As attention in Swaziland is diverted towards King Mswati III’s 50th birthday on 19 April 2018, one week earlier marks the 45th anniversary of the date the kingdom stopped being a 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.’
Political parties remain banned 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 55 members. No members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people.
According to the Swaziland United Democratic Front, one of the more vocal opposition groups on Swaziland, ‘The decree criminalised political activity, saw the banning of political parties and the introduction of a system of governance benefitting a few elites and their cronies; all at the expense of the majority of Swazi’s who continue to languish in poverty, underdevelopment and perpetual neglect.’
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to a report in the Times Sunday, an independent newspaper in Swaziland, that traditionalists stopped the decree being repealed when Swaziland’s Constitution came into force in 2006.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 said 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 Times reported, ‘The argument by the traditionalists to keep the decree in the statutes was that it was the “heart” of the country and its repeal was tantamount to killing the whole country, – the whole government machinery, thus depriving authorities of powers to govern the kingdom.’
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.
In 2015, for example, activities to mark the 12 April anniversary were abandoned amid fears that police would attack participants. The US-based Solidarity Center reported, ‘Swaziland’s union movement cancelled a planned rally over the weekend after concerns the police would break up the gathering as they have multiple times in the past several weeks. In February and March, large numbers of police disbanded meetings of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), injuring at least one union leader.
‘Two weeks ago, the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) gathered for a prayer service, when a large number of police showed up and sought to disrupt the event, physically injuring the union’s secretary general in the process, according to union leaders. Union members refused to be intimidated and carried on their service, say union leaders, adding that the government is increasingly prohibiting workers from meeting or publicly speaking out.’
In 2014, police illegally abducted prodemocracy leaders and drove them up to 30 kilometres away, and dumped them to prevent them taking part in a meeting calling for freedom in the kingdom. Police staged roadblocks on all major roads leading to Swaziland’s main commercial city, Manzini, where protests were to be held. They also physically blocked halls to prevent meetings taking place. Earlier in the day police had announced on state radio that meetings would not be allowed to take place.
In April 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the Royal Decree, armed police and state security forces in Swaziland broke up a series of events, including meetings, prayers and a rally, which had been called to debate the political situation in the kingdom.
In 2012, four days of public protest were planned by trade unions and other prodemocracy organisations. They were brutally suppressed by police and state forces and had to be abandoned.
In 2011, a group using Facebook, called for an uprising to depose the King Mswati III. State forces took this call seriously and many prodemocracy leaders were arrested. Police and security forces prevented people from travelling into towns and cities to take part in demonstrations. Again, the protests were abandoned.
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