The People of Swaziland Deserve Accountability Not Brutality
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“We no longer want the King; we want to help ourselves and choose our own prime minister or president. We do not want this country to be a kingdom anymore, we just want to get rid of the king or the royal family and have them become ordinary people just like everyone else”.

This statement from a member of the Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network sums up the disillusionment of the unfolding political situation in Swaziland.

It would appear the maxim of distributive justice in Eswatini corresponds with The Book of Matthew that says, to summarize, “to him that hath shall be given, from him that hath not shall be taken away”.

The clashes between pro-democracy campaigners and security forces in Eswatini in June 2021 represent a counter-revolution of the strong against the weak and highlight the concern of unrestrained sovereign power, tyranny, and the rule of a few against the interests of the many.

eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is a landlocked country with a 1.6 million population, located within the southern region of Africa and bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. Swaziland is significant in many ways including being the last remaining absolute monarchy in Africa.

Swaziland is under the spotlight as the people are on a “war” path to wrest the soul of the country from one of the long-standing authoritarian rulers in Africa, King Mswati. Their demand for a change from hereditary-state structure—to a more open system based on accountability—was brutally pushed back by security forces who have been accused of excessive use of violence to quell the excesses of demonstrations including arson and looting.

The remote cause of these clashes and the violence that has accompanied them encapsulate the challenges of growth and inequality in the country. Swazi’s need more democracy than brutality. Swazis need more improvements in their standard of living than fear and trauma.

By all accounts, recent developments in many parts of Africa—including Mozambique, eSwatini, South Africa, Ethiopia, Mali, Eastern Congo, Ethiopia and Central African Republic—have wider geopolitical security and implications that could destabilize already fragile political landscapes, and the international community needs to enhance their contributions by elevating local voices in defense of democratic values.

What originally started off as a peaceful protest over an alleged involvement and murder of a 25-year-old law student by members of the royal eSwatini Police in May 2021 escalated to extremity, death of an estimated 60 pro-democracy protestors, while others have been abducted and tortured.

The political foundations and the making of the eSwatini state have been over documented making it convenient to grossly simplify the many crafted histories of the country, and how the people find themselves in a political abyss.

How it Began

eSwatini gained independence from the British protectorate on September 6, 1968 after 66 years under British rule. King Sobhuza II assumed the role of head of state and laid the contours of what would define the governance structure of the country including a local government known as tinkhundla—the subject of political disillusionment in eSwatini.

While King Sobhuza’s era witnessed political stability and social progress in the fields of education and health, he sowed the seeds of current political discontent in the country when he—under the guise of creating a system of “our own making”—dissolved parliament through emergency decree denouncing democracy and banning political pluralism in 1973.

When Sobhuza’s son, King Mswati III succeeded his father in 1986 following the former’s passing, he firmed up his grips on the patrimonial structure bequeathed to him charting a path based on the notion of ceding no powers and accepting no different status including exercising concurrent jurisdictions over parliament, the prime minister and the judiciary.

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Indeed, it is fashionable to recall Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) who declared L’état, c’est moi! ‘I’m the state! King Mswati did not want to second-guess his absoluteness that he was “the state” when he changed the name of his country in 2018 without due process. While the name change has been lauded by Pan-Africanists as necessary to correct colonial imposition, it is a slap in the face of nation-building by not engaging with people.
Nonetheless, Swazis are looking for a transformation that transcends name change. Political watchers believe the country’s only constitutional reform that was triggered by students, labor, political activists, and human rights campaigners in 2005 after a series of protests amounted to little more than window dressing. It only served one purpose—a validation of King Mswati’s tyranny, and a rubber stamp parliament that has no real oversight jurisdiction over the king’s financial imperatives.

Section (79) of the Swaziland Constitution (2005) states:

The system of government for Swaziland is a democratic, participatory, tinkhundla-based system which emphasises devolution of state power from central government to tinkhundla areas and individual merit as a basis for election or appointment to public office.

Yet, the electoral administrative institution of Tinkhundla is safeguarded by traditional values that allow the monarchy to maintain its position of control in practice, and protesters are saying that reforms are non-negotiable. During a demonstration in the precincts of the Botswana Consulate in Toronto, a member of the Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network, Mr. Themba stated that:

“We no longer want the King; we want to help ourselves and choose our own prime minister or president. We do not want this country to be a kingdom anymore, we just want to get rid of the king or the royal family and have them become ordinary people just like everyone else”.

King Mswati is accused of referencing the state against individual intrusions by not only blocking moves towards political pluralism but also revising and increasing censorships targeted at scandalous text and political writings inconsistent with absolute monarchy. For example, freedom of expression is compromised by the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, and other defamation laws often used to gag and arrest journalists and dissenters.

The roots of discontent and pent-up grievances among Maswati (Swazis) lie not only in their poverty—compounded by increasing Covid-19 cases, but also self-consciousness of subordination of a corrupt state that monopolizes power to create wealth for those who possess it. King Mswati’s rule has been punctuated by deep-seated corruption and the country has only managed a score change of -4 since 2012 and consistently ranked 33/100 on the global corruption perception index.

Global development indicators measuring income and food security cast a grim verdict on Eswatini. For example, in August 2008 Forbes magazine named Mswati III the second richest man in Africa, while the United Nations’ World Food Programme kept “a record 600,000 Swazis alive—more than 60% of the population”

The kingdom ranks amongst the highest in the World Bank’s Income Inequality measure, World Food Program Income Inequality index, described as having a level of hunger that is “serious” by the Global Hunger Index.

Despite more than half the country (58.6%) living below the poverty line, and over 20% of people considered extremely poor, King Mswati is yet to drop the ball on his exotic lifestyle and “state capture” that have dotted his reign for 35 years including owning two private airplanes, numerous palaces, a fleet of luxurious cars amidst extravagant travels with his “fifteen” wives whom he picked at will in specialized ceremonies.

Living on an island of prosperity has been a scathing jeremiad in the country that is emaciating the public purse while the contrast is stark—high youth unemployment, high concentration of employment in low-value-added activities, and poor health infrastructure, and a failing education system.

The population is inundated with the highest number of HIV cases in the world; with women being disproportionately affected as they make up 120,000 of the 210,000 population affected by HIV in 2018. Among other forms of child labor, girls are particularly vulnerable to domestic servitude, violence, and commercial sex exploitation.

MISRULE HAS CONSEQUENCES

The root of discontent and pent-up grievances among Maswati (Swazis) lies not only in their poverty—compounded by increasing Covid-19 cases, but also self-consciousness of subordination of a corrupt state that monopolizes power to create wealth for those who possess it. Political economists have long established that economic inequality is a recipe for uprisings including the 2010 “Arab Spring”.

King Mswati’s rule has been punctuated by deep-seated corruption and the country has only managed a minuscule score change of -4 since 2012 and consistently ranked 33/100 on the global corruption perception index. Global development indicators measuring income and food security cast a grim verdict on Eswatini. For example, in August 2008 Forbes magazine named Mswati III the second richest man in Africa, while the United Nations’ World Food Programme kept “a record 600,000 Swazis alive—more than 60% of the population”

The kingdom ranks amongst the highest in the World Bank’s Income Inequality measure, World Food Program Income Inequality index, described as having a level of hunger that is “serious” by the Global Hunger Index.

Despite more than half the country (58.6%) living below the poverty line, and over 20% of people considered extremely poor, King Mswati is yet to drop the ball on “state capture” driven by exotic lifestyle choices that have dotted his reign for over three decades including owning private airplanes, numerous palaces, a fleet of luxurious cars amidst extravagant travels with his “thirteen” wives whom he picked at will in specialized state ceremonies.

Living on an island of prosperity has been a scathing jeremiad in the country dwarfing public funds while the contrast is stark—high youth unemployment, high concentration of employment in low-value-added activities, and poor health infrastructure, and a failing education system.

The population is inundated with the highest number of HIV cases in the world; with women being disproportionately affected as they make up 120,000 of the 210,000 population affected by HIV in 2018. Upward mobility is a phantom wish particularly for girls who have become pawns for domestic servitude, violence, and commercial sex exploitation.

PIVOTAL MOMENT?

Opinions are divided about any realistic chances of reform—be it an outcome of the unfolding uprisings or call for a “national dialogue” or intervention by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Cynics argue that protests in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2019 did not achieve much by way of structural transformation except the introduction of a new constitution in 2005 that is widely labeled as a white elephant conspicuously silent on multi-party democracy.

Images showing some members of Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network protesting in the precinct of the Botswana Consulate in Toronto on June 24, 2021

This view is contrasted with the optimists who believe there is more clarity and urgency to the ongoing movement. It is organic and less structured. A member of the Swazi-Canadian Diaspora Network, Themba, concedes that while demonstrations are rare and rendered “ineffective” in the kingdom, the magnitude of the current wave of protests is much bigger than previous ones.

This view is contrasted by the optimists who contend that there is more clarity and urgency to the ongoing movement. They say it is organic and less structured. Themba concedes that while demonstrations are rare and rendered “ineffective” in the kingdom, the magnitude of the current wave of protests is much bigger than previous ones.

THE WAY FORWARD

While democracy is under siege in many parts of the world, the people of eSwatini are yet to experience any meaningful democratic system that draws its power from the people and the international community needs to do a lot more to raise and support local voices—in particular civil society organizations—who are the frontlines of democracy.

The Swaziland-Canadian Diaspora Network is leading a series of campaign activities geared towards democratic reform in Eswatini including organizing demonstrations, lectures, and fundraising in support of those who were injured as a consequence of police brutality.
What some of these organizations need is recognition, enduring political support, and the capacity to achieve their visions for their country. Small organizations assuming the herculean burden of democratic crusade require support.

It is important to recognize that the fight for emancipation has never been a one-off event but long-term sustainable enterprise contingent on the power, organization and resilience of the people.

In a recent communique, issued in a meeting attended by G7 Foreign and Development Ministers, and reaffirmed by heads of government of member countries in a Cornwall meeting on June 11-13, 2021—the leaders underscored their commitment to “strengthening open societies, shared values, and the rules-based international order”.

Now is the right moment for G7 leaders, alongside regional blocs, to actualize their pledge to promote leadership, political accountability and empowerment of community organizations, civil societies, and individuals fighting for democracy in Eswatini and other troubled areas.
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Democratic governance is part of the connective tissue between developed and developing countries. Democratic systems are good for growth and helps to reduce the domestic chasm between rich and poor.

While there is no resident Canadian government office in Eswatini, Canada offers international assistance to the country through the Canada Fund for Local Initiative (CFLI)—a component of the federal government Feminist International Policy.

Canada is one of the few nations that stands firmer, speaks louder and fights harder to defend democratic values around the world. This gives Canada a strong voice to rally its peers in support of investment decisions that would make democracy and accountability more meaningful for everyday lives as observed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a speech to mark International Day of Democracy in September 2020.

Quick Facts About Eswatini

Quick Facts About Eswatini
  • Population: 1,160,64 million (source: World bank)
  • Median age: 20.7 (source: United Nations)
  • HIV Prevalence: 200,000 people living with HIV (source: UNAIDS)
  • Adult literacy rate (percentage of people ages 15 and above): 88%
  • National Poverty rate: 58.9 (source: World Bank)
  • Infant mortality rate: 39 per 1000 live births (source: World Bank)
  • Life expectancy at birth: 60
  • Under-5 mortality rate: 49.7 per 1000 live births
  • Religion: Christian-90%, Muslim 2%, other religions 8% (source: CIA World Factbook)
  • Maternal mortality rate: 437 per 100,000 live births (World Bank)
  • Urban population: 24% of the total population live in urban areas (source: World Bank)

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