UNTAG in Namibia : An Overview

UNTAG Journal | Sep 1, 1989

1 April 1989 was a red-letter day in Namibia’s strife-tom and troubled recent history. On that day the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) commenced its operations in the country to assist its transition freedom independence — to restore to the Namibian people their freedom and their dreams, after over a century of colonial rule. While there were numerous scenes of rejoicing as the UN Flag was raised in Windhoek and elsewhere, the euphoria was short-lived. In the north-west in Ovamboland, SADF and SWATF troops and SWAPOL men got embroiled in a bitter struggle with PLAN fighters, the combat wing of SWAPO, who had infiltrated across the boundary with Angola. Though the situation was quickly brought under control, due mainly to statesmanship on all sides, the incursion served notice that the transition was unlikely to be absolutely smooth and trouble free and that UNTAG had a herculean task before it.

UNTAG is a unique mission. Besides being the largest United Nations operation since the Congo, it is the first time that the UN has undertaken to supervise and ensure a free and fair election for a people to exercise their long-delayed right to self-determination and independence, while simultaneously maintaining a large peacekeeping force to monitor the cease-fire and for fulfilling other duties. Dedication, sincerity and impartiality are the watchwords for the UNTAG operation to succeed. These attributes have been found in abundance among the thousands of women and men from all parts of the world who are members of this historic mission. The UNTAG operation is proceeding smoothly and surely towards securing for Namibia its rightful place among the comity of nations.


In Sept 1978, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 435 which gave a mandate to the UN Secretary General to establish UNTAG to assist his Special Representative for Namibia to oversee the early independence of Namibia through free and fair elections under UN supervision and control. However, it took ten years of skilful diplomacy to overcome the various outstanding problems before a stage could be reached to enable the implementation of Resolution 435. On 22 Dec 1988, a tripartite agreement, known as the Protocol of Brazzaville, was signed at the UN Headquarters in New York between Angola, Cuba and South Africa, committing the signatory nations to a series of measures necessary to achieve peace in the region. This also enabled the establishment of UNTAG. Simultaneously, another agreement was signed between Angola and Cuba on the phased and progressive withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. The concerned parties recommended to the Secretary General that 1 April 1989 be set as the date for the commencement of UNTAG operations in Namibia.

On 16 Jan 1989, the UN Security Council affirmed (by Resolution 629) 1 Apr 1989 as the date on which the implementation of Resolution 435 would begin and asked the Secretary-General to re-examine the requirements necessary to ensure the early independence of Namibia. On 16 Feb 1989, the Security Council adopted Resolution 632 which called for the implementation of Resolution 435 in its original and definitive form. This enabled the Secretary General to set up UNTAG operations in Namibia and to proceed with the UN independence plan.

On 28 Feb 1989, the Transitional Government of National Unity, which had not been recognised by the United Nations, was dissolved and Mr Louis Pienaar, the Administrator General appointed by South Africa, took over all governmental functions. In the first week of Mar 1989, advance elements of the military component of UNTAG began arriving in Namibia and were progressively followed by army units and military observers from various countries as also UNTAG’s civilian staff. On 1 April 89, Mr Martti Ahtisaari, the Special Representative of the Secretary General, arrived to take up his office in Namibia.

The UNTAG Operation

The main function of UNTAG is to enable the Secretary General’s Special Representative to oversee free and fair elections in Namibia through universal adult franchise by secret ballot, to elect a Constituent Assembly. The elections are to be conducted by the South African appointed Administrator General under UNTAG supervision and control. The Constituent Assembly will then draw up a constitution for an independent Namibia. Both the Special Representative and the Administrator General will remain in Namibia until independence.

In terms of Resolution 435, a cease-fire was to come into effect on 1 Apr 1989 and the various opposing forces were to be confined to their bases. In the case of the SADF, troops were to be progressively withdrawn until no more than 1500 remained in two bases in Grootfontein and Oshivello in the north.

Not only the elections themselves, but also all aspects of the political process that precedes them such as the registration of voters and campaigning by parties, must be free and fair. The Special Representative will ensure this through a wide range of functions. All discriminatory laws and practices will be repealed; political prisoners held by both sides will be released; Namibian refugees in Angola, Botswana, Zambia and other places will be permitted to return freely to Namibia and intimidation of the local population will be prevented. All this is to be done to the satisfaction of the Special Representative against a time-table which schedules elections for the first week of Nov 1989. Both UNTAG, under the Special Representative, and the Administrator General have to operate with total impartiality.

UNTAG is responsible to and under the control of the UN Security Council to which it reports on operational,

political and administrative matters through the Secretary General. UNTAG consists of the following six main components: –

  • The Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the UN.
  • The Force Commander and the military component consisting of up to 4650 troops and military observers. (The strength can be increased to 7500 troops at short notice, if necessary.)
  • The Election Unit of approximately 1000 members at its maximum strength.
  • The Police Adviser and his staff consisting at present of 1000 Police Monitors.
  • Staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
  • The Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and his staff.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG)

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General heads UNTAG operations in Namibia. He exercises direct command over both the civil and military components of UNTAG. His Headquarters is in Troskei Building in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. His task is to closely cooperate with the Administrator General of Namibia for the successful implementation of Resolution 435 in letter and spirit and to oversee and coordinate activities of UNTAG, including its more than 40 regional and district centres throughout the territory. Legal and information services are also provided by the SRSG’s office. On 15 Jun 89, the UN Secretary-General appointed Mr Legwaila Joseph Legwaila of B otswana as the Deputy Special Representative to assist the Special Representative in his duties. Mr Cedric Thomberry from Ireland is the Director of the Office of the Special Representative.

Military Component

The Force Commander is Lieutenant General Dewan Prem Chand of India — a veteran of many UN missions and the senior-most UN soldier in the world. The Force Headquarters at Windhoek has a staff of approximately 100.

The major elements of the force are three infantry battalions, one each from Finland, Kenya and Malaysia. Each battalion has a strength of approximately 900. Their major tasks are to patrol and monitor the borders, prevent infiltration, and to guard the arms and ammunition of the SWATF and the military installations vacated by the withdrawing SADF and the demobilised SWATF. The total strength of the engineers (from Australia), signals communications (from the United Kingdom) and logistics support units (from Canada, Denmark, Italy, Poland, Spain and Switzerland) is approximately 1400.

There are 299 military observers from 14 countries. Their tasks are perhaps the most diverse and challenging but also the most interesting. The major tasks of military observers are as follows: –

  • Monitor the cease-fire between the warring parties.
  • Supervision of the restriction of SADF personnel to their bases till 24 Jun 89.
  • Monitor the withdrawal of SADF units to South Africa by 24 Jun 89, after which only 1500 troops may remain behind at Grootfontein and Oshivello, two military bases in the north.
  • Monitor the demobilisation of all units of the SWATF and the dismantling of their command structure. Ensure the safekeeping of all weapons and ammunition of these forces in conjunction with the UN infantry battalions.
  • Supervise the demobilisation of all citizen force units and commandos such as Koevoet to ensure that intimidation of all types is prevented.
  • Ensure the restriction of troops of PLAN, the military wing of SWAPO, to certain designated bases in Zambia and north of the 16th Parallel in Angola.
  • Closely observe the activities of SADF army personnel who may have civil duties, such as doctors and medics, during the independence process.
  • Provision of escorts to convoys of troops and military vehicles during their movement on Namibian roads, whether for withdrawing to South Africa or for administrative purposes.

By 30 Jun 89, demobilisation of the SWATF had been completed as scheduled and SADF units had withdrawn from Namibia, leaving a total of 1500 troops of Merlyn Forces (including logistics personnel) in two bases at Grootfontein and Oshivello. Any movement out of these two bases is permitted only for administrative purposes and is strictly regulated. Convoys are escorted by military observers — even for sports fixtures! The troops are not allowed to visit the town except to go to church. The infantry battalions are engaged on routine patrolling and other tasks and keep themselves in a constant state of operational readiness. A great deal of humanitarian aid has been rendered to the local population. The continued presence of the UNTAG Military Force is a constant source of strength for the Namibian people.

UNTAG Election Unit

With the SADF having withdrawn to South Africa, the SWATF having been de-mobilised as planned and the PLAN fighters of SWAPO continuing to be confined to their bases north of the 16th Parallel in Angola, the key thrust of UNT AG operations in Namibia focussed in July and August 1989 on the registration of voters for the November elections. While the actual responsibility for the registration of voters is that of the Administrator General of Namibia, the UN Election Unit has provided UN officials to accompany each registration team to supervise and effectively control the registration process.

Namibia has been divided into 23 Electoral Districts. For the registration of voters, provision has been made for 36 permanent registration centres in urban areas, 33 temporary registration centres, also located in urban areas and 110 mobile registration teams covering approximately 2,200 points in the rural areas. Out of a staff of about 250 personnel recruited from the United Nations Headquarters, 224 officials have been provided to the registration teams for supervisory work.

The presence of UN officials, along with duty patrols of UNTAG Police Monitors, has served to reassure the local population that they can come forward to register them-selves without fear of reprisals or any adverse repercussions. At the time of going to press, approximately 90percent of the population had been registered as voters. The registration process is expected to be completed by 15 Sept 89.

For the elections scheduled for November 89, an additional 800 election supervisors are expected to be deployed at various election centres and polling booths to ensure a free and fair election. They will arrive from a large number of member countries of the United Nations.

The Director of the UNTAG Electoral Division is Mr Hisham Omayad from Ghana.

UNTAG Civil Police

In order to assist the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in satisfying himself that the Administrator General of Namibia ensures the good conduct of the SWAPOL (South West Africa Police) forces throughout the transition period, UNTAG has a component of civil police monitors. Commisioner Steven Fanning from Ireland is the Police Adviser to the Special Representative. While initially, provision had been made for the deployment of 500 Police Monitors, it was soon realized that this number would be inadequate to perform the multifarious monitoring tasks laid down for them. The total authorised strength has since been raised to 1,000 and 904 Police Monitors from 23 countries are now stationed in Namibia. By end-August 89, then strength is expected to reach the planned figure of 1,000.

The UN Civilian Police (CIVPOL) has established District Headquarters Windhoek , Gobabis and Keetmapshoop, controlled by Coordinator Centre and south and Oshakati, Otjiwarongo and Rundu, controlled by Coordination North. A total of 39 CIVP stations have been established to cover most SWAPOL Stations each District Headquarters controls an average of five to seven CIVPOL stations with Oshakati controlling 12, The maximum number.
The major duties of UNTAG Police Monitors are as follows: –

  • To assist the Special Representative in ensuring that the Administrator General takes necessary action to ensure the suitability of SWAISOL personnel for continued employment during the transition period.
  • To accompany ‘SWAPO personnel in the discharge of their duties whenever appropriate.
  • To assist the Special Representative in taking steps to ensure that there is no possibility of intimidation of the local population or interference with the electoral process from any quarter.
  • To exercise a general overview in regard to the maintenance of law and order in Namibia.

Most UNTAG CIVPOL Stations are manned 24 hours a day and have been instrumental in satisfactorily resolving the problems and complaints of people who have come to them for help their very presence all over Namibia is reassuring for the local population.

Repatriation of Refugees

Most of the 41,000 registered Namibian refugees are expected to return home, mainly from Angola, Botswana and Zambia, under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as part of the Namibian Independence Plan. The UNHCR has established repatriation points in the countries offering asylum to the refugees. From these points, the refugees are being flown into three entry points at Windhoek, Grootfontein and Ondangwa (near the Angolan border). Most refugees have opted to travel by air. The refugees travelling by road from southern Angola are entering mainly through the frontier town of Oshikango. The refugees are being provided temporary accommodation in reception centres. They have been given clearly defined social and political rights and are free to travel and seek employment anywhere in Namibia. They are being provided with basic food supplies and other essential items such as bedding and cooking utensils and will continue to receive assistance from UNHCR, for at least six months after their arrival. Although the main effort for this mam-moth operation is that of the UNHCR, assistance is being provided by other UN agencies such as UNICEF UNESCO and WFP and by voluntary agencies such as the Council of Churches in Namibia, the Lutheran World Federation and the Belgian section of Medecins sans frontiers. The UNHCR has received widespread financial support from the international community for its operation. Until 7 Sept 1989, a total number of 39,744 refugees had returned to Namibia.
Mr Nicholas Bwakira from Burundi is the UNHCR Charge de Mission for UNTAG in Namibia.

Administrative staff

A vast operation like that of UNTAG in Namibia requires massive administrative back-up to ensure that it runs like a smooth, well-oiled machine. Mr Abdou Ciss from Senegal, the Director of Administration and his staff have to work hard to provide the necessary administrative support.

At the UNTAG Headquarters in Windhoek, the administration consists of the Communications, EDP Support, Finance, General Services, Personnel, Procurement and Transport branches. The UNTAG administration also has offices in various district centres all over Namibia to provide ancillary support to personnel of the different divisions operating in or from those centres.

No United Nations operation, and certainly not one with the magnitude and diverse responsibilities of UNTAG, can succeed without close coordination and cooperation between all major UN agencies. In Namibia representatives of UNDP, UNICEF, WFP and WHO are working hand in glove with the different divisions of UNTAG, towards the overall goal of smooth and effective implementation of Resolution 435.

The midway stage has been reached on the countdown to the elections. Over 6,000 women and men constituting the UNTAG Task Force, have laboured hard over the months, through the rains and the winter cold; in the malarial bush of Ovamboland and the Caprivi; in the shimmering sands of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts and in the numerous small towns and villages dotting the bleak landscape of rural Namibia; towards the common goal of ensuring free and fair elections. They have earned the respect of the vast majority of the people with their dedication and sincerity and their understanding of the many problems of Namibia. Above all, they have cared deeply for the Namibian people. They will strive even harder in the months to come to ensure that Namibian independence at last becomes a reality.