President Hage G. Geingob of Namibia, a prominent figure in a struggle for independence from apartheid-era South Africa who later became the country’s first prime minister and a long-serving head of state, died early Sunday. He was 82.
Vice President Nangolo Mbumba, now the acting president, announced the death in a televised address on Sunday morning. Mr. Geingob had said last month that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He traveled to the United States to seek treatment in late January before returning to Namibia, in southern Africa, where he died at a hospital in Windhoek, Mr. Mbumba said.
The nation, Mr. Mbumba said, had “lost a distinguished servant of the people, a liberation struggle icon, the chief architect of our Constitution.”
Mr. Geingob, who was elected president in 2014 with 87 percent of the vote on a wave of hope that he would fight government corruption and address Namibia’s severe economic hardship, leaves behind a mixed legacy as the country’s leader.
While he delivered on social grants for the elderly and won international praise for his push to develop renewable energy, he largely failed to uplift Namibia, a deeply impoverished country of 2.5 million. About a third of the work force is unemployed and, according to a United Nations calculation, 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. From 2008 to 2018, the number of Namibians living in shacks doubled to about a million, according to the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia.
Voters’ disappointment was evident in his re-election bid in 2019 — although he won, his vote share plummeted to 56 percent.
A huge corruption scandal, known as “fishrot” and still playing out in court, unfolded under Mr. Geingob’s watch. Prominent politicians and business leaders were accused of taking part in a kickback scheme involving lucrative fishing quotas.
“He ended up becoming a politician,” said Nduma Kamwanyah, a lecturer in public policy at the University of Namibia. As prime minister, Mr. Geingob was known as an efficient technocrat who could get things done, Dr. Kamwanyah said, and many Namibians had hoped when they elected him that he would continue that legacy.
But as president, “he did not really deliver much in terms of government and all those kinds of things,” Dr. Kamwanyah said.
Mr. Geingob’s death may set off a power struggle within his party, the South West Africa People’s Organization, or SWAPO, ahead of national elections scheduled for November, analysts said.
Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, the vice president of SWAPO, which has governed Namibia since it gained independence in 1990, is in line to be the presidential candidate, though some within the organization have challenged her. SWAPO is heavily favored to win the election, and Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah would be the country’s first female president if elected.
Mr. Geingob was born on Aug. 3, 1941, in the city of Otjiwarongo, in what was then the South African territory of South-West Africa.
Starting in his 20s, from exile first in Botswana and then in the United States, he was a SWAPO leader who returned to the country in 1989 to manage the former guerrilla movement’s campaign in Namibia’s first free elections. He earned a degree in political science from Fordham University in New York and a doctorate from the University of Leeds in England.
After independence, Mr. Geingob helped steer the country out of the apartheid era. Among other tasks, he oversaw the drafting of Namibia’s new Constitution as the chairman of the Constituent Assembly.
“I knew well, as did the rest of the SWAPO leadership, that the Namibian society was divided because of years of apartheid and racial stratification in the provision of services and opportunities,” he later wrote of the drafting process. Therefore, he added, “the first job for me was to promote a spirit of consultation, mutual respect and reconciliation.”
After serving as prime minister twice — from 1990 to 2002, and again in 2012 — Mr. Geingob took up the presidency in 2015. He was in the middle of his second term, with elections scheduled for November, although a specific date has not been set.
Like other liberation movements across southern Africa, SWAPO’s popular support has waned as an increasingly young population grows disenchanted with the nation’s lack of material progress, analysts said. Although likely to maintain control of the country nationally, SWAPO has lost power in several urban centers, including Windhoek, and it relies heavily on rural constituents to stay afloat.
Though as president he failed to greatly improve the material conditions of Namibians, Mr. Geingob was a singular, charismatic leader, said Rui Tyitende, a lecturer in political science at the University of Namibia. In contrast with his two predecessors, he was easygoing and inviting, and often opened up to people, Mr. Tyitende said.
He held community meetings across the country to listen to the public’s concerns, and invited opposition politicians to meet with him at the State House. He would dance at political rallies and attend soccer matches.
“As an individual, I think there’s no equal to Geingob in terms of his character, in terms of his persona, in terms of his ideals — that zest of life within him,” Mr. Tyitende said.
Recently, Mr. Geingob blasted the German government for backing Israel in its defense against genocide charges at the International Court of Justice. Germany colonized Namibia in the late 1800s and was responsible for the genocide of tens of thousands of people from the Nama and Herero ethnic groups from 1904 to 1908.
“The German government is yet to fully atone for the genocide it committed on Namibian soil,” according to a statement released by Mr. Geingob’s office last month. It added that Mr. Geingob “expresses deep concern with the shocking decision” to reject “the morally upright indictment” brought against Israel in the court.
Mr. Geingob is survived by his wife and children, the presidential office said in its statement.
Tileni Mongudhi contributed reporting from Windhoek, Namibia.