Thursday, October 11, 2018

Swaziland House Speaker election in confusion as absolute King said to have preferred choice

Swaziland is getting ready to elect a Speaker to the House of Assembly amid rumours that King Mswati III, the kingdom’s absolute monarch, has a preferred choice. It seems history might be about to repeat itself.

If true, this raises a problem for the members of parliament who vote because they have to defer to the King. In Swaziland, (recently renamed Eswatini by the King on his 50th birthday) the House of Assembly and the Senate exist only to do the King’s will.

Political parties are banned from taking part in elections. At the most recent poll on 21 September 2018 the people were only allowed to chose 59 members of the House of Assembly. The King has since appointed a further ten members, including six from his own Royal Family. None of the 30 members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people. The King appoints 20 and the House of Assembly elects 10.

In theory the election of the Speaker of the House of Assembly is an open contest. Nominations for the post closed on Wednesday (10 October 2018). In practice, this does not always happened. After the previous election in 2013 Themba Msibi was elected unopposed after all other candidates stood down. He was not even on the list of candidates.

He was the King’s preferred candidate. Once news of this spread all other candidates withdrew. It was reported at the time that the House of Assembly was ready to elect a Speaker but it was adjourned for three days to allow Msibi time to get his nomination papers entered.

The adjournment was forced by Clerk of Parliament Ndvuna Dlamini.

The adjournment caused confusion in the Swazi Parliament because the kingdom’s Constitution suggests the election of Speaker had to take place at the first sitting of Parliament following a national election.

Among those withdrawing was Prince Guduza, the Speaker of the previous Parliament. He was widely thought of as the first choice of Parliamentarians and until the King’s intervention, was expected to be elected. He withdrew hours before the election took place.

Former minister and dissident journalist Mfomfo Nkhambule and Mangcongco MP Patrick ‘Pha’ Motsa, the only other candidates, had previously withdrawn. 

King Mswati III had a week earlier appointed Msibi to the House of Assembly. Msibi did not stand as a candidate in the national election held on 20 September 2013. 

The intervention of King Mswati was not reported in local media, but the Times of Swaziland, the kingdom’s only independent daily newspaper, reported, ‘Complete gloom enveloped the House of Assembly when Themba Msibi was pronounced Speaker unopposed yesterday.’ 

In an editorial comment, the Times said, ‘Parliament’s credibility, status and integrity have been shaken by the preceding chaos over the election of the Speaker and the nation desperately needs the reassurance that we have actually chosen the best people for the job – and that they will do the best for the nation.’

Msibi became a controversial Speaker. In June 2016 MPs decided to close parliament in protest about what they saw as Msibi’s poor performance of his job. They asked King Mswati to intervene. To their surprise, the King instructed Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini (a man appointed to his job by the King) to tell them to get back to work. They did.

The Swazi Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by the King, reported at the time, ‘“I [Dlamini] have been sent by the King to inform you that he has heard that there are issues affecting parliament. But he says parliamentarians must continue working, especially on government business and other matters relating to government regulations. Bayethe!’’ he shouted the royal cry signifying that the massage was directly from the King.’

The newspaper added, ‘The few MPs who were present responded with the royal Bayethe cry as well. Soon after delivering the message, the PM hit the exit door.’ 

The House was then adjourned because not enough MPs were present to form a quorum.

The Observer reported at the time, ‘Parliamentary business has been grounded for the past two months following a decision by the members of the House of Assembly to get rid of Msibi. The decision to remove Msibi from the position of Speaker was triggered by his refusal to allow members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Swaziland Branch to elect a new executive committee to replace one that was chaired by Dvokodvweni MP Musa Sitezi Dlamini, whom some MPs considered a puppet for the Speaker. 

‘The manner in which Msibi handled the matter did not help the situation either, instead, it revealed his other side-being authoritative. 

‘Most of the MPs felt they could not stand his alleged boastful character. They also accused him of arrogance, selective treatment of members and flouting of parliamentary procedures.

‘Attempts by members of the House of Assembly to remove Msibi from his position have previously been unsuccessful. 

‘A recent attempt before this one was through a parliamentary process that involved investigating his alleged immoral and unethical activities, which led to his subsequent suspension. The suspension was to be enforced pending tabling of the investigation report.

‘Msibi ran to the country’s courts to seek legal redress. While challenging the decision by his colleagues and before the court process was concluded, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini delivered a message from the King informing House members the squabbles should be put to a dead stop. 

‘Msibi was reportedly instructed to abandon the court process and those legislators investigating him also ordered to bring to a halt the whole investigation process. All parties concerned obliged.’

The Observer reported that the House was divided into two rival factions, ‘with a few mainly royal appointees on the side of Msibi and the other section largely composed of elected members directly representing the 55 constituencies.’

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