Last month, an agreement was finalized (after six years of negotiations) in which Germany officially acknowledged that its colonial occupation over Namibia amounted to genocide. Germany made a promise of €1.1 billion ($1.34 billion) in financial aid as a “gesture of reconciliation.” The European country omitted the words “compensation” and “reparations” as it seeks to avoid creating a legal precedent that would see other former colonial powers in Europe obliged to pay legally binding reparations.
The Namibian government has shown signs of welcoming Germany’s overtures, with a spokesman from the president’s office saying this is a “first step” in the right direction. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas remarked that his country “will now also officially call these events what they were from today's perspective: a genocide.”
He added, “In light of Germany's historical and moral responsibility, we will ask Namibia and the descendants of the victims for forgiveness.” These moves more than 70 years after Germany agreed to pay reparations for Holocaust victims – and this is seen as something that other former colonial powers may pursue.
Between 1904 and 1908, German settlers killed tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people after the tribes had rebelled against Berlin’s rule in the colony. They were driven to the desert where they perished from malnutrition, exhaustion, and diseases. The survivors’ fate was no better – they were placed in concentration camps. At that time, the colony was known as German Southwest Africa. The murders, now classified as genocide, were punishment for the uprising.
Germany agreed to pay €1.1 billion over 30 years, and much of this would be invested towards health care, infrastructure, and training projects. Germany’s steps towards apologizing can be read in the context of other European countries that are being forced to re-look their history – last year King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets” for his country’s colonial atrocities in the modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo but did not offer an official apology and was silent on the issue of reparations (much like Germany). Burundi has reportedly demanded $42.6 billion as compensation from Belgium and Germany.
While Germany has taken to mend its strained relationship with Namibia, the latter’s chiefs are displeased with the amount offered by the former. The Council of Chiefs, a body representing the Herero and Nama people, rejected the amount, which they have considered trifling and an “insult.” The traditional leaders called on the Namibian government to renegotiate the deal because such an amount is not directly linked to reparations and has been labeled “an affront to our existence.” They want Germany to hand over €480 billion ($582 billion). The Namibian government was taken aback by this position, as they maintained that the chiefs were also part of the negotiations that began in 2015. The refusal by the chiefs to endorse the deal could make it difficult for President Hage Geingob to sign the deal.
But the chiefs are right in rejecting this amount. Here is a genocide that took place, in which the Namibians lost their ancestral land and were stripped of their dignity as human beings. Add to that, Germany spent decades on decades evading the issue. The European colonial power dodged formal apologies countless times so that it could not be legally bound to pay reparations, as it should. The amount they are offering, saying that it will be diverted towards healthcare and infrastructure only shows a half-hearted approach. It is half-hearted because they do not want to fully own up for their incorrigible massacres. As it stands, the amount they are offering only proves that they are still stage-managing the whole thing.
When it comes to reparations, former colonial powers should go fully in. Because in truth, not even money can cover up for the wrongs they did to Africa. And it is clear why Germany is avoiding using the word reparations in this agreement – it does not want to fully own up for its wrongs. The descendants of the affected communities are not wholly included in the negotiations; terms of the agreement are forced on them. Yet they lost everything from the genocide. The chiefs are vindicated in rejecting this deal.
Germany should not talk down to the communities of the affected. And it should not avoid paying legally binding reparations. The fact that Germany at some point wanted to pay only €10 million ($11.7 million) shows that they just want to appease international media eyes with their moves. They do not mean any of this in their hearts.