Hifikepunye Pohamba, Namibia’s outgoing president, just won the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The world’s most lucrative award, it comes with a hefty prize of $5 million USD from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, has only been awarded five times in the past eight years. It has strict requirements for its recipients. The prize goes to an African leader who has been democratically elected, governed fairly and successfully, and left office in accordance with designated term limits – no small feat in African governments. Pohamba, who will leave Namibia’s highest office this month, has managed all that.
Former recipients of the prize include Cape Verde’s Pedro Pires (2011), Botswana’s Festus Mogae (2008), and Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano (2007). South African President Nelson Mandela received an honorary award.
Here are 12 things you didn’t know about Hifikepunye Pohamba, Namibia’s outgoing president.
Sources: Independent.co.uk, BBC.com, Forbes.com, Britannica.com, Gov.na
In 1935, Pohamba was born in Okanghudi-Pohamba village in the Ohangwena Region of Namibia. The area, located in the northern part of the country, would later become the founding place of Namibia’s most influential liberation organization and independence movement.
From 1956 to 1960, Pohamba worked in the Tsumeb copper mine following his graduation from Holy Cross Anglican mission school. Pohamba left his mining job in 1960 to work full time as an organizer for the liberation cause.
During Namibia’s struggle for independence from South Africa, Pohamba helped found the South West African People’s Organization, better known as SWAPO. It was created as a liberation movement and now serves as the ruling party of Namibia. The group initially began as the Ovamboland People’s Organization, but changed its name to SWAPO in 1960.
While working as an organizer for the liberation movement, Pohamba was arrested in 1961 for political agitation. After his conviction, Pohamba was sentenced and subjected to public flogging. He went into exile, joining other SWAPO leaders in neighboring Tanzania (then known as Tanganyika). He was arrested again in 1962 after returning to South Africa and served six months in jail before being put under house arrest.
From 1981 to 1882, Pohamba studied politics in the Soviet Union, earning a diploma in political science from the International School of Political Science in Moscow. He had already served two terms in SWAPO leadership, first as deputy administrative secretary and then as the secretary of finance, but took a leave of absence for his studies. In 1982, he moved to Luanda, Angola, serving in SWAPO’s headquarters there.
During his tenure as Namibia’s Minister of Lands, Resettlement and Rehabilitation (a post he assumed in January 2001 and held until his election as president in 2005), Pohamba initiated a land expropriation plan to provide aid to landless black farmers. The program allowed the government to purchase land from the white minority and redistribute it to disadvantage black Namibians whose land had been seized during the colonial period. Pohamba actively supported expropriation, believing that the “willing-seller, wiling-buyer” policy was too slow to enact meaningful change. However, Pohamba never pursued violent means for farm takeovers, such as those seen in Mugabe’s policies in Zimbabwe.
Though he has always been viewed as a strong leader, personally, Pohamba attracted many Namibians to his humble personality and soft-spoken tendencies. He is viewed as an accessible leader, one who leaves his office door open and appreciates a good joke, allowing constituents to feel they are able to relate to their president.
Though he was elected president of Namibia in 2005, it wasn’t until former President Sam Nujoma resigned his post in November 2007 that Pohamba took over the presidency of his own party.
In her position as first lady, Penehupifo Pohamba has campaigned aggressively for women’s empowerment, specifically for the eradication of violence against women and improved maternal and child health care. Before her husband’s election, she was a practicing midwife and nurse, and now serves as vice president for the Southern Africa Development Committee (SADC).
Namibia’s founding president, Sam Nujoma, met Pohamba in Ovamboland in 1964 during SWAPO’s infancy. The two would become key leaders in founding SWAPO, and Pohamba served several positions across various ministries during Nujoma’s presidency. It was even a running joke in Namibia that the two men looked alike – that is, until Pohamba shaved off his beard.
After his election in 2005, Pohamba made an unprecedented move by appointing five women to his cabinet. He also initiated drastic changes in the structure of the governmental ministry system, aimed at targeting corruption, inefficiency and redundancies.
Pohamba’s foundation, the Hifikepunye Pohamba Foundation, aims to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education opportunities. Pohamba plans to use the money from the African Leadership Prize – $5 million over the course of 10 years, followed by $200,000 a year for life – to advance these objectives.