By Owei Lakemfa
DESCENDANTS of the Herero and Nama people of Namibia on Thursday May 16, 2017 stepped into an American District Court in Manhattan. It was the first time in 109 years that the world would, through their descendants, hear the voices of over 100,000 Africans massacred in their ancestral home by German colonialists who operated on the basis that the Africans they annihilated were animals and not human beings.
Representatives of the victims including the Association of the Ovaherero and Ovambanderu Genocide in the USA, Vekuii Rukoro, the paramount Chief of the Herero and his Nama counterpart, David Frederick, are in the American Court under The Alien Tort Statute, ATS, of 1789 which allows non-Americans to make claims in court for torts committed in violation of international law. They want the court to declare the German atrocities as genocide to which they are entitled to reparations. They also want to be part of the on-going negotiations on the genocide between Germany and the inheritor Republic of Namibia.
Germany of course does not accept it should pay reparations. Its argument made times over is that its foreign aid to Namibia since its independence in 1990 which it claims benefits all Namibians, is enough compensation. As is often the case, perpetuators often forget, or want to forget their atrocities, but how can the victims forget when the wounds are so fresh and even the parts that heal have visible scars.
This is a fundamental case in which humanity is also on trial; the choice is either to side with the victims or the perpetrators of genocide. It may have implications for the genocide against the Congolese by the Belgians, the Algerians by the French, the Aborigines by the English, the indigenous Indians by the Americans, the Kenyans by the British and the Latin Americans by the Spanish.
Humanity, or more precisely, the non-colonised world, looked away while pre-Nazi Germany committed unimaginable atrocities against human beings killed for the colour of their skins and in order to steal their land and cattle.
It was the first case of genocide in the 20th Century when the Herero and Namas were deliberately targeted for extermination. Because humanity tolerated these massacres by Germany under Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Ottoman Empire seven years later, began a worse genocide against Armenians using the German methods introduced in Namibia which included forcing unarmed populations especially women and children into deserts to die of thirst and starvation. By the time this genocide ended in 1923, 1.5 million Armenians had been exterminated. In the decade and half following the Armenian Genocide, there were massacres including those by the fascist General Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War. This was the dress rehearsal of the Second World War in which far worse atrocities were carried out and human beings in their tens of millions, sent to early graves. The Soviet Union alone, is estimated to have lost about 25 million souls.
The failure of the so called civilised world to call Germany to order over the Namibian Genocide, to call Turkey to order over the Armenian Genocide and support the Spanish people over the onslaught of the fascists, led to a far worse genocide; the attempt by Nazi Germany to wipe out the Jews. The genocide methods later used by the Hitler regime including performing human experiments to show that the victims are not human beings, had first been experimented in Namibia. For the failure to stand against evil in Namibia, humanity paid far higher prices; over 100,000 exterminated in Namibia, 1.5 million in Armenia, and millions of Jews in Europe.
The setting of the Namibian Genocide began at the November 1884 to February, 1885 Berlin Conference when then European powers negotiated how to steal and carve up Africa which they regarded as a war booty to be shared. The countries that sat at the table of looters were Britain, France, Germany, United States, Denmark, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Russia and Sweden.
With the agreed formula of sharing Africa, Germans rolled into Namibia as they did into countries like Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Togo. They also seized parts of modern Nigeria, Gabon, Chad, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic. The Germans thought Namibia a haven they could settle; backed by their home government from 1885 to 1903, they seized the peoples lands and cattle, took the men as forced labour and carried out mass rape of the girls and women.
The Herero led by Samuel Maharero and the Nama, and by Hendrick Witbooi on January 12, 1904 began an armed resistance in which an estimated 123 to 150 German settlers were killed. For the combat, Maharero had issued a manifesto forbidding his fighters from killing the English, Boers, women and children.
Emperor Wilhelm responded by sending 14,000 German troops. On May 3, 1904, he appointed an infamous sadist, Lieutenant General Lothar Von Trotha as the Commander-in-Chief of the German South West Africa Command. Trotha had four years before – as the Brigade Commander of the German East Asian Expedition Corps – shown exceptional brutality while assisting to crush the 1900 Chinese Boxers Revolution.
After its victory at the Battle of Waterberg; the German Army began the genocide in which they wiped out 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero people they met. The people were tortured, and executed en-mass, starved to death and the populace pushed at gun point into the Kalahari Desert with no food or water while the Germans had poisoned waterholes 240 kilometres into the desert. They also set up concentration camps like they later did for the Jews in Europe. Many of the Herero met their end at the Shark Island concentration camp in Luderitz, Namibia.
The Germans also used the Africans for human experiments and later transported 3,000 of the skulls used in the experiments to Germany for further studies. Part of the goal was to demonstrate scientifically that Africans are not human beings. These human experiments were later conducted on the Jews to demonstrate that they are subhuman and inferior to Germans.
Today, the Namibian society remains fractured as the descendants of the German settlers, and other latter day European settlers still hold most of the land. With reparation, the Herero and Nama descendants hope to buy back the land of their ancestors.
Humanity failed Namibians when the might of the German military descended on them. Today, while the Holocaust is widely marked with tons of books and lots of movies, the Namibian Genocide is generally ignored. The court case is an opportunity for us all to insist on justice for these victims of genocide.