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Troubled waters: whatever happened to caprivi? Mike Nyendwa, recently in Namibia and Caprivi, provides an indepth look at the difficulties that the Caprivi Strip poses to Namibia, Zambia and even the leaders of Caprivi itself. (Feature/Namibia).

Many readers of New African may have wondered what has become of the little-reported region of Caprivi in the far northeast of Namibia following the attack on government installations in the main town of Katima Mulilo by members of the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA) on 2 August 1999.

President Sam Nujoma's government accused Mishake Muyongo, leader of the United Democratic Party (UDP) of being behind the attack. The UDP was formed in 1985 as the result of a merger between the Caprivi African National Union (CANU), an organisation originally formed in 1964, and the Caprivi Alliance Parry.

Muyongo is also cousin to Chief Boniface Bebi Mamili of the Mafwe people whose home is Linyanti, the old Caprivi capital, which is also the tribal centre of the Mafwe people, and which the early European explorers referred to as Mamili's town or village.

Both were actively involved in the struggle for independence for Caprivi, whose people are largely Lozi and English-speaking, unlike most of the rest of Namibia, an indication of its different history.

Caprivi was named after Count Georg Leo von Caprivi who was the imperial chancellor of Germany from 1890 to 1894, and therefore, in this capacity, was responsible for the conclusion of the Helio-goland-Zanzibar Treaty, as a component of which Caprivi was carved out of Bechuanaland and handed to Germany as an appendage to South West Africa which became Namibia on independence in 1990.


The Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA), portrayed as the military wing of the UDP, is, according to Muyongo, anything but dead, despite the fact that over 130 of its members are languishing in jail at Grootfontein in Northern Namibia whilst an estimated 1,700 Caprivian refugees eke out an existence in a camp at Dukwe in Botswana.

Muyongo and Chief Mamili meanwhile live in exile as refugees in Denmark. They insist that Caprivi is entitled to its independence because history shows that it has never had anything to do with the rest of Namibia until Namibian independence in 1990. And also because Caprivi's political, economic and socio-cultural history has been that of the Lozi people of Barotseland, now part of Western Zambia, and not that of the Ovambo or other groups in Namibia today. Nevertheless, both point our that the independence struggle for Caprivi is not to become an appendage of Zambia or a greater Lozi kingdom as Caprivi once was.

They say successive colonial and post-colonial governments based in Windhoek and South Africa have neglected Caprivi in favour of other regions of Namibia, contributing to Caprivians having the lowest level of income per capita in the country.

On the question of viability, Muyongo and the Chief reckon that Caprivi can be self-sufficient in food and again produce surpluses to trade with other neighbouring regions as it did in pre-colonial times.

They also point to the hitherto untapped (except by Europeans) tourist potential and other resources in the territory.

The chequered history

The Caprivi Strip (or just Caprivi as many locals now know it), is an unusual sounding name for a piece of Africa, but then Caprivi's history is no run of the mill history either.

Sometimes described as the Panhandle of Namibia, Caprivi is a narrow corridor of land that extends from Longitude 21 degree east to the confluence of the Chobe (variously known as the Linyanti or Cuando) and Zambezi Rivers, a distance west to east of some 440km.

This corridor, no more than 45 km across in the west, opens our in East Caprivi to include the land enclosed by the fork of the Chobe (or Linyanti) and Zambezi Rivers with a maximum distance north to south of about 100km.

Caprivi is home to three major rivers, namely the Okavango, Chobe and Zambezi and much of the land is subject to periodical flooding although much less than in ancient times.

Initially demarcated in 1890 by the British to provide Germany with a link from its new colonial territory of South West Africa to the Zambezi, in the forlorn hope of creating a communications link to the Indian Ocean to link up with other German territories, Caprivi was left virtually unattended by the Germans up to 1908 and from then until their expulsion in 1914, by a couple of low-ranking officers from the Kolonial Korps.

This was partly due to the fact that Germany's hoped-for eastern access to the Indian Ocean was virtually impossible because of the existence of the Victoria Falls and other natural obstacles. It was also due to the belief that no exploitable and extractable natural resources existed.

The neglect of Caprivi was also because access to the territory was hampered by large expanses of semi-desert between Windhoek and the western extremity of Caprivi and the fact that a large portion of Caprivi is flooded or very swampy for many months of the year.

The perception that, unlike the rest of Namibia, Caprivi was a very unhealthy place for Europeans to live, also played a part. Early European visitors had suffered enormously from mosquitoes and the resultant fever. As such, the one and only resident German post at Schuckmannsberg was situated at perhaps the worst possible location alongside the Zambezi, opposite Sesheke-Mwandi (typical 'white man's grave' country!).

Indeed, access from South West Africa to Caprivi was made, up to the middle of the 20th century, via Maun or Kasane in present-day Botswana, often by way of the Cape, the fastest route at the turn of the century.

After the defeat of Germany in 1914 (and four years of European absence whilst it got on with the First World War), Caprivi was taken over as part of South West Africa to be administered by South Africa in terms of a League of Nations mandate as agreed by the European powers and America at the Treaty of Versailles.

However, due to lack of resources and knowledge of the area, and due to the fact that European access to Caprivi had always been made from the south east, Caprivi was administered as part of the Bechuanaland Protectorate until 1929. Ten years Later, once again because of inadequate resources and the inability of the South West African economy to provide them, Caprivi was administered directly by the Union Government in Pretoria, a situation that persisted right up to the last years of colonial rule.

At no time therefore, during the colonial era, had the land and the people of Caprivi ever been subjected to direct administration from South West Africa (or Namibia). This temporal state of affairs introduces two further aspects of Lozi continuity with Caprivi, the ecology and pre-colonial history of the region.


In terms of the ecological conditions of the region, Caprivi has nothing whatsoever in common with the rest of Namibia and everything in common with the old Lozi kingdom of Barotseland to the north, of which Caprivi was part. Caprivi is a flat, riverine region characterised by woodland and thick grassland characteristic of other sub-tropical, swampy, marshy areas with rainfall at 650-750 mm per annum.

Large parts of the area bounded by the Chobe to the south and the Zambezi to the north, become inundated for varying portions of the year. The whole of the rest of Namibia is extremely arid with little vegetation.

The people who came to complement and supplant the indigenous Khoe and San of the region were, unsurprisingly, those who already had experience of similar conditions elsewhere, specifically, the ba-Subia, ma-Mbukushu and the ma-Yeye (the ma-Fwe name arrives later).

Lozi nationality had never been exclusive, however. According to oral history, six groups entered and settled in the Zambezi flood plain in the latter part of the 16th century. They made up the original Lozi or Aluyi as they were called in the Siluyana language.

Other groups moved into the floodplain such as the ma-Mbunda who brought desirable, new productive skills and these were also subsumed into a larger heterogeneous 'Loziness', and it is how the contemporary ma-Fwe and their peoples such as those who fled to the refugee camps of Dukwe in Botswana in 1998 see themselves today.

Their ancestors and forebears were raided by and subsumed into the Lozi kingdom in the period preceding the Kololo invasion of 1838-1840.

Around this time, the ma-Kololo, who had migrated in a series of stepped moves from the area around the Orange Free State, arrived in the north of present-day Botswana and started raiding, first Caprivi (then known as Linyanti or sometimes Linyandi).

Later on, they raided the rest of the Lozi kingdom across the Zambezi, the conquest of which they completed and held onto until 1864, after which the Lozi reclaimed all of their kingdom which had been extended by the Kololo as far south as the Okavango Delta.

The production cycles of Caprivi were very similar to those of the Upper Zambezi valley in which the rest of the Lozi peoples lived, majoring on agriculture with additional cattle-keeping in areas nor affected by the tsetse fly. Indeed, Caprivi became known as the breadbasket of the Lozi kingdom due to its ability to grow maize.

Muyongo and Mamili

Although it may seem as if the peoples of Caprivi were held in subjection by the Lozi; in fact, their culture and society, including the governing rules and regulations by which everyone lived, became suffused.

Of course the peoples of the south of the Lozi kingdom, including Caprivi, never forgot their differences with the north, nor their Kololo connections, which included the Kololo language, Silozi or Sikololo, adopted by the whole Lozi kingdom.

The southern chiefs were a constant thorn in the side of successive Lozi kings in the 19th century. They also controlled access to the kingdom from the south-east, the route by which conquerors like the Kololo came to threaten the kingdom.

It was for these reasons that Mishake Muyongo and Chief Mamili's familial ancestors, trusted indunas from Senanga at the southern extremity of the Bulozi floodplain, were sent to Linyanti after the defeat of the Kololo.

Their main purpose was to protect the southern border of the kingdom particularly from the threat of the old enemy of the Kololo, the Matabele, who had migrated to north-western Zimbabwe during the same era as the Kololo migrations.

The important point in all this is that sociocultural uniformity and influence in the region in the period from the 16th to the late 20th century was largely controlled by the ecological boundaries of the Zambezi river watershed.

At its largest extent, around 1900, the area of Lozi influence is generally agreed by historians past and present to have encompassed all of the lands enclosed within the Upper Zambezi Basin with the Victoria Falls as the southeastern cut-off point.

Modern times

Moving closer to the present, in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s, particularly after the end of Portuguese colonial rule, South Africa quickly realised that Caprivi represented more than just a difficult place to get to or live in.

Its location, separating white-ruled South Africa to the south and a potentially threatening Black Africa to the north, made it a geographical pivot around which orbited Angola, Zambia, white-governed Rhodesia, Botswana and Namibia.

This was the era of the liberation struggles of Zimbabwe and Namibia. During this time, the South African military, which rapidly achieved dominance in the apartheid regime, built an airbase in Caprivi and started recruiting local San people to use as "trackers" in its efforts to stamp out SWAPO bases in southern Angola.

In 1972, so concerned was the apartheid regime in Pretoria to keep Caprivi as a toy for its own use that it attempted to introduce a legislative council there with the obvious idea of separating the territory from the rest of Namibia. Many Caprivians, including Mishake Muyongo, fled South African rule during this era and formed their own liberation front, the Caprivi African National Union (CANU), which joined forces with SWAPO in 1964 to fight the common enemy. However, it is also at this point that differing versions of the agreement reached in Lusaka at that time occur.

According to President Sam Nujoma, there was never a plan for Caprivi to be independent. According to Muyongo, the original vice-president and later president of CANU, however, the idea was that Caprivians would be able to make their own choice as to whether to go it alone in separate independence or opt to become part of an independent Namibia.

As it turns out, the option was never put to the peoples of Caprivi when independence was achieved in 1990 as the area was incorporated into the new Republic of Namibia, confirming a worldwide trend of maintaining all the inherited, totally unrealistic colonial boundaries of the past, a policy that the OAU continues to espouse.

Muyongo himself, vice-president of SWAPO from the late 1960s to 1980, left SWAPO after differences with Nujoma over the mistreatment of Caprivians in SWAPO camps and attempts to revive CANU in exile.

In truth, Muyongo had never been happy with the move to the Angolan bush, preferring to operate from Zambia with which Caprivians were more familiar and had always had closer connections.

Later on, he was to join the main opposition movement in Namibia, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), which he led in the post-independence era until an alleged plot for the secession of Caprivi was discovered in 1998.

Muyongo was removed from his post in the DTA and fled from Caprivi into Botswana with other Caprivi leaders, including the governor, John Makumba, Chief Mamili of the Mafwe, ex-Namibian Broadcasting Corporation radio broadcaster Stephen Mamili and Chief Kippi George of the Khoe San.

Around 2,500 Caprivians followed, citing harassment and ill-treatment by the Namibian army which now moved into Caprivi in force.

The problems

Problems in the territory arose, as Caprivians spoke virtually no Afrikaans, the lingua franca of Namibia (despite the proclamation of English as the official language). They don't even speak Oshiwambo, the language of the dominant Ovambo group in the SWAPO government. Many misunderstandings occurred leading to bitterness and resentment on both sides.

Caprivians spoke Silozi or English, the colonial language they had been exposed to and which they have always found easier to master than other "alien" languages.

On 2 August 1999, a small band of CLA insurgents stormed into Katima Mulilo, the chief town of Caprivi, from across the Zambezi River and caused the deaths of several unsuspecting Namibian soldiers before being routed and imprisoned or making their escape.

Unsurprisingly, this concentrated the minds of the governments of both Namibia and Zambia which by now had come to realise the strategic geopolitical importance of Caprivi as had the South Africans before them.

Caprivians of all backgrounds were routinely rounded up and many accusations of torture and mistreatment have been laid at the door of the Namibian government.

Most of those who fled to Botswana have now been repatriated to their lands in Caprivi but the leadership has been given political asylum in Denmark and other more Windhoek-friendly replacements nominated in their place in Caprivi by the SWAPO government, causing increased resentment.

Stephen Mamili, meanwhile, who was secretary-general of the UDP, was arrested by the Zambian police and imprisoned, first in Mongu, then Lusaka before being deported to Namibia.

Current situation

The current situation in Caprivi has been complicated since by the appearance on the scene of soldiers of the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA), invited into Caprivi by Nujoma to launch attacks on SWAPO's one-time allies, the UNITA forces of Jonas Savimbi, long suspected of aiding and arming the CLA.

For most of last year, and this year to date, Caprivians and visitors to the territory have been terrorised by bands of armed men as visits to the web-site of The Namibian ( regularly report.

The identity of the attackers is often indeterminate due to the fact that they often wear stolen uniforms, but UNITA gets most of the blame by the Namibian government whilst locals claim they are regularly attacked for food by impoverished UNITA and FAA soldiers and even by members of the Namibian army.

There have been further accusations by Muyongo amongst others that Namibian soldiers have deliberately raped and impregnated Caprivi women to dilute the Lozi identity and make local people more 'Namibian'.

Currently, in excess of 130 Caprivians are held in prison in Grootfontein, accused of treason and plotting against the Namibian state. It is there, in detention that Stephen Mamili died last February from pneumonia and the effects of his imprisonment.

The future

What will become of this troubled land? It would be bucking the trend in Africa for Caprivi to be allowed its independence. Indeed the government of Namibia and leaders of the current opposition oppose secession as there are too many strategic Namibian interests at stake.

Firstly, there is the geopolitical aspect of the control of a territory bordered by so many other African countries.

Secondly, there is the newly-discovered economic importance of Caprivi as a conduit through which goods could flow on the metalled road that traverses the territory from Zambia and further afield to the rapidly developing port of Walvis Bay on the Atlantic coast of Namibia.

Thirdly, there is the water factor. Namibia and Botswana were recently embroiled in a disagreement over sovereignty of Kasikili Island on the Okavango River, which resulted in the Botswana army threatening to bring ranks to the border and the dispute going to the International Court in The Hague, Holland.

Prior to this, a Namibian plan to tap water from the Okavango as it flows through Caprivi and pipe it direct to the ever-growing and thirsty population of Windhoek, caused a furore with the Botswana government which worried about the effect on lucrative tourism receipts from visitors to the Okavango Delta region which would suffer from water deficit from such a plan.

Then there was the negative political impact of withdrawing water used by the many indigenous peoples of the Delta. Currently the plan is on hold but the importance of Caprivi as a source of water in the 21st century is now confirmed.

Two perennial rivers flow through Caprivi (the Okavango and the Chobe) and another forms its northern border (the Zambezi). The only other perennial rivers in Namibia are those that form the northern and southern borders of Namibia (the Kunene and Orange).

Arguments over the use of water from both of these rivers with Angola and South Africa respectively are never far from the surface.

In common with general practice at the time of the scramble for Africa, the European powers used the River Zambezi to delimit the interests of Britain and Portugal, effectively slicing off the southern portion of the Lozi kingdom. Britain, which bears much of the responsibility for the situation in Caprivi, carved the Strip our of its Bechuanaland Protectorate as a bargaining device to obtain control over Zanzibar from Germany in 1890 whilst realising that Caprivi would be virtually useless to the Germans.

However, Caprivi continued its pre-colonial socio-cultural life throughout the colonial period up to the point when the South African Defence Force moved in, in force and the area became a war zone, which is what it has again virtually become today.

Zambian interests

For the Zambian government the situation is difficult. On the one hand, it has its own hands full with constant calls for the secession of the Lozi kingdom (called Barotseland) in the Western Province of Zambia by certain prominent Lozis in the country although, in truth, calls for Lozi secession from Zambia are not as widespread as often reported.

Unsurprisingly, these Lozis, angry at the abrogation of the 1964 Barotseland Agreement reached between former President Kenneth Kaunda and the Lozi king, Mwananmina III, met and had talks with the leaders of the UDP/CLA in 1999 although Muyongo insists that their movements are separate.

Lozi identity is very strongly felt, even amongst those who do nor live in Barotseland or Caprivi and have intermarried. This is because of the particular nature of Lozi nationality which solidified during the 19th century and which was partially protected during the colonial era.

Zambia also perceives the potentially negative political and social impacts of such secessionist plans if they were supported by a weakened UNITA, pushed ever farther eastward by the Angolan army.

Last year, and the first quarter of this year, thousands of refugees and ex-fighters escaped over the border into Barotseland from Angola and are being housed in camps supervised by the UNHCR Ex-UNITA fighters are quickly shipped our to the eastern province of Zambia.

The Zambian government itself has tried increasingly of recent years to distance itself from UNITA and Savimbi following Angolan government accusations of Zambian culpability in the supply of arms to UNITA and the unpopularity of UNITA amongst the international community at large.

Thus Caprivian secession from Namibia, like Barotse secession from Zambia, has few if any friends on the African continent, or indeed, anywhere else in the world.

This does not, however, dampen such dreams amongst the putative leaders of the secessionist states and the mutual sympathies that such a struggle clearly arouses among sympathisers on both sides of the Namibia-Zambia border.

The future then for the long-suffering inhabitants of the Caprivi region, looks unclear and fraught with continued danger and instability.
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Author:Nyendwa, Mike
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6NAMI
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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