International Operation Name: United Nations Transition Assistance Group Namibia (UNTAG)
International Operation Dates: 198/02/16 – 1990/03/21
Mandating Organization: United Nations
Region Name: Africa
Canadian Operation Name: Operation MATADOR
Canadian Operation Dates: 1989/03/14 – 1990/03/21
UNTAG was established in accordance with Resolution 632 (1989) of 16 February 1989, to assist the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to ensure the early independence of Namibia through free and fair elections under the supervision and control of the United Nations. UNTAG was also to help the Special Representative to ensure that: all hostile acts were ended; troops were confined to base, and, in the case of the South Africans, ultimately withdrawn from Namibia; all discriminatory laws were repealed, political prisoners were released, Namibian refugees were permitted to return, intimidation of any kind was prevented, and law and order were impartially maintained
After the First World War, the German colony of South-West Africa, which had been captured by the then Union of South Africa, became a mandate of the League of Nations, the mandate authority being delegated to South Africa. After the Second World War, South Africa made repeated requests of the United Nations to be allowed to annex the territory. At the same time, South Africa refused to place the territory under United Nations Trusteeship. South Africa agreed in 1975 to work towards granting Namibia independence, an agreement being reached on 10 April 1978; however, it took a further ten years (16 February 1989) before a means was found to implement the agreement. To a large degree, it was the actions of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) and their guerrilla campaign that forced South Africa’s hand. The UN had recognized SWAPO as the legitimate voice of the people of Namibia. At the height of the conflict, South Africa had deployed over 30,000 troops into Namibia.
The United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) had been proposed in the 1978 agreement. When finally implemented in February 1989 it was assumed that UNTAG could be in place by 1 April, but delays in obtaining Security Council approval and firm financing pushed that date back, so that only 291 observers were in place by that date. The first infantry battalion began to arrive two weeks later, and it was not until 1 May that the entire force of 4,493 was deployed. (Besides the 300 observers, the major components were three infantry battalions, two logistics units, and engineer, signals, and medical units, as well as a medium helicopter and medium air transport unit.)
UNTAG was fundamentally a political mission aimed at producing conditions that would allow for free and fair elections in Namibia. It had three separate components, drawn from twenty-two countries. The 1500-strong civilian component’s main tasks were to oversee the return of refugees and to prepare for the elections. The role of the police component, which included one hundred members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was to ensure that the South West Africa Police, an organization with a heavy South African influence, fulfilled their duties in an efficient, professional and non-partisan manner.
The military force’s role was to monitor the cease-fire and the withdrawal of South African forces, confine SWAPO military forces to bases, and maintain some degree of surveillance of Namibia’s borders. As SWAPO’s bases were outside Namibia, mainly in Angola, UNTAG personnel were also required to operate in that country. There had already been violations of the cease-fire when the UNTAG infantry battalion arrived, as SWAPO personnel had crossed the border overnight to engage South African military force and the South West Africa Police. Lacking both vehicles and communications equipment, the UNTAG observers who were first in the area could do very little to monitor these events, but once the full military contingent was in place there was relatively good progress. South Africa worked hard to meet the schedule: the South West African Territorial force was demobilised by 27 May, while its military force achieved their mandated withdrawal by 24 June.
Canada’s participation in UNTAG dated back to the five-nation contact group that attempted to mediate a South African withdrawal from South West Africa throughout the 1980s. Once negotiations bore fruit, however, the Canadian military contribution, designated Operation MATADOR, was assembled very quickly. Following official notification from the UN on 10 February 1989, the advance party was in place in Namibia on 14 March, while the main contingent would follow in April. It comprised several new units specific to the tasking. Three were created on 11 April 1989: a Canadian Contingent United Nations Transition Group (CCUNTAG) was formed as the headquarters, supported by the Canadian Element UNTAG, and 89 Canadian Logistics Unit (89 CLU). A fourth unit, 89 Canadian Air Transport Unit (89 CATU) was formed on 24 May 1989 to meet the UN’s requirement for medium airlift.
The main Op MATADOR contingent began to gather at CFB Petawawa on 20 March. Although 89 CLU would be formed primarily from 2 Service Battalion, support personnel came from across Canada and the unit would include nineteen reservists. Sixteen of the 253-strong contingent would serve for one year; the rest would have six month rotations. They and their lighter equipment were airlifted to Namibia by 436 and 437 Squadrons between 12 April and 7 May; heavier equipment (80 sea containers, 47 vehicles, and 600 tonnes of other cargo) was shipped on two merchant vessels, arriving at Walvis Bay on 4 May, whence it was transferred by rail to Windhoek.
With its main base in Windhoek, the capital, and a detachment at Ketmanshoop (500 km to the south), 89 CLU supported all military, police, and civilian UNTAG personnel in the southern half of Namibia. Co-operating with the Poles, 89 CLU established a major warehousing system and then ensured timely delivery of supplies to a far-flung network of units and locations. It also provided first- and second-line maintenance for the mission’s vehicles. Ten military police served with the UN’s 71-strong MP contingent, which operated throughout the territory, while individual Canadians filled staff positions at UNTAG HQ, including the chief liaison officer between UNTAG and the South African Defence Force. 89 CATU, formed from 429 Squadron, provided two CC-130 Hercules aircraft to transport personnel and supplies to northern Namibia and Angola. Supported by the Polish logistics company and a ten-person MP detachment (four were Canadian), 89 CATU operated from Grootfontein, 500 km north of Windhoek, in May and June 1989, when it was replaced by a Spanish detachment.
September 1989 saw the first rotation of Canadian personnel, with a contingent based on 1 Service Battalion (Calgary) replacing that provided by 2 Service Battalion. They would remain until mid-January 1990, when UNTAG began to draw down. The last of the 600 Canadians to serve on Operation MATADOR departed when the UN mission itself closed on 21 March 1990. It had been a success: free and fair elections, with heavy turnout and no reports of violence, were held between 7 and 11 November and the transfer of power that followed proceeded smoothly.
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