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Interview with Ndumba Kamwanyah on Juvenile Justice Reform in Namibia

Earlier this month, I interviewed Ndumba Kamwanyah, who was among the early pioneers building up Namibia’s juvenile justice system. Namibia was one of the first countries in Africa to have a juvenile justice forum and was the first country in Africa to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Namibia was also previously upheld as a model to other countries who were trying to strengthen their juvenile justice programs, including Liberia, Mozambique, and Malawi. Read what Mr. Kamwanyah had to say on the challenges involved in getting the public to accept the new juvenile system, how they should’ve better used the media to reach youth, and not allowing rule of law programs to undermine local initiatives.

About: A native of Namibia, Mr. Kamwanyah is a public policy consultant currently working on an Outreach and Case Management System for HIV-positive offenders (in prison and correctional systems.) He writes a weekly column for The Namibian newspaper, and serves as an Africa Blogger for the Foreign Policy Association. Mr. Kamwanyah is also a certified mediator and previously taught traditional justice and indigenous African political institutions at the Rhode Island College-Anthropology Department.

You recently wrote an article about how promising the juvenile justice system was in Namibia when it was first created in the 1990s. Can you talk a little bit about the system and what factors inspired the Namibians to form it in this way?

Colonialism not only left Namibia with a retributive criminal justice system but also disrupted and destroyed Namibia’s traditional and indigenous systems/institutions to deal with justice and conflict.  A prison survey conducted in 1994, shortly after independence, found that children in conflict with the law were being kept in appalling conditions, which was contrary to the Namibian Constitution and international human rights instruments. [The] retributive criminal justice system inherited from the apartheid South African colonial administration in Namibia lacked a proper juvenile justice system to deal with the pressing issues of children in trouble with the law.

In order, therefore, to align with the country’s new-found democracy, Namibia adopted a more liberal constitution and ratified the UN Convention on the Right of the Child. Other factors that informed Namibia’s juvenile justice process were the African Principle of Ubuntu, which emphasized restorative justice of social harmony and compassion as opposed to the Western style of retributive justice. On the basis of ubuntu, Namibia signed the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

Components of Namibia’s Juvenile Justice System

This was a system in transition towards a restorative system of juvenile justice. Key components of the Namibian juvenile justice programs were the screening of children at every step of the criminal justice system and the life skills diversion programs. The screening process ensured that juveniles (based on their social and psychological needs) were matched to appropriate resources. And the diversion intervention programs were aimed at promoting positive behavior and civic responsibility, thereby reducing delinquency and criminal behavior of juveniles.

[After] 1994, the Namibian juvenile justice programme became the perfect embodiment of how government and civic groups can work together to bring about necessary reforms and solve a country’s social problems: Juvenile justice forums, and trial-and-awaiting working groups, especially in Windhoek, were set up throughout the regions. Juvenile justice training would be conducted in the regions, including at the Windhoek Police Training Academy for new recruits. In Windhoek, arrested juveniles would be assigned separate cells with police officers, prosecutors and magistrates.

The Ministry of Justice also established an inter-ministerial committee (IMC) on juvenile justice, a body comprised of line ministries and various NGOs. The IMC was hailed as a milestone for juvenile justice in Namibia because its establishment signaled an overt stake of the Namibian government in taking over the leadership of the juvenile justice agenda in the country. Unlike the juvenile justice forum which consisted of people at the implementation level, the IMC body was represented by people in decision-making positions from government ministries and NGOs. The IMC would further succeed in mobilizing the Namibian Cabinet to have a yearly ministers’ retreat on juvenile justice. And later they would have a full time programme manager housed at the Windhoek Magistrate’s court. IMC would also develop a working document (which clearly identified the problems and stipulated steps to be taken) on juvenile justice in Namibia, and a Draft Child Justice Bill.

However, although the Namibian juvenile justice is geared towards restorative justice and indeed incorporated a lot of restorative justice elements and Ubuntu concepts-such as the life skills program, screening, Consensus Decision-making Process-it largely remained retributive driven, especially when it came to more serious offenders.

You began as an intern for the Legal Assistance Centre, became a coordinator for the juvenile justice project and later served as an acting program manager to the IMC on juvenile justice. Can you tell me about some of the challenges? What lessons did you learn that might help others working on juvenile justice?  

I would say that the main challenge related to the public mindset in terms of opinions and perceptions about crime, punishment and justice. Immediately after independence Namibia was faced with a sky-rocketing crime rate, especially in the Capital. It is due to this perceived perception of high crime rate combined with the [ban on] corporal punishment that the public viewed the new approach to juvenile justice as going soft on criminals. On one hand, we faced a skeptical public that mostly believed in the deterrent and retributive measures as the only effective way to curb Namibia’s increasing crime rate. On the other hand, we had law enforcement officers-police, prosecutors, magistrates- cultured and socialized in the retributive justice system of dealing with crime and justice. Therefore, it was a hard and long process to shift the mindset towards the new rights oriented and restorative justice approach.

The other main challenges pertained to laws and the actual implementation of the juvenile justice system.  First, we operated in the absence of any unified law and national policy for dealing with children in conflict with the law. The applicable statutes pertaining to children at that time were outdated and needed serious revisions. In addition to the laws, we lacked proper infrastructures and facilities such as prisons, educational centers and rehabilitation centers. We also did not have many options with diversion programs, especially in the regions. It is important to understand that for a juvenile justice system to function properly it needs to be matched with financial resources, physical infrastructures and diversified diversion programs.

There was also the issue of unclear structure and undefined roles in terms of who was supposed to do what function, especially among various line ministries. For example, a heated debate centered around the question whether juvenile justice falls within the ambit of the justice ministry, youth ministry or the health and social service ministry? In hindsight, I think what was lacking was a clear inter-agency strategy to coordinate and spell out the roles of each stakeholder. And lastly, lack of a systematic database to collect necessary information hampered our planning, monitoring and evaluation efforts.

Did LAC, the Youth Ministry, or other groups working on juvenile justice use popular culture to reach out to young people? If so, in what ways were you successful and what would you do differently?

Yes, we used the media (radio, brochures, and print media) for advocacy, lobbying and crime prevention activities. However, in my opinion, we used it at a very broad and generalized level as opposed to a strategy tailored to the youth and younger people’s interest. The media was effective in changing the public’s perception about the juvenile justice program but probably not that effective in appealing-in terms of using their own languages/voices and incorporating things important to youth development- to the young people.

We also focused too much on a crime prevention approach that emphasized fear and the negative impact of living a life of crime (such as you will not get a job, you end up in prison, you are hurting yourself, your family and the community). But instilling fear is good for deterrence but a bad preventative strategy. In hindsight, probably we should have supplemented this approach with a strategy that focuses on the talents, strengths and potentials of young people in order to enhance their capabilities and empower them in a positive way.

What long-term changes have you seen with the youth that you worked with?

Credit: Noor Khamis/IRIN

Credit: Noor Khamis/IRIN

I have seen some of the youth who participated, (not sure if it is due to our diversion program interventions or not) have completely made a U-turn and turned their lives around in becoming productive and responsible citizens. Some grew up to become professionals with jobs and families of their own. Yet others did not make it. The diversion programs might have changed them but their socio-economic situation and living environment remained unchanged. The main obstacle for many was that after completion of the diversion programs they had to go back to the same old environment, which played a huge role in their delinquencies, in their respective neighborhoods. So under such circumstances, change was difficult to sustain because everything in their living environment was fighting against them.

You’ve also talked previously about the challenge in financially supporting the juvenile justice system. Without donor funding, in what ways do you think Namibians can ensure the system is sustainable?

The sustainability of any program mainly depends on the political and technical feasibility. The former is about the will at the political level in terms of support, commitment and decision making. The latter is about financial resources, material resources, and human resources needed to implement the programs. I think for Namibia we had some political will but we did not focus much on the technical feasibility of the program. We relied too much on the funders. But the funders had their own agenda and pace as to what they wanted achieved.  As a result, when they pulled everything, it fell apart, reversing all the gains made.

However, although the political will at the government level existed, the transition of the program from the LAC (an NGO) to the Namibian government was not done properly. Partly this is because what the funders wanted to see (government ownership of the juvenile justice program), so there were some sort of push on the LAC to move quickly in that direction as quickly as possible. Complicating this process was also the fact that changes in ministers and ministries (role confusion) also hampered the process of transferring the juvenile justice program to the government of Namibia. This is because every time a new minister was appointed in one of the key juvenile justice line ministries-such as the justice ministry, social service, or youth ministry- so changed expectations and support towards juvenile justice as well.

From your experience working with young people in Namibia, do you think it’s important to help youth access the justice system? 

Credit: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Credit: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

In Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, it is important to note that the youth are the most affected by the social economic hardships. Often they, especially those in conflict with the law, lack a viable voice to advocate and lobby for themselves. Therefore helping youth access justice systems is also another means of fighting inequality; curbing impunity and discretionary justice; and promoting a democratic culture.  But the youth is also the fast growing cohort in Africa, supporting them access justice hold long lasting economic and social return for the countries involved, and the world.

In what ways do you think the international community could better support youth programs in the rule of law sector?

There is no aspect of greater importance to youth programs in the rule of law sector than capacity building to ensure that programs are sustained after the donor community leaves. In the juvenile justice arena this begins with the training of the police officers, prosecutors, magistrates, social workers and all other stakeholders involved in the juvenile justice process to ensure that they understand the principles and philosophies behind juvenile justice, including in designing policies, implementation and analyzing juvenile justice trends.

Capacity building also requires strengthening the capacity of the youth and education systems especially those of higher learning, in order for the systems to respond to the demands of youth development with regard to information and new perspectives in youth issues. The international community could also provide opportunities for mutual learning and sharing through exchange programs, collaboration, and networking on all aspects of youth and rule of law.

What things do you think the international community could learn from the Namibian juvenile justice system?

Sometimes the international community, with all good intentions, comes in with their own rigid set of values and expectations, therefore defining the problem being addressed from a universal perspective as opposed to a local perspective. The problem is that sometimes it ignores (if not undermines) local initiatives. It is important for the international community to not only be flexible and patient but also understand the importance of local dynamics. This would require the importance of recognizing and acknowledging the local potential, skills and resources. But also keep in mind that juvenile justice reform is a process not a sprint.

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2013 by in Interviews and tagged , .

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