The “forgotten genocide”

Namibia/Germany: Vekuii Rukoro’s fight for true genocide reparations dies out with him

By Achraf Tijani

Posted on June 29, 2021 11:21

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-06-28T14-15-30.503Z Attorney Kenneth McCallion (left) and Herero Chief Vekuii Rukoro (right) on 16 March 2017, in New York © DON EMMERT/AFP
Attorney Kenneth McCallion (left) and Herero Chief Vekuii Rukoro (right) on 16 March 2017, in New York © DON EMMERT/AFP

Obtaining true reparations for the genocide that Germany committed in Namibia was Vekuii Rukoro’s fight of a lifetime. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see his efforts bear fruit as died on 18 June.

$580m per year, for 40 years. This is the amount for reparations that Vekuii Rukoro, the Herero community’s charismatic leader, claimed from Berlin for the genocide that the German empire had committed in Namibia between 1904 and 1908.

Long described as the ‘forgotten genocide’, the Herero and Nama genocide was considered as the first of the 20th century. According to historians, it claimed the lives of 70,000 people: 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama. In 1985, the ‘Whitaker Report’ was presented before the UN. It established that between 1904 and 1908, 80% of the Herero and 50% of the Nama were exterminated by Germans.

Rukoro was elected supreme chief of the Ova Herero in 2014. Before dying from Covid-19 on 18 June at the age of 66, he had taken his fight to the International Court of Justice. His activism led to his exclusion from discussions between the Namibian and German governments, which eventually led to Germany recognising, as early as 2015, its role in the genocide.

More recently, on 28 May, the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, requested for ‘forgiveness’ from Namibia. “We will now officially call these events what they were from today’s perspective: a genocide,” he said. “In light of Germany’s historical and moral responsibility, we will ask Namibia and the descendants of the victims for forgiveness.”

“Phenomenal insult”

In addition to this symbolic apology, Germany has also committed to providing €1bn in aid, over a period of 30 years. The german minister however hastened to clarify that this sum does not in any way correspond to “reparations.”

Those at the Werderscher Markt, the headquarters of the German foreign ministry, have argued that the €800m in development aid that has been paid to Namibia since its independence in 1990 – more than that allocated to other countries in the region – is proof that Windhoek is receiving ‘special attention’. For its part, Berlin feels that the €1.1bn allocated to developing the country’s infrastructure is more than enough.

Rukoro did not hide his anger the day after the German authorities made this statement. According to the Herero leader, if Germany really wanted to accept full responsibility for its role in the genocide, then it would have pledged to “pay real reparations.” In 2016, the activist had denounced these negotiations as a mere “show” and described the sums mentioned as a “phenomenal insult”, compared to the “€75bn in pensions and social benefits that were paid to Jews.”

The German president’s visit

A year later, he added his signature to a class-action suit against Germany for genocide reparations and it was filed in the American court system, which authorises the prosecution of genocide suspects outside the US. However, after two years of proceedings, the New York judge rejected the request made by the Herero and Nama associations. Rukoro had also initiated proceedings before the UN, relying on the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Right to the end Rukoro fought to obtain real reparations for the men, women and children who had been methodically exterminated by German General Lothar Von Trotha, in what was known then as ‘Germany in South West Africa’. The order at the time was that “any Herero with or without a weapon, with or without livestock, must be shot.” This was sadly carried out to the letter, with its fair share of mass killings and concentration camps. Human skulls were even sent to Germany for ‘studies’ that were intended to fuel the then widespread racial theories in Europe. The bones were only returned in 2019, the year chosen by former secretary of state for foreign affairs Michelle Müntefering, along with the request for “forgiveness from the bottom of her heart.”

According to Namibia’s President Hage Geingob, the agreement reached with Germany in Windhoek is a “first step in the right direction.” However, Esther Utjiua Muinjangue, president of the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation, termed Berlin’s stance on the issue as “shocking.”

The pact that has just been concluded, and which must still be signed by the two governments and ratified by the two parliaments to become effective, will lead to to an official visit by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Namibia. It is expected that he will make a solemn apology on behalf of the German people. However, Rukoro had planned to boycott this speech.

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