The Nordic Africa Institute

Mishake Muyongo

Vice President of the Caprivi African National Union—Vice President of SWAPO— Vice President of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance President of the DTA Party

The interview was held by Tor Sällström in Windhoek, 17 March 1995.

Tor Sellström: As Vice-President of SWAPO until 1980, you were closely involved in the design of the humanitarian support from the Nordic countries to the liberation movement. How did it start? What were, in your view, the motives and conditions behind it?

Mishake Muyongo: Sweden was the first country to support the people of Namibia, at a time when other countries were refusing. To me it was something else. It was a very big contribution. From then I admired Sweden. I used to have a lot of friends there. The Prime Minister who was assassinated, Olof Palme, was a good friend of mine.

I remember when I was in exile, sitting with the people from Sweden—before dealing with SIDA—and appealing to them to help the liberation struggle. I remember them saying: ‘We can only help at the humanitarian level.’ The lady who we were dealing with in Lusaka said: ‘In your camps, we can only assist as far as food and clothing is concerned, but, please, make sure that the clothing is not military. We do not want to get involved in the fight that you are waging. We only want to look after you, since you have been turned out of your homes.’ These words I remember very well. And I remember going back to them, saying: ‘I understand. We are not asking for military help, but we have thousands of people in the camps. They have to eat and they need clothing. We also want to organize some school facilities for the children.’ They said: ‘That we can talk about, but we want access to those camps so that we can go there and satisfy ourselves that what you are telling us is true.’

The only condition that I remember was in that line. Humanitarian, period. They wanted to help the people of Southern Africa who had run away from their homes and who were refugees.

What came into my mind at that time was: What makes the Nordic countries, especially Sweden, so interested in the refugees from South Africa, Namibia or Zimbabwe? I asked this lady in Lusaka: ‘Tell me, is it really out of sheer humanitarian concern or is there some political thinking behind it all?’ She said: ‘Sweden does not export its politics to anybody. We only want to share your burden. If Sweden is in a position to provide food, we will do that, but as you eat it we are not going to say: You must know that there is a socialist government in Sweden’.

It was very clear from the beginning. The support was for the people in exile, who found themselves outside their own country, trying to survive and look after themselves. I remember when we were asked: ‘Please, put it in writing how you are going to spend the money’. Before we would get a cheque from DANIDA, FINNIDA, NORAD or SIDA, we had to put our request in writing. You would first sit down and discuss how you intended to spend the money. You then put it in writing and on that strength they would give you the cheque. But they would also ask: ‘Can we have the receipts?’

There was accountability, because the expenses had to be counter-checked by the people who provided the cheques. Of course, somewhere along the line two, three or four cents could disappear, but I was very much helped by the aid officials. They would ask: ‘Can you explain what happened?’ The SIDA officials used to say in a very calm manner: ‘But do you not see that some of the money is not accounted for properly?’ In a very nice way. But very fair. There was a very good relationship. Whenever you are dealing with taxpayers’ money, accountability is important. They insisted on that. ‘Bring the receipts!’ Then they balanced up. If there was one dollar or one kwacha missing, they would say: ‘What happened? Did you buy sweets?’

Accountability in exile was not very easy. We ran into a lot of problems with the SIDA people. But when I think of it now, I think that they were right. They were telling us that ‘one day you are going to run a country, and if you do not look after the resources of your country you are going to run into problems’. They also emphasized the point about military involvement. They did not want one cent to be used for military purposes, whether camouflage uniforms or boots. At one time we wanted boots for the people who worked on our agricultural farm and the SIDA people said: ‘If you want gumboots, we can buy them for you. What kind of boots are we talking about?’ We brought a catalogue and somebody pointed at boots that could also be used by the military and they said: ‘No! Not those ones!’

If the Nordic countries had not come to our rescue at the time I was in SWAPO, I am not sure that our people would have survived. I think that they would have died there, like people from Rwanda are dying now. Even the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was not able to do what the Nordic countries did.

We bought tractors from Sweden and the other Nordic countries. We bought trucks. We could load these trucks—sometimes with 40 tons—and take the assistance to our people. When we said that we wanted to buy trucks or jeeps, they said: ‘As long as they are civilian vehicles there is no problem.’ But once you started saying: ‘It is green in colour’, they would say: ‘Are you sure that we are talking about the same thing?’ I said: ‘But we want it for the camps.’ They would say: ‘Why specifically green? Why should it be green?’ But when food was bought or given, they did not mind whether you shared it with the people at the front.

Maybe a criticism that I could make is that when they were helping the people outside to develop a culture of humanitarian sharing—a political culture of understanding the democratic system, even inviting people in exile to Sweden, Norway and the other Nordic countries to see how democracy works—they ignored the people inside Namibia. To me that was a mistake. I am not saying that the same help should have been given to them, but the fact is that they were also oppressed and that they did not have a proper voice. They needed somebody like the Nordics. That is why SIDA’s involvement with the present government today is seen as political by the people who were inside, although the assistance is being used for the good of all the Namibians. People say that Sweden and the other Nordic countries only favour SWAPO because they became friends in exile. That feeling is very strong. People also say that the fact that SWAPO is talking of a mixed economy and state participation is because they are taking that from Sweden.

I want to be very honest. People say that Sweden does not hesitate to flash a cheque in front of SWAPO and say: ‘Here is a cheque. You can do so-and-so’. And they ask: ‘Why cannot the rest of the people—those who were not in exile and who are not SWAPO—benefit and be given that trust?’ So the Nordic countries are seen to be a bit biased.

Tor Sellström: How did you establish which goods and quantities were to be donated by the Nordic countries?

Mishake Muyongo: We would have a delegation from SIDA Stockholm sitting with us. They would say: ‘Give us your opinion on how you want to spend the money.’ Then we would draft a document and on the basis of that we would discuss with them. We stated what we wanted to buy. Food, vehicles, all that. When the things were not available in Zambia, they would say that they could bring the goods from Sweden.

Tor Sellström: At the United Nations, was it a problem that the Nordic countries could not vote for resolutions making reference to the armed struggle?

Mishake Muyongo: During our discussions—and during the visits we were able to make to Stockholm to meet some of the people at the highest level— it became easier to understand Sweden and the other Nordic countries’ position as far as the armed struggle was concerned. They used to say that ‘other countries can vote with you and support the armed struggle, but what are you going to do if your combatants do not have food?’ If your people in uniform are on empty stomachs, do you think that they can fight?’ They used to emphasize: ‘You must understand our position. It is a question of principle that we do not support the armed struggle, but we do support the humanitarian side of your cause.’ So, it was not really problem for us.

I used to go to the United Nations when I was with SWAPO. Every year I used to go there. We did a lot of lobbying and talked to a number of ambassadors, especially when resolutions like that had to be put across. The ambassadors of the Nordic countries would say to us: ‘Listen, we are friends. We believe that what is important is to support you with humanitarian assistance. We leave the armed struggle to you. After all, we cannot liberate you. You have to liberate yourselves. But during the liberation struggle we will make sure that you do not starve and that you do not go naked.’

Tor Sellström: In the Nordic countries the governments were criticized from the left for not supporting the armed struggle.

Mishake Muyongo: Yes, that was very strong. But I liked the stand of Sweden and the other Nordic countries. At the height of the US involvement in Vietnam, the Swedish government took stand. They criticized USA for getting involved and Sweden was prepared to help the Vietnamese on a humanitarian basis. The standpoint of Sweden was very clear.

Tor Sellström: One question which perhaps has some relevance for the situation of the political opposition in Namibia and Southern Africa is the question of one ‘sole and authentic movement’ during the liberation struggle. It has been argued that it constitutes the origin of today’s problem of a too strong government party and a too weak political opposition. What is your view on this?

Mishake Muyongo: Even in exile it was a problem. There was a lot of debate around this issue. People were saying: ‘Why should donor countries, or those who are sympathetic to the liberation struggle, take a position as to whom they should support?’ Of course, OAU gave directions that in each country they could only support two liberation movements. These two liberation movements would get funding from OAU. And once you got funding from OAU, you were caught. It was like opening the doors for this particular liberation movement to the outside world. But I think—and I believed so at the time—that OAU had to take its own resources into consideration. They were saying to the different liberation movements: ‘Please, not too many of you! When you come here, try to unify for the good of your struggle’. I think a that this was the message. In some countries, there were about ten or twelve parties, so the OAU resources would really be stretched. But I also did not agree with the idea of choosing for the people. The ‘sole and authentic’ recognition created a lot of problems. So much so that it is still vibrating today. For example, in Namibia the internal parties were not recognized by OAU. They were seen as collaborators. But this was not the case. There were people who chose peaceful means to try and change the system from within instead of taking up arms. I think that they should have been given recognition. I am not saying that they should have been given the same support, but at least some. Why I have a problem with the concept of a sole and authentic movement is because of the connection it had with the then Soviet Union. The Soviet Union could dictate and say: ‘These are the only parties to which we can give arms’ and the rest were left out. The other day one of a my colleagues in parliament—from SWANU—said: ‘You know, we were also in the struggle. But just because the Russians did not support us, we were not recognized by OAU.’ Which is a fact. Socialism—as understood by the Soviet Union—was almost dictating the terms of the liberation movements. They were using the pressure of the gun and the pressure of training. I remember very well that some parties that were aligned to China were not welcome in some of the African countries. Even when OAU was meeting they would keep them in the corridors, while the ‘sole and authentic movements’ who were aligned with the Soviet Union were allowed. The choice of whom to align with should have been left to the people of these different countries. Not to outsiders. It created interference in the political thinking and well-being of the liberation movements. People started to say: ‘Maybe it is better if we become friends with the Russians so that we also become ‘sole and authentic’.’

Tor Sellström: Humanitarian support is a question of human rights’ support. There were struggles within the struggle inside SWAPO. One is the Shipanga question—when you yourself lived in Zambia—and the other the so-called spy story in Angola in the 1980s. It is difficult to say to what extent the Nordic countries were knowledgeable about what happened, but do you think that they should have put their foot down in a tougher way?

Mishake Muyongo: Certainly! I believe very strongly that the Nordic countries should have said: ‘Listen, we are giving you aid for humanitarian purposes. If you start detaining each other you can be sure that we cannot continue’. By so doing they would have driven some sense into some in the leadership of SWAPO.

I know the Shipanga issue very well, because I was then in charge of the SWAPO office in Lusaka. When Shipanga was detained, a lot of my colleagues in SWAPO came to me and said: ‘Just hand him over so that we can take him to the front.’ ‘To the front’ meant that you were going to disappear. I said that I did not believe in that: ‘If we have a problem with him, why do we not ask the Zambian authorities to keep him. Meanwhile, maybe the UNHCR can negotiate his transfer to another country. If he remains in Zambia, he is going to create problems for us. Let him ask the UNHCR if they can find a place for him’.

I personally asked the Zambian authorities to intervene with Nyerere so that he could take him to Tanzania. When Shipanga was in Tanzania, Sam Nujoma and others went there to say to Nyerere: ‘Why do you not release this man? Give him back to us’. Nyerere refused. Even now I respect that decision. Eventually, Shipanga had to be released and went to Europe. But when we had that crisis, Sweden—or the Nordic countries—should have said: ‘If this is the way you do your things, then you can forget about our assistance.’

They should have put their feet on the ground, saying: ‘Please, we believe in human rights. That is why we are helping you. We do not want you to turn against each other.’ It was worse in Angola. Until now we have been asking the Red Cross to give us information about what happened there. I still say to myself: ‘I think that the Swedes must help us. They are very much involved with SWAPO. They were helping the people in the different SWAPO camps. Obviously, they should know what happened’. Nobody is able to account for those people. I think that Sweden and the other Nordic countries missed the boat there. They should have helped us. We have over a thousand people unaccounted for. The names are there. Nobody knows where they are. Sweden—being very close to SWAPO in Angola—used to visit some of these camps. Can they not help? Even at this late hour? SWAPO is not going to say that they are bad friends. Not at all. They are friendly to SWAPO. Not because it is SWAPO, but because SWAPO is representing the people of this country.