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Research Group Calls for Reforms in Africa’s Last Absolute Monarchy

  • Anita Powell

Mswati III, King of Swaziland (L) tours the exhibition hall during the first day of the World Energy Forum at the Dubai World Trade Centre, Oct. 22, 2012.
Respected research organization Chatham House is calling for urgent reforms in Africa’s last absolute monarchy, Swaziland - and warns that the impoverished mountain kingdom will suffer economically otherwise. The nation is preparing for parliamentary elections later this month, a vote that comes as its financial situation worsens.

The Chatham House report describes Africa’s last absolute monarchy as being “on a non-sustainable trajectory, which the king and the government will ignore at their peril."

Swaziland is struggling financially, partly because of global trends, but also, the report’s authors say, because the country’s political situation does not inspire investor confidence. The royal household is famed for its lavish lifestyle, but that wealth is not spread around. The UN estimates that about 63 percent of Swazis live below the poverty line.

In recent years, the economic situation has inspired mass protests, which have met a fierce response by security forces. Increasingly, critics blame the nation’s problems on the monarchy’s spending habits and refusal to democratize the country.

Report author Chris Vandome says this upcoming vote can present a springboard for change.

“This is going to be an opportunity for pressure on the government and pressure for political reform. There isn’t scope in the Swazi domestic market to fill the void that the loss of revenue from outside will have. This is because of the political system. There is no link between the democratic process and the executive process; the executive process being the king,” said Vandome.

Royal household's lavish lifestyle

King of Swaziland Mswati III (Front) and one of his 13 wives disembark from a plane after arriving at Katunayake International airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 13, 2012.
King of Swaziland Mswati III (Front) and one of his 13 wives disembark from a plane after arriving at Katunayake International airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka, August 13, 2012.
The landlocked nation wedged between South Africa and Mozambique is jointly ruled by King Mswati III and his mother, Queen Ntombi, who is known as “the Great She-Elephant” (Ndlovukazi). Although Swaziland has a parliament, the monarch appoints the prime minister and a number of lawmakers, including two-thirds of the Senate. The king is the reigning executive, and serves for life.

The report’s authors say that if the king does nothing to change Swaziland’s trajectory, the nation will sink further into poverty. That, they warn, will destabilize the nation and affect Swaziland’s neighbors and the region.

The report’s authors hope the king will heed their warning by executing urgent reforms and allowing reform-minded politicians into the government after parliamentary elections this month.

The issue in these elections, however, is that any reform-minded candidate faces an unfair race because political parties are banned during the campaign. That means there is no coherent opposition that can effectively challenge the status quo.

Vincent Ncongwane, who heads the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland, proposes some serious changes as well.

“Our view is that it would not be a problem to have a constitutional monarch. But ours is executive. And the problem is that if anything goes wrong, it is difficult in our culture to criticize the doings of the king. So this is why we would want to have as an executive someone like a prime minister who has been elected in and can be taken out of office,” said Ncongwane.

South Africa leverage

Chatham House's Vandome says that neighboring South Africa may have leverage - the king failed to secure a $240 million (R2.4 billion) loan from South Africa in 2011, after he refused to accept some of the loan conditions, such as political reforms.

Ncongwane says that he thinks that outside pressure may be the only thing the monarch may respond to.

“We think that it’s about time that countries that have got the necessary power also bring it to the attention of the powers that be that this process has to stop somewhere. The locals, the Swazis, are trying to demonstrate against this and put across their views. But that doesn’t count for much because our government is more concerned about what the international community will say or do. … They wouldn’t care less about what the locals are saying because, what power do the locals have? Nothing,” said Ncongwane.

Those locals will go to the polls on September 20.