By Magreth Nunuhe
Windhoek – The Witbooi family Bible and the whip (the Witbooi heirlooms) in the possession of the German government is behind the latest legal wrangle in the protracted dispute related to the 1904 Nama and Ovaherero genocide.
The Nama Traditional Leaders Association of Namibia (NTLA), this week announced at a media briefing, that it has instructed its lawyers to stop the repatriation of colonial artefacts belonging to one of its traditional authorities, held in Germany’s Linden Museum in Stuttgart, pending a resolution on how the repatriation of the objects to Namibia should be handled.
This comes after the German and Namibian governments agreed on terms and intended to repatriate the artefacts into the Namibian government’s custody.
In what appears to be a skirmish in the bigger fight, the Nama Traditional Leaders Association of Namibia, employed New York-based law firm, McCallion & Associates to apply for an injunction against the German government, to halt any attempts to repatriate the Witbooi artefacts back to Namibia, before it is agreed that such artefacts will be released into the custody of the rightful owners. McCallion & Associates is the same law firm handling the initial class action suit.
The latest suit has also been filed in New York.
The Nama and Ovaherero communities of Namibia have already instituted a class-action lawsuit against the German government, demanding reparations on genocide and crimes committed against them by German colonial troops between 1904 and 1908.
The heirlooms in question belonged to the great Nama Chief Hendrik Witbooi, who fought fiercely against German troops during the genocide.
In a letter dated 2 February 2019, McCallion & Associates wrote that Germany was in violation of international law through an illegal raid on Witbooi’s homeland of Hoornkrans. Imperial German Officer Kurt Von Francois and other imperial agents carried out the raid in April 1893, resulting in the wrongful killing of 78 Witbooi women and children. The items were taken during the said raid.
“Through our research, we have obtained extensive evidence of this wrongdoing, including from historical accounts, from contemporary testimony provided by witnesses and from the writings of Chief Witbooi himself,” stated the letter addressed to the German museum.
McCallion & Associates put it to the museum that the Witbooi family, which is legally recognised in Namibia, constitutes the only lawful claimant to the Witbooi heirlooms and the only cognisant legal interest in the ultimate disposition and repatriation of the Witbooi heirlooms and the only party with cognisable legal interest in the ultimate disposition and repatriation of the heirlooms.
The Witbooi heirlooms have also been cited as evidence in the class-action lawsuit in the USA.
The law firm said it was vitally important that the WTA is aware of the location of the heirlooms at all times and that any disposition of the heirlooms to another party or location be made with the consultation and agreement of the WTA.
“It has come to our attention that your museum may be intending to turn the Witbooi heirlooms over to the government of Baden-Württemberg. While we do not have any objection to such transfer in principle, we request that we be kept informed of the measures being taken to ensure the location and safety of the heirloom both during and after such transfer,” stated the law firm.
Speaking on behalf of the NTLA, Nama Chief Petrus Kooper of the Kai //Khuan Traditional Authority said that “usufructs compensation” also applied to the lost use and benefits of the Hendrik Witbooi’s Bible and whip, just as they are liable for comprehensive reparations towards Nama and Ovaherero people.
He said it seems the Namibian and German governments wanted to return the items as a token of atonement, yet both governments seem to forget that they have rights to claim restitution.
“The confiscation of cultural property was not an isolated individual act, but was part of a systematic and calculated programme of extermination,” said Kooper.