Descendants of Namibia’s genocide victims call on Germany to ‘stop hiding’

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Herero and Nama people demand direct talks and take Namibian government to court for accepting reparations on their behalf for 1904-1908 killings

A protest in Berlin in 2018
Protesters outside a ceremony in Berlin in 2018 to hand back to Namibia the remains of Herero and Nama people killed in the 1904-1908 genocide. Photograph: Christian Mang/Reuters

Kaamil Ahmed

Descendants of victims of genocide in Namibia have called on Germany to “stop hiding” and discuss reparations with them directly, as they take their own government to court for making a deal without their approval.

The Herero and Nama people have gone to Namibia’s high court, rejecting an apology made in 2021 after years of talks between Namibia and Germany, which they say falls short of atoning for the 1904 to 1908 genocide, the first of the 20th century.

“We were not involved at any stage. The government set the agenda, it discussed what it discussed and never disclosed it until we saw a joint declaration last year,” said Prof Mutjinde Ktjiua, chief of the Herero.

The declaration included a German pledge of €1.1bn (£980m) in development projects over 30 years but Ktjiua said the tribes want direct reparations to address the poverty and marginalisation that resulted from the genocide.

“It is critical because we know without any doubt that we have in this country a government that is misappropriating resources. A government that has for all these years denied that Hereros and Namas were [subject to genocide] – now you trust them to manage this?” said Ktjiua.

The German empire unleashed a campaign of killing and torture after the tribes rejected colonial rule in 1904. An estimated 80% of all the Herero people and 50% of Nama were killed; estimates vary between 34,000 and 100,000 people. They are now politically marginalised minorities in Namibia.

A German soldier guards a group of Namibian war prisoners
A German soldier guards a group of Namibian war prisoners in a photo taken at the time of the genocide, between 1904 and 1908. Photograph: National Archives of Namibia/AFP/Getty Images

Herero lawyer Patrick Kauta argued that the joint declaration breaks a 2006 Namibian parliamentary motion to seek reparations from Germany.

Gaob Johannes Isaak, chair of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association, said reparations needed to address the loss of 80% of Nama ancestral land – much of it now occupied by farmers of German descent – as well as generational damage to livelihood and identity.

“Reparations would bring back dignity, self-worth and play a meaningful role in our own development and education for the Nama people so we can share equally in the resources of Namibia,” said Isaak.

“For us, it’s not about politics, we want our Namibian government to be on our side against Germany. It’s not about money – the joint declaration does not address our needs. Let it be clear: we want to negotiate directly for the blood of our ancestors,” he said. “Let the two governments stop hiding behind the issue of state-to-state [negotiations].”

The joint declaration admitted “a moral, historical and political obligation to tender an apology for this genocide”, accepting that the killings amounted to genocide “from today’s perspective”.

Skulls of Herero and Nama people are displayed in Berlin.
Skulls of Herero and Nama people are displayed in Berlin during a ceremony attended by representatives of the tribes. Photograph: Michael Sohn/AP

A spokesperson for the German foreign office said only the Namibian government had the mandate and “democratic legitimacy” to negotiate with Germany, but the federal government had sought the voices of the descendants of victims, including through an advisory committee of five people who worked with the Namibian negotiator, who was himself Herero.

“The federal government calls the crimes committed against the Herero, Nama, Damara and San by their name: genocide. The fact that we use this term in its historical rather than its legal sense is because the Genocide Convention of 9 December 1948 cannot be applied retrospectively,” the spokesperson said.

Karina Theurer, an adviser to the Namibian lawyers, said Germany has argued against responsibility, referring to the historical legal position when European powers distinguished between “civilised nations and the savage or wild nations”.

“You cannot today rely and base your legal arguments on such a racist distinction,” she said, adding that the case could “open the floodgates” for other former colonies to demand reparations against occupying powers.

“We really think that our domestic litigation makes some legal arguments which can be used by others in their quest for reparations and that is the reason why it is so important from an international perspective as well. It can really be a historic milestone when it comes to those quests for reparations worldwide,” she said.

Henning Melber, president of the European Association of Development Institutes, said the declaration should be shelved. “One of the most scandalous parts of the whole joint declaration for me, it’s not only the money, it’s that it says Germany will apologise to the Namibians and then it continues to say the Namibians accept their apology.

“Come on. Can it be more colonial as an agreement? They are not even given the opportunity to reject the apology,” he said.

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