Demining Efforts in Namibia

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Previous mine clearance programs in Namibia started the country on a clear path towards demining success. Unfortunately, a current lack of funding and a spillover of the longstanding conflict in Angola have thwarted progress.

by Whitney Tolliver, MAIC

A woman injured by an AP mine.
c/o NamPol Reports

Overview of the Situation

On May 14, 1998, during a ceremony marking the last minefield-clearing task in the Ohangwena region of Namibia, General Jamerson, Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. European Command described the country as “a model for Africa and the world.”1 The Namibian Defense Force (NDF) and Namibia police deminers, trained and supported by the governments of Namibia and the United States, successfully reduced the number of landmine casualties during a three-year demining program. The number of deaths due to landmines and UXO fell from 10 in 1994 to just one in 1997, a 90 percent reduction. The number of injuries dropped as well, although not as dramatically. At the end of the General’s speech he concluded, “The decline in casualties means that the citizens of the northern regions of Namibia are safer now than they were before and that human suffering has declined.” 1

Unfortunately, since that time, the number of casualties has once again increased especially in the northern regions of the country. At the end of 1999, Namibia became subject to the terrors associated with the long-standing conflict occurring in the neighboring state of Angola. The Angolan National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel movement crossed the border into the northeast regions of the country, laying new minefields open to innocent civilians. Thus, Namibia’s prior goal of becoming one of the first countries in the world to successfully comply with the Ottawa Treaty received a major setback. As Colonel J.T. Theyse, Chief Inspector of Explosives for the government of the Republic of Namibia stated in a report, “Up to the end of 1999, the mine problem in Namibia was finite and well-known; it could be solved rapidly with appropriated measures.”1 Now the government desperately needs renewed funding in order to clean up these new areas before officials can once again declare Namibia a model country on the road to success.


Before Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in March 1990, the South African Defense Force (SADF) mined the northern regions of the country heavily. By the end of 1986, more than 352,000 square meters of minefields had been placed around eight military and police bases, two water supply towers and the pylons on the Ruacana high-tension power line.2 Fortunately, in most cases, the SADF properly marked, mapped and fenced in these minefields.1

First Phase of Mine Clearance

With the implementation of United Nations Resolution 435 in 1989, South African troops conducted the first mine clearance project in Namibia. The process they used involved driving heavy battle tanks pulling grid rollers across designated minefields and bases to clear the areas. However, out of the 44,594 landmines laid, only 40,779 were neutralized and 96 detonated. Over 2,479 mines were left unaccounted for.1 Therefore, the first demining project concluded with only a 92 percent success rate. Even with the first phase of mine clearance completed, the country still had major landmine problems.

After Namibia’s independence from South Africa and the SADF’s withdrawal in 1990, the number of casualties resulting from accidental detonations actually increased. The destitute population took and removed fences marking the remaining minefields for their own personal use, thus allowing livestock and people to freely roam highly dangerous mined areas. Specifically, small, unprotected minefields were laid open around the pylons on the Ruacana high-tension power line. These fields contained 25 –30 plastic AP blast mines, and four to six J.69 all-metal bounding fragmentation mines.1 As travel resumed in these areas, vehicles and people also detonated old, unmapped landmines placed along roadways and footpaths; the number of UXO victims increased significantly as well.

After the war, hundreds of thousands of pieces of UXO were left behind in the northern provinces along the border. Many local civilians joined in the lucrative but very dangerous business of collecting and removing them for Angolan and Namibian scrap dealers. As a result, a new wave of civilians became UXO victims. However, amendments to Namibia’s Arms and Ammunition Act have seriously curtailed the scrap business.

Second Phase of Mine Clearance

At the start of the second phase of mine clearance, local companies were hired to conduct the removal process. Namibia Blasting Agents gained a contract from South West African Water & Electricity Supply Corporation (SWAWEK) to clear minefields surrounding the Ruacana power lines. They used the same grid roller method as the SADF to clear the berms left next to the pylons. However, even after the final sweeping phases of the fields, unexploded landmines and UXO were found and detonated by civilians and livestock.

Government Involvement
As the second phase of the demining process was concluding, the Namibian government assumed the responsibility of all mine clearance and mine awareness programs. On May 19, 1992, a Namibia Cabinet resolution halted a second contract for the clearance of minefields surrounding former military bases by Namibia Blasting Agents.1 The resolution instead gave the NDF the explicit orders to clear all known minefields of AP mines and AT mines, and told the Explosives Unit of the Namibian police to remove and destroy all military ordnance and UXO across the former war zone. Unfortunately, both the NDF and the Explosives Unit lacked the sufficient number of clearance experts and equipment necessary to successfully complete the projects.

The Ministry of Home Affairs also created the first Namibian Public Awareness Campaign during this time. Their goal was to inform the public of the dangers of handling UXO and how to mark and report landmine and UXO findings to the proper authorities. While the NDF and the Explosives Unit struggled to find funding and demining expertise for their projects, the public awareness campaign received a great deal of national and international attention. National radio and television services cooperated in launching the program while international newspapers broadcasted the dire situation the Namibian people faced.

U.S. Involvement
U.S. attention focused on Namibia for two reasons. The first arose from the failed demining missions. The United States drew concern over the continued detonations of AP mines in supposedly “cleared” minefields. The second generated from the effective public awareness campaign. In response to their concerns, the United States signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the government of the Republic of Namibia in 1995. As a result, the Demining Liaison Committee was formed, and the U.S. military began training the NDF and Namibian police deminers.

As the two governments worked together, minefields were cleared, fences were taken down and land was finally returned to the community. Towards the end of the project, as General Jamerson said during a final mine clearing ceremony in 1998, officials had great hopes for Namibia. The country was almost completely mine-free and the NDF and the police Explosives Unit were properly trained in landmine clearance. The official U.S.-sponsored demining program concluded on February 8, 2001, but at the time of their withdrawal, the United States donated more than $2 million (U.S.) in earthmoving equipment, detection devices, computers and radio communication equipment to the NDF.3

Current Status

Although demining efforts increased with U.S. involvement, the current number of casualties has recently risen in the northern regions of Namibia, most notably the regions of Kavango and Caprivi. In 1997, landmine casualties were listed as one killed and 10 injured for the year.1 But during the following year, these numbers increased to three killed and 22 injured and police reports from 2000 indicate 14 killed and 125 injured from landmines.3

In addition to an increase in the number of casualties, the types of incidents responsible for landmine civilian casualties have changed percentage-wise. From June 1989 to December 1999, UXO accounted for 87.4 percent of all landmine incidents, AP mines for 5.8 percent and AT mines for 6.7 percent. During the period of January 2000 to January 2001, UXO percentages fell to 71.2 percent, while AP and AT mines rose to 21.9 and 6.9 percent respectively.1

This increase is due to a spillover from the long-running conflict between Angolan UNITA forces and Angolan government forces—Forcas Armadas Angolanas (FAA)—across the northern border. In 1999, Namibia granted the FAA the use of NDF military bases along the border for the purpose of defensive attacks against UNITA forces in southeastern Angola.3 However, the FAA has also used these bases for the stockpile and transfer of ammunitions, and in its 2001 report, the Landmine Monitor stated that there have been allegations that these ammunitions include AP and AT mines.3


A major problem still exists in Namibia. UXO and recently placed AP mines from the Angolan conflict continue to take innocent lives. The NDF and Explosives Unit lack the adequate personnel and budget necessary to eradicate the problem. Mine awareness campaigns, although very effective, fail to reach the remote corners of the country, the people who need it the most. Inconsistent maps and minefield reports make 100 percent accuracy of mine removal nearly impossible. The once seemingly simple landmine problem in Namibia has again been complicated. The Namibian government needs additional support to once again become a “model to Africa and the world.”


1. Colonel J.T. Theyse, The Namibian Experience.
2. Colonel J.T. Theyse, Global Conference: Military Contributions to Humanitarian Demining. Jan. 2001.
3. Landmine Monitor Report 2001, 120 –131 (2001).

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Whitney Tolliver

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