9 April 2019

Swaziland: Anniversary of Day Swaziland Stopped Being a Democracy and Became Absolute Monarchy Approaches

It is approaching 46 years since Swaziland (now known as /eSwatini) stopped being a parliamentary democracy and became an absolute monarchy.

On 12 April 1973 King Sobhuza II proclaimed a Royal Decree after he objected to his subjects electing members of a political party that was not under his control. He tore up the kingdom's constitution that had been in place since Swaziland gained independence from Britain in 1968. Even though Swaziland adopted a new constitution in 2006, the kingdom, now ruled by King Mswati III, remains an absolute monarchy.

In his decree King Sobhuza announced, 'I have assumed supreme power in the Kingdom of Swaziland and that all Legislative, Executive and Judicial power is vested in myself.'

He added, 'The Constitution is indeed the cause of growing unrest, insecurity, dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in our country and an impediment to free and progressive development in all spheres of life.'

He also said, 'All political parties and similar bodies that cultivate and bring about disturbances and ill-feelings within the Nations are hereby dissolved and prohibited.'

He said, 'Any person who forms or attempts or conspires to form a political party or who organises or participates in any way in any meeting, procession or demonstration in contravention of this decree shall be guilty of an offence and liable, on conviction, to imprisonment not exceeding six months.'

In 1973 the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) believed King Sobhuza had taken control from the Swazi Parliament because he feared people were becoming educated and would mount a serious threat to his power.

In 1968 Swaziland had what the CIA called a 'British-imposed' constitution with a formal 'Western style' parliament working alongside the Swazi National Council (SNC), 'a group of chiefs and headmen dominated by the King'.

In a secret report which has since been declassified the CIA stated, 'In theory the SNC only dealt with tribal matters but it always maintained a strong voice in governmental affairs.'

It added, 'The veneer provided by the British-imposed constitution and parliamentary form of government left the King a great deal of room for exercising political power but it also left room for a substantial degree of political manoeuvring by non-traditional oriented political parties.

'King Sobhuza staked his prestige on the formation of his own political party [the Imbkodvo National Movement] and won an overwhelming victory, sweeping 24 seats, during the country's first post-independence election in 1967. During the next election in 1973, however, Sobhuza's party lost three of the 24 parliamentary seats [to the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress] and the King dissolved Parliament, suspended the Constitution, and assumed power by decree.'

The CIA report added, 'Most of the vote against Sobhuza's party in 1973 came from an area that contained the capital city [Mbabane], much of the country's developed industry, the civil servants, and almost half of Swaziland's urban population.

'While many observers did not feel that the loss of three parliamentary seats represented a serious threat to the King and his party, the King probably interpreted the vote as the initial stages of the breakdown of tribal authority.'

The CIA report stated, 'As the Swazi people and the economy become more sophisticated, Sobhuza's autocratic style is being viewed as an anachronism by growing numbers of educated Swaziland.'

A confidential cable (later declassified) from the US Embassy in Swaziland to the State Department in Washington dated 13 April 1973, the day after King Sobhuza's proclamation, read in part, 'King Sobhuza stated he had taken drastic action to prevent breakdown of law and order and to reverse process of disharmony, bitterness and division which existed in country. Prince Sifuba [head of the Swazi National Council], on behalf Swazi nation, had stated that nation wished King to know it had never been so divided as at present. King laid blame for present "very serious situation" in country directly to constitution which introduced "undesirable political activities" into country bringing bitterness and threats to peace, law and order.'

It added, 'Extent of action surprised Western observers who perceive no serious threat to law and order. Non-Swazis and even some Swazis profess belief King yielded to pressures and over-reacted to insignificant opposition.'

The cable said the King repealed the Swaziland constitution, dismissed parliament and assumed personal control of the country as King-in-Council.

The cable listed what it called some 'fairly tame' activities that had taken place in the previous months that traditionalists and monarchists said was disruptive. These included brief work stoppages at the Havelock and Ngwenya mines; some civil servants requested a meeting of all civil servants in December 1972 because they were dissatisfied with wage increases; modernization and proliferation of commerce and industry in Swaziland had led to attempts to organize unions; students had voiced complaints and grievances and there had been growing pressure in the rural areas for different rules for land tenure which, the cable said, implied a reduction in the real power of the local chief.

Political parties remain banned in Swaziland and the King choses all members of the government and the judiciary. He also chooses 10 members of the House of Assembly, allowing his subjects to select the other 59 members. No members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people.

In 2013, Swaziland's Attorney-General Majahenkhaba Dlamini said there was no need to annul the Royal Decree.

He was reacting to a report in the Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in Swaziland, that traditionalists stopped the decree being repealed when Swaziland's Constitution came into force in 2006. He believed the Constitution in effect annulled the Royal Decree.

According to the Times Sunday 'influential traditionalists' feared Swaziland 'could become a republic if this law was repealed'.

The newspaper said preparations to abandon the Royal Decree in 2005 were far advanced and a gazette had been drawn up.

The newspaper quoted one of the traditionalists, Brigadier General Fonono Dube, who was a member of Liqoqo, an advisory council to the King, saying, 'There was no way we could have revoked a law that establishes the country. We couldn't have allowed the authorities of the country to annul the decree because that would have turned the country into a republic. We don't need a president in Swaziland. We need the King.'

The anniversary of the Royal Decree is marked by pro-democracy advocates in Swaziland. It is usual for the State police and armed forces to intervene. The Suppression of Terrorism Act 2008 makes it illegal to campaign for democracy.

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