The Namibian Army Is Struggling to Keep Its Lights On
And feed its soldiers — given an ongoing economic crisis
Namibia’s small army is in trouble. In February 2018, the army sent at least 1,000 of its soldiers home, with the initial reason given that the government had run out of money to feed them and to pay for the water and electricity for seven military bases. On Feb. 20, the government insisted with different phrasing that the decision was not because of a lack of food, but as a cost-cutting measure “to mitigate the current financial situation,” Namibian Defense Minsiter Penda ya Ndakolo said.
The financial situation, to put it simply, is severe. Mismanagement and larger economic forces have rattled the country. The Namibian economy is heavily dependent on diamonds and uranium which have suffered, along with agriculture in a country — the driest in Subsaharan Africa — experiencing a persistent drought that is the worst in decades.
Overfishing has eviscerated Namibian stocks, and the overall economic crunch has even delayed homicide investigations because police lack the funds to analyze DNA. The government also recently grounded Pres. Hage Geingob’s official jet.
The Namibian military is small, with an army of around 9,000 soldiers equipped with a few dozen largely Soviet-era tanks, armored vehicles and artillery pieces, although reliability varies. Its fighting navy consists of a few corvettes and patrol vessels — including two recent ex-Chinese patrol ships, renamed the NS Daures and Brukkaros, delivered in 2017.
Its air-to-air fighter force includes only six F-7NM fighters — a Chinese version of the MiG-21. The air force also has two FT-7NH trainers. The Namibian air force’s 12 K-8 trainers and two Mi-25 helicopter gunships are only suitable for attacking targets on the ground. It’s unclear if all are airworthy.
While meager in absolute terms, Namibian defense spending has been high in relative terms — nearly five percent of GDP — compared to the country’s neighbors, and Namibia’s main threats have traditionally been internal such as the 1994-1999 conflict with secessionists in the Caprivi Strip.
“Fortunately, Namibia’s surrounding neighbors are friendly, making any need for immediate military action to defend its territory from invasion by a foreign nation unlikely,” O.E. Watch, the newsletter of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office noted with some concern at Namibia’s economic crisis.
The Namibian military has meanwhile come under criticism in the local press for questionable funding decisions. As the army sent its soldiers home, it bought a $4 million farm from a German businessman with close ties to former president Sam Nujoma. Namibia’s current land reform minister is Nujoma’s son. The farm is to be turned into a military base and weapons testing ground for the air force.
However, a bit of good news is that Namibia’s economy probably will not get any worse, with an economy recovery expected begin this year — thanks in part to a new, Chinese-owned uranium mine.