• September 25th, 2018
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Theo-Ben Gurirab at 80: A life worth celebrating!

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Yesterday – 23rd January 2018 - the curtain on my mind opened with Comrade Ben standing next to George Houser, founder and director of the American Committee on Africa, in Manhattan New York at an Anti-Apartheid rally. This was at the peak of the struggle for decolonization. During this era Apartheid South Africa was riding high and Namibia’s liberation movement was under the gun. SWAPO had to walk as if running but watch their back all the time. This must have impelled Chester Crocker to conclude his diplomatic career with a book titled, “High Noon in Southern Africa, Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood”. These are among the challenges that groomed Sam Nujoma’s chief diplomat as he shuttled between European capitals in the daunting task to implore London, Paris, Ottawa, and Berlin that the cause upon which the American Administration in Washington had landed was leading to nowhere. In the end his efforts paid off, the liberation movement was vindicated and the struggle for Namibia’s liberation culminated in the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 435 (UNSCR 435), the plan that ushered in Namibia’s independence. At the meeting in Manhattan, New York, Theo-Ben Gurirab took the stage to an audience of predominantly African students and diplomats, mixed in with the African American Sisters and Brothers who were single-minded in their support for Namibia’s liberation movement. Prominent among these children of African slaves was a firebrand called Brother Elombe Brath. Gurirab gave a rundown of how Namibians became the responsibility of the United Nations Organization and what had impelled SWAPO to take up arms against the mighty South African army with its backing from the major European capitals. He concluded by saying: “Ours is a struggle for the liberation of humanity and one day when Namibia is free and independent, Washington will appreciate that we fought for the liberation of the American people too.” One day I was summoned by Moses Garoeb to his house in Windhoek and he wanted me to write a book about his life. Garoeb was very sick at the time. We agreed that he would record his voice and I would transcribe and pull the book together. As I was about to leave, I put it to Garoeb: “Comrade Moses, you will agree that your story will necessarily be the story of SWAPO and that in part SWAPO will have to vet your book.” Moses reluctantly agreed and undertook to consult President Nujoma on this, as this was to play against the backdrop of the fact that at the time we were all collaborating to finalise President Nujoma’s biography. Unfortunately Garoeb’s book project did not take off as he did not recover. Like with Moses Garoeb, the story of Theo-Ben Gurirab is necessarily the story of SWAPO. I remember Ben as a tireless campaigner for the decolonization of Namibia. In several of his speeches his context was painted by the wisdom of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, who held that, Africa’s liberation will remain a misnomer for as long as a single African country was struggling in the periphery of imperial colonization. Along the way there was a reshuffle in the leadership of SWAPO and Gurirab was elevated to the position of SWAPO’s Secretary for International Relations and he had to move to Luanda. I did not see Ben until when the process of implementing UNSCR 435 arrived on the cards. In the summer of 1988 Nikko Bessinger and I travelled from Namibia to Bonn, West Germany, to participate in a conference on decolonization and human rights. Bessinger was Deputy Secretary for international Relations for SWAPO and I was envoy for the Council of Churches in Namibia, the organization I was privileged to serve as Associate General Secretary. During this time, Ben and Nikko compared notes on developments on the international arena. Nikko briefed me on our return journey. The big powers at the United Nations had resolved that Namibia had to be independent and the friends of the liberation movement advised SWAPO to prepare for the repatriation of refugees. We returned and reported to our respective constituencies. The mood in Namibia remained at best ambivalent, while preparations on the international arena intensified. In time the United Nations pulled together the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG), whose task was to oversee the implementation of UNSCR 435. Then a snag presented itself as a potential hurdle to the process. There was a move at the United Nations to reduce the budget of UNTAG. By then the momentum for progress had taken shape and nations of the world were resolute that no effort should be spared in attempts to save the process. The Council of Churches in Namibia dispatched me to New York to augment the lobby at the UN for the retention of the UNTAG force. Gurirab had arrived in New York from Luanda for the same purpose and we created a joint strategy. We would meet each evening to compare notes. Gurirab’s campaign was intense. He had met virtually all ambassadors at the UN, including South Africa’s Chargé d’Affaires, along with Marti Aghtisari. Latter confirmed when we met, that the diplomatic community was highly impressed about the skillfulness of Theo-Ben Gurirab, and the South African representative even more. These interactions culminated in a happy ending. Two days later Gurirab and I had our last consultations. Gurirab confirmed having met the South African Chargé d’Affaires and he was of the view that the South Africans could be on their way to cooperate after all. A day later I left for Windhoek confident that the process was back on track. Upon arrival in Windhoek I was dispatched to Luanda alongside my colleague Pinehas Aluteni, to facilitate repatriation with SWAPO and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This was not an easy task as there were simmering tensions between SWAPO and UNHCR, particularly with regard to the numbers of refugees to be repatriated. I was relieved to find Gurirab already in Luanda and we consulted before I engaged the key players on the repatriation of Namibia’s refugees. Gurirab’s view was that, now that we had unlocked the process in New York, we could not allow this situation to present a stumbling block. He gave me a rundown of the historical relationship between the UNHCR and SWAPO and he advised that I manage the exercise tenderly but firmly. The SWAPO Repatriation Committee was headed by Hifikepunye Pohamba and had as members inter alia, Nickey Iyambo, Vitalis Ankama, Mzee Kaukungwa, Festus Naholo. The group was resolved and we agreed on the process for repatriation, the modus operandi for managing services for returnees and security aspects. These are some of the glimpses associated with this long life. The life and times of Theo-Ben Gurirab are intrinsically linked to the life of SWAPO and these pages are limiting to deal with a review of this expansive life. On his birthday, the nation deserves a reminder that a stalwart of the liberation struggle has reached the age of 80. We must bow our heads and say: Happy Birthday Comrade Ben, and May the Lord continue to guide you in His Service.
2018-01-24 09:31:58 8 months ago
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