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Martti Ahtisaari and Namibia’s Transition to Independence

Finnish diplomat and statesman, Martti Ahtisaari (86), who died earlier this month, played a key role in the way in which Namibia became independent.

He not only headed the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (Untag) in 1989, which supervised the country’s first democratic elections, but had a long involvement with the Namibian peace process before that.

Finland had historic missionary ties with northern Namibia, and Ahtisaari’s interest in Namibia was sparked when a student.
However, it was when he became Finland’s ambassador to Tanzania, based in Dar es Salaam from 1973, that he developed ties with the leadership of the Namibian liberation movement Swapo.

In 1976, Swapo supported his appointment as UN Commissioner for Namibia, a post Ahtisaari called ‘Delegate for Namibia’ and which he used to voice Namibian aspirations at the UN.

But Sam Nujoma, Swapo’s founding president, became increasingly disenchanted with Ahtisaari, largely because of the ‘other hat’ that Ahtisaari assumed – that of the UN secretary general’s Special Representative for Namibia.

In that role he believed he had to be an impartial mediator in dealing with the various players involved in planning for Namibia’s independence from South African rule.

Swapo came to associate him with the Western negotiating team that put pressure on them to make concessions and to accept a plan for a UN-organised election, while the South Africa’s administration was still in place.

It was Angola and other Frontline States (FLS), which persuaded Swapo to accept the UN plan, which was embodied in the famous and historic Security Council Resolution 435 of September 1978.

The FLS was a coalition of African states committed to ending apartheid and white minority rule.


Though Ahtisaari visited Namibia that year for the UN, the South African government was not prepared to see the UN plan implemented and it was a decade before the UN mission eventually arrived.

One of South Africa’s objections to the plan was that the UN was biased towards Swapo and against the so-called internal parties.

Ahtisaari was criticised by Swapo when he dealt with the South African government while being accused by South Africa of being pro-Swapo.

Though sympathetic to the cause of Namibian independence, as an international civil servant, Ahtisaari’s first loyalty was to the UN for which he worked.

As a realist, he knew the apartheid regime in Pretoria was strongly opposed to Swapo coming to power in Namibia and he had to work within the confines of a situation in which South Africa was the occupying power.

“Of course, you can say it would have been far more honourable to thump the table and demand that the South Africans get out of Namibia,” he told the two Finnish journalists who wrote his biography, “but they were just not going anywhere … Principles alone do not solve anything. There is nothing immoral about the fact that you talk to all parties.”

Interviewed when he finally began heading the UN mission to Namibia, Ahtisaari said he had lots of “sisu” (Finnish for stamina), adding: “I need it. I’ve waited 10 years to do this job.”


But the very day of implementation saw Ahtisaari facing his worst crisis.

In his account, former president Sam Nujoma wrote that “at this crucial and critical hour for Namibia’s freedom, Ahtisaari’s actions betrayed our cause and resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians”.

A headline in The Namibian newspaper of 5 April 1989 ran ‘UN to Blame. Bloodshed could have been avoided if Ahtisaari had acted.’ 

The reality was that Nujoma had given the order for Swapo fighters to enter Namibia, thinking they could establish bases in northern Namibia and ask Untag to monitor them, though there was was no provision for this in the UN independence plan.

Ahtisaari had to react to the infiltration from southern Angola into northern Namibia of heavily armed Swapo combatants, and to South African insistence that its forces be allowed to confront them.

Not wanting South Africa to abandon the entire settlement plan, he permitted a limited number of its forces to move out of their bases to confront the Swapo guerrillas.

Had he not done so, he was sure the South Africans would have anyway released their troops from the bases to which they had been confined.

Instead of the implementation of the UN plan being thrown off course at the very beginning, his actions helped ensure that did not happen.

More than 300 Swapo fighters died at the hands of the South African forces before the process was back on track.


Readers of Nujoma’s memoir ‘Where Others Wavered’ were probably left with the idea that Ahtisaari had hampered the process leading to Namibia’s independence instead of advancing it.

In fact, Ahtisaari successfully managed a UN mission involving 8 000 UN soldiers and civilians, which included a battalion of over 900 Finnish peacekeepers.

His position was extremely delicate because he had to work alongside the South African-appointed administrator general as up until independence, Namibia was administered by South Africa.

Ahtisaari got political parties contesting the election to accept a Code of Conduct that laid down the ground rules for political conduct in a country that had never had a free democratic election.

He was able to declare that election free and fair, after which a Namibian Constituent Assembly drafted a Constitution for the new country and prepared the way for independence on 21 March 1990.


When Ahtisaari returned to Namibia in 1995, it was as president of Finland. He was given honorary Namibian citizenship and remained silent in the face of Nujoma’s criticisms.

When he returned to Windhoek in 2010, it was to attend celebrations that marked 20 years of independence, and the swearing-in for a second presidential term of Nujoma’s successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba.

Ahtisaari was welcomed not only as the former president of Finland, but as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

His Nobel prize was awarded in part for his efforts to broker peace in Kosovo and Indonesia, but also for his role in bringing peace to Namibia and moving the country to independence.

That Namibia moved peacefully to independence was key to South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy.
Namibians and South Africans owe a deep debt to Martti Ahtisaari.

Source : Namibian