Finland’s diplomatic mission will regain its former embassy status, but trade policy between communities is still seeking a common view.
President of Namibia Hifikepunye Pohamba and President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö stepped into the limelight like old friends. There was a good reason.
“We have decided to raise the status of our diplomatic mission in Windhoek to an embassy,” President Niinistö said.
President Pohamba made a State visit to Finland on 12–13 November. This was a return visit following the visit made by former President Tarja Halonen to Namibia in February 2011.
Pohamba recalled the long cooperation between Finland and Namibia that had its origins in the19th century missionary work. Many Namibians received a study place in Finland when Namibia fought for its independence against South Africa under the apartheid regime.
“Finland was also among the first countries to recognize the independence of Namibia in 1990. Now we are grateful for the decision that you have made with your Government,” Pohamba said to Niinistö. He himself represents SWAPO, the former liberation movement that has become the leading political party.
To cut costs, Finland has in recent years trimmed its network of diplomatic missions abroad. Although development cooperation between the two States has ceased and Finnish business is still modest, the mission in Namibia has remained in operation.
“The main reason is indeed our long shared history and President Martti Ahtisaari’s role in the independence of Namibia,” says Kari Alanko, Deputy Director General of the Department for Africa and the Middle East at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
In 2000 Finland lowered the mission’s status from an embassy to a diplomatic mission headed by a chargé d’affaires. At the level of diplomacy, manoeuvres with embassies are inevitably also messages.
“Of course, raising the status of the mission is now a very positive sign for Namibians,” Alanko says.
Finland is the only Nordic country to have a diplomatic mission in Namibia. It is formally organized under the Embassy of Finland to South Africa in Pretoria, but it works very independently. Finland has no embassy of its own in most Southern African countries; instead, relations are managed, for instance, through Pretoria.
“Once the embassy in Windhoek is set up, we can rethink the division of labour and the management of relations for other countries. Then we can also serve both citizens and enterprises better than before.”
Finland already owns the building in Windhoek, so the cost structure does not change much. At the same time, the weight of Southern Africa in the world economy keeps rising.
“In this case it can absolutely be said that the benefits are much greater than the related costs,” Alanko points out.
From the Namibian perspective, the signal is important. In recent years, the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) has caused friction between Namibia and the European Union. The WTO members, such as the EU and the Southern African SADC, where Namibia is also a member, have undertaken to sign the common rules. So far Namibia is the only middle-income country that has not signed the EPA.
Even though trade would be boosted, Namibia would lose some of the exemptions granted to developing countries.
“It is important to continue discussion when making trade agreements, and we hope that we’ll find a solution that satisfies both parties,” President Niinistö said.
The EU has set October 2014 as the deadline for signing the agreement.
“We have the opportunity to increase and diversify our trade,” Niinistö said.
Pohamba urged Finnish business representatives to visit Namibia.
“But I’m not telling them where they should invest. I want them to come and see the possibilities and to make their own decisions,” Pohamba said. He stressed the importance of Namibia’s natural resources and legislation that enables foreign companies to act independently.
“But equally well they can come and establish joint projects with Namibian partners.”
Although Namibia has become more prosperous, income differences are among the highest in the world. In Pohamba’s opinion, investments creating added value for industrial products play a key role in developing society. The more processed the products are, the less their prices fluctuate and the more they increase tax revenues.
“Business brings affluence, and in Namibia we are talking about two-way traffic. It benefits the company, but by employing Namibians it also benefits us.”
The writer is a photojournalist specialized in development issues.