Swaziland: Political Crisis - Facts Remain Hidden

Photo: UN Photo/Marco Castro
King Mswati III of Swaziland.

The political crisis in Swaziland continues into a third week after a vote of no-confidence in the Swazi Government was passed and then reversed 12 days later.

According to the constitution, the government should have resigned or been sacked by King Mswati III after the first vote - but neither of these things happened. Instead, the government forced a revote which it won. There is no legal reason why the revote was allowed and for the constitution to be ignored.

Swaziland is not a democracy and King Mswati rules as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch. It seems that he refused to accept the vote and this set in place a chain of events that led to it being overturned.

Freedom of speech is severely curtailed in Swaziland and people are fearful of talking publicly about what has really been happening in Swaziland in the recent past. They are particularly fearful of being seen to criticise King Mswati - no matter how mildly they do it.

This fear makes it difficult to get people to talk 'on the record' about what has caused the present political crisis and who is to blame for it. But this is what Swazi Media Commentary has managed to piece together so far.

On 3 October 2012, by a vote of 42 in favour and six against, the House of Assembly passed a no-confidence motion in the government - this was more than the three-fifths majority (39 votes) of the House membership needed to trigger the constitution.

According to sections 68 and 134 of the Swaziland Constitution, the government had three days in which to resign. If it did not, the King was obliged by the constitution to sack the Prime Minister and the cabinet.

At midnight on the day of the no-confidence vote PM Barnabas Dlamini held a press conference to announce that he did not recognise the vote and he would not resign. Three days then went by but King Mswati III did not sack the government.

By protocol, when the House of Assembly makes a decision, it has to be personally conveyed to the king by the Speaker of the House. In this case King Mswati refused to meet with Speaker Prince Gaduza. This meant that officially the king did not know about the vote of no-confidence and therefore he felt he did not have to act.

This gave time for the king's advisors from the Liqoqo (Swaziland National Council) to meet to decide what they should advise the king about the no-confidence vote.

They were not prepared to allow the vote to stand so they looked for excuses to ignore it. The king's advisers are all traditionalists and are in charge of interpreting Swazi Law and Custom. The laws and customs are administered by chiefs who rule over their subjects in the name of the king. The laws and customs operate outside of the constitution. It is not in the interests of the traditionalists to have their actions subjected to constitutional law.

King Mswati always decides which motions from the Swaziland Parliament he wishes to support and those he does not. He did not wish to support the no-confidence vote. He has also on numerous times in the past sent instructions to Parliament on actions he wishes them to take. They always without discussion or hesitation do as he tells them. The Parliament made up of the House of Assembly and the Senate, therefore, cannot be seen as an institution independent of the monarchy.

King Mswati had personally appointed Dlamini as Prime Minister in 2008 in contravention of the Constitution which states that the PM must be a member of the House of Assembly. Dlamini was not. He came into parliament specifically at the king's instruction to be PM. The government was also chosen by the king. Therefore, to criticise the performance of the PM and cabinet can also be seen as criticism of the king's choices.

When it became clear that King Mswati would not support the vote of no-confidence, Dlamini felt confident enough to insist that a new vote be taken by the House to over-turn it. This vote was held and passed on 15 October 2012.

But, the PM did not have the confidence that he would win by a respectable margin. Only 32 members of the 65-stong House voted and nocount was taken. Instead, the Speaker simply relied on a shout of Aye or Nay from the members present. We will never know how many voted for the reversal of the no-confidence vote. But, with only 32 members of the 65-strong House present the vote could not have been three-fifths (39) of the total membership of the House.

According to standing orders there have to be at least 30 members of the House present for a vote to be taken. During the rerun of the vote some members left the chamber taking the number below 30. The Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku left the chamber to search for missing members and found some of them relaxing in the canteen watching the proceedings on a monitor. The MPs say the DPM bullied and threatened them to return to the chamber. He denies this and says he simply 'lobbied' them back into the chamber. They did, however, return.

After the vote, accusations have been published in Swazi local newspapers that some members were either threatened or bribed to support reversing the no-confidence vote. Reports say some were promised high office or cash to help them get re-elected in next year's national election.

Immediately the revote was taken, civil society organisations, pro-democracy activists and lawyers in Swaziland protested that it was unconstitutional and that the government had no right to force a re-vote: only a court could do so. The Attorney General Majahenkhaba Dlamini in a newspaper interview agreed that the constitution did indeed say the court was the place to go to get clarity on the constitution, but that government had decided not to do so.

The Law Society of Swaziland has said it will challenge the revote in court.

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