The reason the anomalous Zambezi Region or Caprivi Strip belongs to Namibia goes back to a colonial barter in 1890, in which Germany persuaded Britain to accept the islands of Zanzibar and Heligoland (a small archipelago off northern Germany) in exchange for this sliver of land, which was then part of Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana). Keen to gain access to the Zambezi and create a riverine trade route that would connect with the Indian Ocean, the Germans seemingly overlooked the very substantial obstacle to such a plan: the Victoria Falls. This stumbling block, however, turned out to be irrelevant, since defeat in World War I meant the Germans had scarcely set foot in the area before they were forced to hand it over to South Africa – though not before naming the strip of land after the then German Chancellor, General Count Georg Leo von Caprivi di Caprara di Montecuccoli, which was mercifully shortened to Caprivi.

The strip’s strategic potential, given its location at the confluence of five countries, repeatedly put it at the forefront of a succession of conflicts, and led to the development of the region’s eventual capital, Katima Mulilo, which soon became a garrison town. In 1964, in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid policies, the Caprivi African National Union (CANU) – a movement pushing for Caprivi self-governance – joined forces with SWAPO to fight for Namibian independence with the proviso (so they say) that once it was secured, Caprivi could itself be independent – a deal that SWAPO vehemently denies. Discontent about alleged discrimination against Caprivians and repeated calls for Caprivi self-rule simmered throughout the independence struggle and beyond, though matters didn’t boil over into full-scale conflict until 1999, when an attack on Katima by the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA) – the military wing of the secessionist movement – provoked intervention by the security forces. Several deaths resulted, abuses were committed by both sides, and many civilians were forced to flee. In the end, 121 separatists were arrested and put on trial for treason – a trial that dragged on for around 12 years and which received much criticism from human rights groups. A verdict was finally reached at the end of 2015; the final tally was: 79 not guilty, 30 guilty, while 12 had died in custody. Most of those found guilty have appealed against their sentencing to the Supreme Court, while the Namibian state, in turn, intends to appeal against the acquittals, which is rather ironic given their lack of interest in pursuing similar crimes committed during the independence struggle.

In the meantime, Caprivi has controversially been renamed Zambezi, arguably part of the ongoing erasure of colonial names, though opponents of the name change argued that it was another attempt by SWAPO to undermine Caprivi identity and stifle any further secessionist ambitions.

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