WORLD

A crisis for peace

Battles block Namibia’s path to freedom

JOHN BIERMAN April 17 1989
WORLD

A crisis for peace

Battles block Namibia’s path to freedom

JOHN BIERMAN April 17 1989

Ostensibly, the 23-year-old border war between Namibian guerrillas and South West African security forces was finally over. United Nations officials had arrived to supervise the territory’s transition to independence from South Africa, and the opposing forces were supposedly separated by about 150 km of arid scrubland. But at the very moment of triumph for the peacemaking process, heavy fighting broke out. In direct violation of the transition agreement, heavily armed guerrillas of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) streamed across the border from neighboring Angola, sparking combat with the South African-supported counterinsurgency police. And, with only a fraction of his 4,650 peacekeeping troops in place, UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar was forced to call on South African troops—confined to camp under the transition agreement—to try to restore order.

The disastrous beginning to the UN’s mission threatened a total breakdown of the process by which Namibia—Africa’s last colony—was to achieve independence after 75 years of South African rule. In the week of carnage that began on April 1, the official start of UN supervision, police estimated that 259 guerrillas were killed as well as 24 policemen and two soldiers. Only the speedy deployment of substantial UN forces seemed likely to calm the situation. And while South Africa requested UN permission to send in more troops, officials at UN headquarters in New York City were, as one of them said, “moving heaven and earth” to arrange air transport for Finnish, Malaysian and Kenyan infantry detachments on standby for Namibia. “Neither side really wants to shoot at UN troops,” said the official, “so if we can get a line of blue helmets in there between them, we have got a chance.”

The infantrymen should have been in place by April 1, but weeks of dispute over the size of the peacekeeping force and its financing delayed them. And having already allowed the start of the transition process to slip back from its original date of Nov. 1, 1988, the UN was unwilling to permit further delay. Stalled along with the infantry detachments late last week was the bulk of Canada’s 250-strong 89th Logistics Unit. Fifty of its members were already in Namibia, but the rest were waiting at CFB Petawawa, Ont. They were scheduled to fly to Namibia on April 22 but after last week’s flare-up they were expected to leave earlier, arriving well ahead of their trucks and heavy equipment, which were on their way by sea. But the Canadians are unlikely to find themselves near the firing line: their base is about 500 km south of the trouble zone.

Immediately after the outbreak of fighting was reported, many observers speculated that the South African military was trying to torpedo the transition agreement, which was reached after months of U.S.-brokered negotiations among South Africa, Marxist Angola and its ally Cuba. But officials of the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Windhoek, the Namibian capital, soon concluded that a large-scale guerrilla incursion was the real cause. And when it became clear that the 2,000-strong police force could not turn back the incursion unaided, Finland’s Martti Ahtissaari, who oversees UNTAG, asked UN headquarters in New York City for permission to let the confined South African troops help. Within hours, a troubled Pérez de Cuéllar gave his assent. It was, said UNTAG spokesman Cedric Thornberry last Thursday, “one of the most difficult decisions that any secretary general can ever have taken.”

While there seemed to be no doubt that SWAPO precipitated the crisis by sending an estimated 1,500 of its fighters into Namibia, it seemed possible that the police started the shooting. But according to the South African version, a patrol of the counterinsurgency police—a force nicknamed Koevoet, or crowbar, for the brutality of its methods—discovered the intrusion by chance. Spotting the tracks of 40 to 50 men in the Ovamboland sector of the border, the 40-man patrol, moving in armored cars, followed them—and drove into an ambush. “They opened up on us,” reported Sgt. Johannes Potgieter, “with RPG-7 rockets and antitank grenades mounted on their AK-47 rifles and knocked out three of our vehicles.” In the intense, 20-minute fire fight that followed, Potgieter added, two of his men were killed and five wounded, while 33 guerrillas were killed. Koevoet claimed that the guerrillas attempted similar ambushes elsewhere in Ovamboland, killing 20 police in the first three days of fighting.

But guerrilla losses were at least 10 times as great, apparently giving credence to a different version of events provided by SWAPO prisoners and African eyewitnesses. They said that the SWAPO intruders, hearing the roar of the oncoming Koevoet armored cars, thought that they were UNTAG vehicles and walked forward to greet them. “Then I saw smoke from the bush,” said schoolteacher Wedeigne Josiah, 23. “I heard the guns, and the armored cars began to fire at them. Many of the guerrillas just died right there; the others ran into the bush and were hunted down.” Apparently, the guerrillas were misinformed by their commanders—either deliberately or out of ignorance—about ceasefire terms. They seemed unaware that under last November’s Geneva agreements—linking a Cuban withdrawal from Angola to a South African pullout from Namibia—they were supposed to withdraw to about 150 km north of the border.

SWAPO president Sam Nujoma acknowledged last week that the Geneva protocols—which SWAPO did not sign—contained the withdrawal provision, but he said that he did not feel bound by it. “I wanted to stick to 435,” he said, referring to UN Resolution 435 of 1978, which did not stipulate a temporary pullback by SWAPO forces to Angola. At the same time, he denied that his forces had crossed the border into Namibia on April 1, claiming that they had been inside the territory at the time. But all the evidence contradicted this. In the Angolan capital of Luanda, where the leaders of six neighboring black nations conferred on April 6—and offered to send troops to join UNTAG—Angola President José Eduardo Dos Santos made it clear that he blamed Nujoma. In Nujoma’s presence, Dos Santos declared his “regrets” that the leadership “could not exercise total control over its guerrillas at the critical moment.” That reinforced the widespread conclusion that SWAPO had made a massive diplomatic and military mistake in sending its fighters across the border. Windhoek-based officials, and diplomats from Western countries sympathetic to the independence movement, said privately that the incursions have destroyed the chance of a peaceful transfer of power. South African Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha threatened to scrap the agreement altogether unless the UN got control of the situation and forced SWAPO to pull out. Later, he softened his tone, offering the guerrillas a ceasefire and safe passage back to Angola. But Nujoma insisted that SWAPO had the right to remain inside Namibia, although confined to camp under UN supervision, like the South African troops. Botha’s offer “is an insult to our intelligence,” said Nujoma. “We have been fighting inside Namibia for 23 years.”

In Washington, state department officials also placed the blame squarely on Nujoma. They said privately that he was apparently motivated by the urge to improve his chances in the elections to be held under UN supervision on Nov. 1. As a result, they said, he was determined to establish a SWAPO military presence—even a small one—in Namibia, instead of waiting until May when SWAPO fighters may return without weapons to take part in the transition process. As one state department expert put it, “He wanted to give the impression that SWAPO was coming back with guns blazing to take over the country.”

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher discussed the crisis in depth when they met in London last Thursday. Under Gorbachev’s leadership, Moscow, which has traditionally supported SWAPO, now favors a peaceful resolution of tensions in southern Africa. And Eastern Bloc diplomats have privately expressed dismay at SWAPO’s breach of the agreement. As a result, observers expected that Gorbachev would concur with Thatcher’s request for Soviet pressure on SWAPO to honor the agreement and withdraw its forces.

The Namibian crisis may have repercussions on South Africa’s internal politics. Last week, President Pieter Botha announced the dissolution of parliament next month as a prelude to an election, after which he is expected to retire as a result of a stroke he suffered last January. His cautiously reformist National party seemed likely to win the election, but a breakdown in the Namibian peace process could strengthen the far-right opposition Conservative party, which has always opposed a withdrawal from Namibia. That withdrawal has been a key element in the Nationalists’ reform program, along with a relaxation of the apartheid laws that have long kept the nation’s black majority politically powerless and economically deprived.

As the fighting continued unabated at week’s end across 400 km of arid border scrubland, Pretoria’s chief representative in Namibia, Louis Pienaar, said that it had “become impossible” to hold the elections scheduled for November. Meanwhile, Chester Crocker, the low-profile U.S. diplomat who masterminded the linked Namibian-Angolan peace process, flew to Windhoek for talks with senior Soviet, South African, Angolan and Cuban representatives.

Meanwhile, UN officials were hastily trying to get their troops into position. At their request, the U.S. air force was flying in an 850-strong infantry battalion from Finland, and other arrangements were being sought for the Malaysian and Kenyan contingents. Clearly, an all-out international effort was needed to get the southern African peace process back on track—and the UN out of a crisis that threatened to destroy its hard-won credibility.