Germany has to agreed to pay Namibia €1.1bn (£940m) as it officially recognised the Herero-Nama genocide at the start of the 20th century, in what Angela Merkel’s government says amounts to a gesture of reconciliation but not legally binding reparations.
Tens of thousands of men, women and children were shot, tortured or driven into the Kalahari desert to starve by German troops between 1904 and 1908 after the Herero and Nama tribes rebelled against colonial rule in what was then named German South West Africa and is now Namibia.
Since 2015, Germany has negotiated with the Namibian government over what it calls an attempt to “heal the wounds” of historic violence.
“Our aim was and is to find a joint path to genuine reconciliation in remembrance of the victims,” the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said in a statement. “That includes our naming the events of the German colonial era in today’s Namibia, and particularly the atrocities between 1904 and 1908, unsparingly and without euphemisms.
“We will now officially call these events what they were from today’s perspective: a genocide.”
On Thursday, official circles in Berlin confirmed reports in Namibian media that after nine rounds of negotiations the two sides had settled on the text of a joint declaration and a sum of €1.1bn, which will be paid separately to existing aid programmes over 30 years.
Of the overall sum, more than a billion euros will go towards projects relating to land reform, rural infrastructure, water supply and professional training. Communities of Herero and Nama descendants, which form ethnic minorities in all of the seven affected regions, are meant to be involved in the development of the specific projects.
Some €50m will go towards setting up a foundation for reconciliation between the two states, including cultural projects and youth exchange programmes.
The text of the joint declaration calls the atrocities committed by German troops a “genocide” but omits the words “reparations” or “compensation” – a move borne out of fear that such language could set a legal precedent for similar claims from other nations.
A spokesman for the Namibian president, Hage Geingob, described German’s acknowledgment of genocide “as the first step” in the right direction. “It is the basis for the second step, which is an apology, to be followed by reparations,” the spokesman said.
Some of the numerous groups that make up the descendants of the genocide’s survivors have been critical of the framing of the negotiations from the outset and have declined to back the Namibian government’s stance.
Paramount chief Vekuii Rukoro, leader of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority, has criticised his government for not insisting on financial reparations: “When German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier comes to Namibia to render the apology we will embarrass him,” he told local media.
Namibian newspaper New Era reported on Thursday that at least three traditional leaders who had supported the government’s negotiations up to this point had refused to endorse the final wording of the declaration, which could make it difficult for President Hage Geingob to sign the deal.
The German side’s position is that it has negotiated the agreement with a Namibian government representing the country’s population as a whole, and that the deal does not stand or fall on the approval of Herero and Name descendants groups.