Senior New Era journalist Alvine Kapitako yesterday sat down with outgoing United States of America Ambassador to Namibia Thomas Daughton, who has been in the country since 2014 to discuss a wide range of issues related to his tenure here. Below is an extract from that interview.
NE: Please share with us your achievements as US ambassador to Namibia?
TD: I do think that the US-Namibia official relationship at the diplomatic level has improved during the time that I have been here. I don’t really claim credit for that. I give more credit to President Geingob and to his signaling at the very beginning of his term after he was sworn in that he thought that the attitude that was prevalent in the era amongst some of the older Swapo activists that the US was on the wrong side of the liberation struggle and that the United States delayed Namibian independence by ten years and that sort of thing.
The president said it pretty clearly at the very beginning that he thought it was time to move on from that. We have been able to take advantage of the opening up here that has resulted from, and that’s one thing that I regard as an achievement because I’ve been benefiting from it long enough that I now think we’ve managed to establish a new kind of working relationship from what some of my predecessors had. I tend to think of that when I think about what I accomplished in terms of the diplomatic relationships and making it better – I think I’ve been able to contribute to that.
But then there are a lot of specifics… As you know, I’ve spend a lot of time focusing on our HIV/AIDS or PEPFAR programming, because it is the largest part of what we do here both in dollar terms and in people terms; that is to say both the number of people who work for the embassy, who are directly involved in it, and also the number of Namibians it affects. It’s a programme that has a direct impact. There are a 150,000 plus people who are on antiretroviral here, so they have benefitted directly from it and there are tens of thousands of people that get tested for HIV and for TB and get treated for HIV and TB every year and the US is directly involved in that.
That was going on when I got here obviously, but in the time that I have been here we have gone through an effort to try to refocus what the US is doing in the health sphere here in order to increase its impact. And what that has meant in practice is there has been closer and closer collaboration with the Ministry of Health. What the United States does is fill the gaps that the Ministry is unable to fill itself, but I think as we have managed to focus and refine what we’re doing. That’s even more true now than it was three years ago.
NE: And what challenges (related to your work) did you encounter during your tenure as ambassador?
TD: The challenges are the same that you encounter at a lot of places. There are physical challenges; this is a big country (laughs). It’s not easy to get around necessarily. There are challenges in this country, because the population is as small as it is there are human challenges that stem from the fact that while there is always at least one or two people (Namibians), who are experts in whatever the area may be, sometimes there are only one or two.
And if the one or two are on vacation then it makes it harder to get things done at the pace that you might want to get it done. We’ve had some internal challenges within the embassy that had to do with salaries and being able to attract good people to our staff (Namibians), but luckily we were able to address those in my first year and now we have quite a strong local staff that is pretty committed to what we’re doing.
NE: Please talk about the trade relations between Namibia and the US?
TD: I think that is an effort as I look at what we’ve done to try to improve or strengthen bilateral commercial relationship. That’s clearly a longer-term effort and I think that is something that my successor will probably work on even more than I did. But, our trade traditionally has been confined to the things that flow in the direction of the US from Namibia, and are for the most part things that come out of the ground. Gold, uranium, zinc, that kind of thing, and the things that flow back are things like specialised equipment, including equipment to dig some of that stuff out of the ground. But also oddly enough refined fuels, a lot of the refined fuels like aircraft fuel that Namibia purchases.
Their refineries are in the United States so technically they are buying it from the United States, even if the oil for it came from somewhere else. Traditionally that’s the bulk of our bilateral trade. We’ve been looking for ways to try to expand that a bit. I have been particularly interested in trying to attract US investment here in the energy sector in power production and that’s been a slower process than I’d expected. If I’d been able to choose I would have want it to happen quickly. But we have brought several delegations here and we’ve sent at least one delegation of people in the Namibian power sector to the United States. That’s something that I think with time will continue to develop, but it’s still very much in the development phase.
NE: What is the status of Namibia exporting beef to U.S?
TD: One of the things that I do view as an achievement in my time here is that we got beef equivalency -as they call it under the US department of Agriculture – certified Namibian beef for sale in the United States, making it the only country in Africa that has qualified for that. That was a process that took more than a dozen years, so it was really something of an accomplishment to get it finished. That said, unfortunately since the announcement was made not a single Namibian steak has been sold in the US yet.
That’s more because from this side they are trying to find a market, and the United States is an enormous country; it has a population of well over 300 million and in a way – and I’ve talked with the Namibian ambassador in Washington about this on a number of occasions – they have to be a little bit careful about who they look for, because it could be that they end up with a market that has too much demand for them to be able to fill it.
There have been a number of exchanges back and forth; there have been talks with potential buyers in the United States, and I do think it will happen eventually, but it hasn’t happened yet. In terms of the requirements there is still one outstanding question with respect to labeling, but as soon as they find a buyer that should be resolved, because they really do need to have a buyer in order to complete agreement on what the labeling will look like and what information it will contain. So there aren’t really any mechanical obstacles.
NE: What was your embassy’s role in the quarrel between Namibia, USA and the UN over North Korea projects here?
TD: There are two separate tracks of sanctions in respect to North Korea. The international sanctions are imposed by the UN Security Council, and those have been expanding. The Security Council keeps adding to them every time the North Korea blows up a test bomb or fires another missile, the Security Council meets and they add additional sanctions. Every member of the United Nations has been put in the position of trying to keep up with these sanctions and do the things that are required. And the Namibian government for well over a year now has been stating publicly that its intention was to meet all of these requirements under the UN Security Council sanctions.
Separately, we have domestic legislation that imposes sanctions on a variety of issues or countries with respect to nuclear non-proliferation and there is a whole series of them. There is legislation that applies directly to North Korea and under that legislation the US government periodically updates its own list of entities and individuals that are sanctioned under our legislation. These lists come out and they get updated – these days every month or two. But in August when the list was updated it included a North Korean individual, who was living here and the Namibian subsidiary of the North Korean company and a Chinese company that the US believed was doing business on behalf of the North Korean company.
The whole goal here is to try to cut off the flow of money to the North Korean government, so that it doesn’t have money to continue to develop its weapons. And, because there’s sanctions [in place] since 2006 from the UN, they’ve been getting stricter and stricter and the North Koreans have been finding ways around them. And one of the ways that they have been using to generate money for their weapons programme is [by undertaking] commercial activities overseas.
There’s been a lot of it in Africa that has taken the form of contracting work (construction) where they’ll come in build buildings like some kind of monuments… They get paid for it because they’ve done work. That’s happened here repeatedly. There are a number of structures here that have been constructed by North Korean firms. And the bulk of the money they earn from that goes straight back to the government and is routed to its weapons programme.
Photos by Emmency Nuukala