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Frontline: Ngoma, Namibia - A century on, a cartological freak rises in revolt

THE CAPRIVI Strip is one of those bits of the map that seem to be asking for trouble. A corridor of Namibian territory protruding more than 400km into Zambia, Botswana and Angola, this cartological freak was spawned in the 19th-century Scramble for Africa, when European colonial powers meeting in Berlin swapped vast territories as if they were football cards.

The Germans, with their colony of South West Africa (now Namibia) were desperate for access to the Zambezi river, which they believed would become the Rhine of Africa. The fact that the unnavigable Victoria Falls were downstream of their proposed access point did not deter them.

The British, on the other hand, wanted the Germans to drop their claim to sovereignty over the east African spice islands of Zanzibar, so London agreed to give the Kaiser a strip of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), plus the North Sea island of Heligoland.

Hopes for a great white empire along the Zambezi proved to be over-optimistic, however, and the people of the Caprivi were left more or less alone until the height of the Cold War.South Africa used the Caprivi for a string of forward bases for its war against Soviet-backed Angola, but Namibian independence in 1990, followed by the death of apartheid in 1994, brought peace to the area.

Until last week, when an obscure group of separatist guerrillas suddenly emerged from the bush and attacked the regional capital of Katima Mulilo, seizing the airstrip and radio station and fighting a pitched battle with Namibian forces. At least eight soldiers and police and five rebels died, plus an unknown number of civilians, and fighting continued for at least another day before the rebels fled back into the bush.

Once the firing ceased, police and soldiers began rounding up anybody suspected of sympathising with the rebels. More than 30 foreign aid workers, mostly British VSO volunteers and US Peace Corps workers, were evacuated before the borders were shut. Their embassies are debating whether they can return.

The group claiming responsibility for the attack is the Caprivian Liberation Army, a shadowy organisation led by the former opposition leader Mishake Muyongo, 59.

A deputy leader of the South West African People's Organisation (Swapo) during the struggle for freedom from South Africa, Muyongo was eventually expelled from theparty for advocating independence for the Caprivi peoples. He became leader of the South African-backed opposition party, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, after Swapo won the 1989 independence elections, but was sacked by his party last year.

Speaking from exile in Denmark, Muyongo told South African radio that the people of Caprivi were being denied their fair share of Namibia's resources. "We want to be Caprivians on our own. We don't want to be an appendix of Namibia. We have suffered a lot for the nine years of Namibia's independence," he said.

The first sign that Muyongo was building a private army came in August last year, when nearly 100 armed men fled into Botswana after their training camp was detected by the Namibian government. They were followed by Muyongo and the chief of his Mafwe tribe, and then by at least 2,000 Caprivian civilians.

No deaths were reported during the unrest, however, and many of the civilian refugees have been returning home under UN protection and with the promise of safe conduct by the government. Last Monday's attack seems to have caught the security forces completely by surprise.

There is speculation that activists loyal to Muyongo may have been aided by factions embroiled in the interlinked conflicts in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Angolan rebel group Unita is a prime suspect. An even more likely source of support for the Caprivian rebels is in Zambia, where tribes related to the Caprivians have historically sought autonomy for the upper Zambezi valley.

In the 19th century their kings concluded a sovereign treaty with the British empire and there was deep resentment when they had to accept Zambian sovereignty upon independence in the 1960s.