7 December 2011
Dear The Commonwealth, It's Time to Suspend Swaziland
In April, Maxwell Dlamini, the President of the Swaziland National Union of Students, was arrested just outside of Manzini, Swaziland. He was beaten, tortured and forced into signing a declaration admitting to carrying explosives that were never found. He was protesting against a direct instruction from Africa's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III to stop any young person with a connection to a pro-democracy movement from getting into university.
This is one in a very long line of international violations by an ever beleaguered king. Educated in Britain, King Mswati III is rich but his country is bankrupt and has been in a state of emergency since 1973. As I said in a previous Huffington Post blog, King Mswati is royally screwing the people of his country and nobody is doing anything to stop him.
I visited Swaziland just last month and the people remain as disempowered and isolated from politics as they always have. I interviewed a number of people, city and rural, employed and unemployed and whilst all of them agreed that democracy was the most important next step they felt unable to ask for it. Not surprising in such a peaceful country where the demonstrations of April were the first in decades and largely without effect. In a poor country like Swaziland, politics is the change-maker. Aid forms part of the strategic solution, an important one, but regime change and the democratisation of Swaziland is the only way forward.
Swaziland is a member of the Commonwealth, an institution which claims "54 independent states working together in the common interests of their citizens for development, democracy and peace."
Imprisoning students, torturing and beating them and ruling absolutely is a funny way of sticking to that pledge. So far, the Commonwealth has done and said little. Observing a few elections to form a pretend government and sending over British and European politicians to drink tea with the king is about as radical as they've got. It sounds all very British.
But the Commonwealth has suspended two countries in the past, Nigeria and the Fiji Islands, because of a lack of democracy. Neither was deemed to adhere to "the principles of the Commonwealth." It's a disappointing set of circumstances that seem to suggest one rule for one, more visible member and another for somewhere most newscasters and politicians couldn't pick out on a map. Moreover, the injustices pushed upon the people of Swaziland are so far superior to what was happening in Fiji, it makes it impossible to grasp the reasoning for inaction from the Commonwealth.
King Mswati has no intention of letting go of his absolute rule and his antiquated traditions are helping to wipe out an entire generation. He sacks Prime Ministers as and when he pleases. He's alienated investment, destroyed the economy and presided over a country with one of the highest unemployment rates in Africa. He has imprisoned and tortured anyone that opposes him. Yet, despite having never entered into a war, he has spent millions on new weaponry.
I'm asking for Swaziland to be suspended from the Commonwealth. I don't pretend that this will be an immediate step forward towards democracy in Swaziland but the international coverage this will bring will further embarrass the King and redirect our focus onto the forgotten heroes of this deeply poor country, such as Maxwell.
Without strategic or financial importance to the world, Swaziland is allowed to continue along this destructive path -- it has the worst HIV/AIDS infection rate and the lowest life expectancy rate of any country in the world. So much of this is due to the poor governance and lack of women's rights across the country. Maxwell remains in jail even after suffering what his family describe as a small stroke. The authorities are even refusing to offer him a hearing date. It's likely he'll remain there for the next year unless someone steps up.
Hey Commonwealth, I'm looking at you.