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Key findings
  • More than half of Namibians say they felt unsafe while walking in their neighbourhood (59%) and feared crime in their home (52%) at least once during the previous year. Feelings of insecurity and fear have increased sharply over the past decade, and are far more common among urban residents and poor citizens than among their rural and better-off counterparts.
  • About three in 10 citizens (29%) say they requested police assistance during the previous year. Substantially more (43%) encountered the police in other situations, such as at checkpoints, during identity checks or traffic stops, or during an investigation.
  • About one-third (32%) of citizens say that “most” or “all” police are corrupt, a better rating than those received by the offices of the prime minister (39%) and the president (37%).
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Namibians say they trust the police “somewhat” or “a lot.”
  • A majority of Namibians say the police at least “sometimes” employ excessive force when dealing with criminals (73%) and during protests (62%), engage in criminal activities (65%), and stop drivers without good reason (55%).

Namibia has a problematic history of police violence against citizens dating back to the liberation war. Despite expectations that the post-colonial police force would be more professional and less violent in its interactions with citizens, instances of police brutality remain unacceptably high.

For example, the Namibian Police Force’s Internal Investigative Unit investigated 118 shooting incidents involving police officers between 2010 and mid-2016. All resulted in criminal charges – 34 charges of murder and 84 charges of attempted murder (Legal Assistance Centre, 2019).

In 2018, President Hage Geingob launched Operation Hornkarnz, which brought together members of the Namibian police, the Namibian Defence Force, the Namibian Correctional Service, and the Windhoek City police to combat increasing crime in the country’s major cities more effectively. The inspector-general of police stated, “Criminals should know that it has started and will never end” (Kamwi, 2019). In May 2019, it was replaced by Operation Kalahari Desert.

Both operations have been heavily criticised for alleged abuses. The Legal Assistance Centre (2019) reports that as of November 2019, it was handling 32 such cases, 11 of which are related to Operation Hornkranz or Operation Kalahari Desert.

Both the frequency of complaints of police brutality and the prolonged duration of the problem point to the endemic nature of police brutality (Legal Assistance Centre, 2019; Namibia Fact Check, 2020; International Human Rights Council, 2020). Most recently the Office of the Ombudsman indicated that it had received 598 complaints of brutality in 2020, and 579 in 2021-2022, from prison inmates and members of the public, making the Namibian police the institution most complained about in the country (Karuuombe, 2023).

Namibia has not avoided the increased international scrutiny of violent police conduct that followed the death of George Floyd in police custody in the United States in May 2020, and many, including judges (Rickard, 2022), have called for substantive operational and behavioural reforms to improve the quality of police officers and to address what has been described as a “national crisis in police-community relations” (Sheehama, 2023).

This dispatch reports on a special survey module included in the Afrobarometer Round 9 (2021/2023) questionnaire to explore Africans’ experiences and assessments of police professionalism.

Findings in Namibia show that feelings of insecurity and fear have risen sharply in recent years, and a majority of citizens say the government needs to do a better job of reducing crime. Among Namibians who interacted with the police during the previous year, a majority say it was easy to get assistance, though about one in five report having to pay a bribe to get help or avoid problems.

About one-third of citizens see most or all police officers as corrupt, a somewhat less negative rating than given the offices of the prime minister and the president, and almost two-thirds say they trust the police.

But a majority of Namibians believe the police at least sometimes engage in illegal activities, fail to respect citizens’ rights, stop drivers without good reason, and use excessive force in managing public demonstrations and dealing with criminal suspects.

Christiaan Keulder

Christiaan Keulder is the national investigator for Namibia.