for an assistance compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Negotiations on the details of the compact took more than 18 months, but ultimately produced a blueprint for spending $305 million on an array of infrastructure and other development projects focused on education, tourism and agricul­ture. The five-year compact, which ended in 2014 having met or exceeded all of its targets, was regarded by both the Namibians and the MCC as a signal success. As it was under­way, Namibia also achieved upper-middle income (UMI) status according to the World Bank—one of the indirect effects the MCC compact was intended to achieve. Ironically, that success meant the country was not eligible for another compact.

The crown jewel of U.S. government assistance to Namibia remains our support in fighting HIV/AIDS. When the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, better known as PEPFAR, began working with the Namibian government in 2004, the country had one of the highest HIV burdens in the world. More than 23 percent of the population was infected, and more than 15,000 Namibians were getting infected with HIV each year.  More than 30 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers were infected with the virus, and nearly 10,000 Namibians were dying from AIDS every year—out of a population of just 2 million. 

Our success in working with the Namibian government to fight HIV/AIDS has been nothing short of remarkable. Last year, fewer than 8,000 Namibians were newly infected with HIV, less than 5 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers became infected and fewer than 3,200 patients died from HIV/AIDS. Currently, more than 70 percent of Namibians have been tested for HIV and know their status. Free antiretroviral treatment is widely available across the country; 67 percent of infected adults and 90 percent of infected children are on it. Most striking, an estimated 100,000 Namibian lives—nearly 5 percent of the country’s total population—have been saved.

The United States has played an integral role in these achievements, and it has required a major investment. Of the more than $1.1 billion in foreign assistance the U.S. gov­ernment has invested in Namibia since 2006, the majority has been dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDS. But our investment has been dwarfed by the Namibian govern­ment’s own contribution to the fight. Namibia’s government directly funds two-thirds of the national HIV response, demonstrating to the world its leadership and commit­ment to its citizens.

Our shared success in fighting HIV/AIDS has not come easily. Widely scattered populations, distances between health facilities, shortages of skilled health care providers, limited infrastructure and difficult terrain contribute to the reality that not all Namibians have access to the same health services. To meet the challenge, our work through PEPFAR in Namibia has required innovation and flexibility. It has also necessitated a model of government-to-government cooperation in which U.S. resources have supplemented and expanded upon the Namibian government’s efforts rather than leading them. Our support has helped move Namibia within realistic reach of achieving the UNAIDS 90/90/90 targets* for HIV epidemic control by 2020. This means Namibia has the potential to be among the first high-burden countries in Africa to reach the targets and, if the epidemiolo­gists are right, to achieve an AIDS-free generation.

As the size of Namibia’s younger population increases, so do their demands for education, social services and jobs. The country’s UMI status means that international development assistance once aimed at bolstering Namibia’s young democracy is now going to countries in greater need. And as Namibia’s liberation-heroes-turned-graying-politicians seek to respond to the demands of the younger population, they also face the inevitable reality of transition to a post-liberation-era generation of leaders. Navigating that transition is the most significant political challenge the country will face in the next decade. Cognizant of their legacy and committed to an enduring democracy, Namibia’s leaders are working to ensure that their country maintains its standing as a haven of peace and stability. It remains in the national interest of the United States to help them—and Namibia—succeed.




* Editor’s Note: According to UNAIDS, the 90-90-90 targets are that “by 2020, 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status...90 percent of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy…[and] 90 percent of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression.” Visit:

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United States Ambassador to the Republic of Namibia