Eswatini political crisis deepens as the promised dialogue remains a wish

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King Mswati III of Eswatini. EPA-EFE:Yeshiel Panchia
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On the 12th of April 1973, Eswatini’s newborn democracy was cut short at its prime when a decree banning political parties was issued by the then King Sobhuza II, giving way to new political system (introduced as Tikhundla) which is promoted as “unique” to the Swazi condition, embracing “African values”. This decree made Eswatini into an absolute monarchy, granting the king control of all the three arms of government, in addition to being above the constitution. This reversed the gains of Swazi people in their struggle for independence in the colonial era. As a result, today Swaziland is in labor for freedom.

This has always been a ticking time bomb that could have exploded at any time, no wonder the recent events that has taken lives and spread violence across the country. Amidst all the recent upheavals that have demonstrated deep anger among the people due to many factors, a quench for social change has grown naturally with the demand to recognize the rights and freedom of every person as a major demand. The once open and closed struggles gave birth to a political turmoil that started last year after the death of a university student. Ever since then, the country is slowly disintegrating into a war zone as state brutality rises and pro-democracy forces respond. 

More than a year now have passed since the government promised dialogue to the nation and SADC chair President Cyril Ramaphosa personally visited the country, calling for calm and dialogue. Due to the respect and commitment displayed by South African presidency, Swazis were able to calm down and seek peaceful ways of resolving their challenges which was the ‘dialogue’ everyone yearns for.

Despite these efforts, the Eswatini state has not listen and taken the calls for dialogue seriously. To them, it one of the ways to keep people calm by telling them what they want to hear. Up to this day, true dialogue has not been materialized and squabbling continues between vocal members of parliament and the prime minister.

Build up to the dialogue                                

In late June 2021, a SADC Organ Troika Ministerial Fact-Finding Mission was dispatched to the Eswatini, followed by a technical fact finding mission the following month. These missions engaged with key stakeholders in the Kingdom of Eswatini with a view to assist the Organ with clear understanding of the prevailing political and security situation in the country. After collecting facts, the SADC Organ extended a hand in line with its policies by proposing and drafting Eswatini’s framework for Inclusive National Dialogue with its findings, observations and recommendations.

Among the objectives was that the dialogue is based on national ownership, domestic measures, and peaceful co-existence. It further made recommendations of establishing a multi stakeholders national dialogue committee and a proposed Roadmap for conducting a national dialogue. With all this effort the government has downplayed this subject within parliament and fed strongly to the narrative that the state never wanted dialogue but simply wanted to calm protestors and minimize the blowback it faced. Since the announcement that Sibaya will be conveyed to help nation find solutions to problems, the government has given one excuse after the other as it was first reported that the government sought to delay dialogue until after the Incwala ceremony. After that they said they are waiting for SADC secretariat which was helping with terms of reference and the terms were presented.

The government has never been short of excuses as they now allege the environment is not conducive for dialogue as there is violence where properties of pro-democracy leaders and some government leaders were burned down. The cycle of lies and political dribbling has intensified with the total avoidance of the subject of dialogue. 

MPs could not keep quiet on it yet still find no answers on what is happening, only to be promised that there will be dialogue when time is right without explaining what constitutes a right time and who is planning the dialogue if it’s not people delegated by them as rightful representatives of the people. This situation illuminates the reality of Swazi politics, which is captured and directed outside the walls of parliament and ultimately centered in the royal family.

A cycle of violence is brewing

There are now new growing threats to Eswatini as state security forces have become ubiquitous and there have been killings targeting these security personnel. Many citizens feel betrayed by SADC and fooled by the government, making efforts at reconciliation even more difficult. The government continues to use the media solely to discredit pro-democracy forces and authorities use derogatory names for these groups. This hate speech has the power to brew hate crimes as burnings of pro-democracy properties and killings of state security continue unabated.The king recently charged police officers that they must meet insurgencies eye for an eye.

Obstacles to dialogue

The blame for this violence is solely on the government’s side as progressives were the first to call for dialogue and have been eagerly waiting for it. Challenges of not having the much anticipated dialogue emanates among other things on: Firstly, the king’s remarks that they can’t dialogue with ‘dagga smokers’(equating supporters of democracy with those that are intoxicated) point to a painful reality that those in authority do not recognize all citizens as equals. Secondly, the current system dominated by royalty and immediate relatives and associates has for too long lived unchallenged. Adapting to new realities is hard for the leaders and their past deeds towards the people increase the level of mistrust between the state and society. 

Thirdly, the Swazi state is a one party state where there is no opposition. Their politics is limited to how they understand and want to play their own politics. The rhetoric of home grown democracy has reached its elasticity level as more people decry the system and its failures. Fourthly, the state has strong international supporters such as the Equatorial Guinea government whom it is believed it sent some of its armed forces (photographic evidence of which circulates online platforms and in testimonies of victims).

SADC has also fed this complicity. As we learned from a leaked video by the resigned army commander, SADC has pledged to be on the Kingdom’s side politically, which resembles the way it shielded ex-president of Zimbabwe Mr. Robert Mugabe from responsibility of Zimbabwe crisis. 

The importance of dialogue

Dialogue will give the nation a chance to resolve our political difference with less violence and minimize the human cost that might have occurred during violent political conflict. Swazis has a long culturally believe that if problems are big there is a need to sit down and talk which is commonly known as Kungena endlini kagogo which can be interpreted as getting together and talking. The effect of the last unrest continues to show its ugly faces as many people are suffering including young children who lost parents or guardians. This is breaking families and communities in ways we have not imagined as the scourge of violence seems to be the only adopted ways of resolving problems.

We are rearing angry children and people which can be disastrous for Eswatini’s future. Apart from the violence and its effect, the nation wants a better way of living and a chance to determine own future political and otherwise. The current system of government limits freedoms of people, that of association, choice and more. This has affected decision making and misplaced rightful owners of the country to second class citizens who have no say over the affairs of the country.

It is important for this to be reversed so that all the effects it has had on people can be corrected and only a genuine honest dialogue can pave a way forward. Dialogue will allow leaders to find consensus on the most pressing issues and possibly a negotiated settlement that will give in to the demands of people while preserving peace and minimize the loss of human life. Violence breeds violence while dialogue promotes civility and professionalism.

The international community

The state has successfully played the victim card, as it changes its tone from time to time alleging that there were foreign mercenaries who caused all unrest in the last year. On the April 7th, 2021, The Times reported a speech by ICT Minister, who is the king’s daughter, alleging that mercenaries have have invaded Eswatini. This has made international bodies and countries to await government directive on calls for accountability and honest dialogue among stakeholders.

The US, UK, and EU Missions to Eswatini made a joint statement on the 15 of July 2021 where they welcome the call for Sibaya (a constitutionally traditional way of talking between the king and his subjects). This was due to the hope that it will present opportunity for the nation to express their views. However, it is clear that this was just another political stun judging from the lies and excuses they gave to the nation. In some time, they refuted the terms by SADC saying they will develop own terms and no one can dictate to them, making it clear that they only wanted to weaken the resolve of the people as there has never been any genuine interest to resolve problems raised by the people. 

The intervention by SADC was internationally applauded, as they made efforts to guide the government and hold them accountable. Yet, the government has brushed off all those recommendations as if it were just cobweb. The angle of assistance is always diplomatic and that has made it hard for bodies to take a firm position and denounce any wrongdoings.

Eswatini’s sovereignty must not be compromised in the process of finding solutions to its problems. South Africa’s civil society has put pressure and commemorated the first anniversary of the June unrest. The marches to international embassies have not yielded much results. The UN has released statement supporting dialogue and condemning violence, all of which falls on deaf ears. In view of the country’s ongoing complex political situation, the wider international community has a moral responsibility to help build trust and confidence in the dialogue, underpinned by the fundamental principles of inclusivity, transparency, broad public participation, and a clear and practical agenda which addresses the root causes of the grievances.

Recent developments

The government has started an ongoing army and police recruitment exercise capitalizing on the many disgruntled unemployed youths that they will turn up. Eswatini is governed by traditional structures at the community level in the form of chiefs that mostly work within security forces or upper government institutions. This simply means the country is monitored from the community level upwards and those who do not do as told can be victimized or targeted either through denial of services or otherwise.

The police have doubled down on efforts to clamp down on protest actions through roadblocks and monitoring the university. A para military group emerged last year calling themselves Swaziland International Solidarity Forces (SISF) which targets government security personal, soldiers and police. Over the last month, two police officers were gunned down.

A game ranger who is said to have political connections has been killed and his gun taken on the 6th July 2022 as the ranger killed a resident. For this death, the SISF claimed responsibility. Furthermore, the government spokesperson has declared an online paper a terrorist entity. On the prospects of dialogue, he said they want to protect those who differ with progressives as they are targeted so for now there will be no dialogue.

Political arrests have continued unabated as on 6 July 2022, a leader of the Peoples United Democratic Movement (Siboniso Mkhabela) was arrested while earlier a warrant of arrest for the movement’s president was issued and he had to flee to South Africa. Many, including a member of parliament, are in exile and two others remains in jail for trumped up charges for over a year now. 

Their crime was to openly call for democratic reforms. The king has recently shirked a meeting of SADC’s extraordinary summit which was to be chaired by SA President Mr. C Ramaphosa to discuss Eswatini political crisis among other things, and as a result it was cancelled. This is viewed by many as a major blow in finding a peaceful resolution to the Swazi problems. In a government website, the Kingdom alleges that they didn’t decline to participate but requested a virtual meeting through Zoom which other leaders declined.

Many are frustrated by the king and his government’s attitude towards this bodies that many recognize as the rightful structure to mediate in case of conflicts in the region. This is undoubtedly a challenge, as no one knows how exactly he wants this impasse to be resolved.

The way forward

There is a need to increase capacity of leaders so that they have adequate skills to cope with these drastic changes. Trust building processes need to begin because no matter how we differ, at some point there must be engagements on particular subjects and this dialogue is highly needed as there is no need for a tiny nation like Eswatini to be up in arms. Playing political gymnastics only deteriorates the situation as the government must appreciate that the expression of the views of people do not come from vacuum but rather are lived experiences. The multi stake holders forum which solely constitutes of civil society players has taken a correct step in attempting to learn from countries like Lesotho which have undergone similar political strife.

There is a need to build a multi stake holders national dialogue committee which will cooperate with international bodies while still safeguarding the nation’s independence. As stated in the SADC framework, the main function of the Multi-Stakeholder National Dialogue Committee (MNDC) would be to establish the operational modalities and oversee the process for the consultation of all key stakeholders in the national dialogue, formulate and agree on specific terms of reference, mandate, and other administrative matters for the day-to-day operations of the MNDC at a technical level. 

International bodies must adopt a common approach and support the already moving interventions by SADC. There can also support by experts who are able to provide insights and guidance on key technical, legal, security and other process-related issues and context dynamics. In an environment of trust, decisions should be made through consensus. Where consensus is difficult to reach, the international community can assist, while upholding the same principles of inclusivity and trust building. The SADC framework remains insightful and balanced. As this crisis unfolds the room for dialogue will be lost to sound of guns and serious instability, let’s all find consensus.

Zakithi Sibandze (@swtzar) is a community developer student at the University of Eswatini, a women’s rights activist advocating for a just society which respect women & girls.

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