King Sobhuza II of Swaziland may have torn up the country’s constitution, banned political parties and started to rule as an absolute monarch in 1973 because he feared people were becoming educated and would mount a serious threat to his power, a secret CIA report suggests.
The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a report called Africa Review, marked ‘secret’ and dated 19 January 1979 evaluates the time between Swaziland gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1968 and King Sobhuza’s Proclamation on 12 April 1973 that allowed him to rule as an absolute monarch.
His son King Mswati III continues as an absolute monarch today even though a new constitution came into effect in 2006. As a demonstration of his power King Mswati changed the name of Swaziland to Eswatini on his 50th birthday in April 2018.
In 1968 Swaziland had what the CIA called a ‘British-imposed’ constitution with a formal ‘Western style’ parliament working alongside the Swazi National Council (SNC), ‘a group of chiefs and headmen dominated by the King’.
The secret report which has since been declassified stated, ‘In theory the SNC only dealt with tribal matters but it always maintained a strong voice in governmental affairs.’
It added, ‘The veneer provided by the British-imposed constitution and parliamentary form of government left the King a great deal of room for exercising political power but it also left room for a substantial degree of political manoeuvring by non-traditional oriented political parties.
‘King Sobhuza staked his prestige on the formation of his own political party [the Imbkodvo National Movement] and won an overwhelming victory, sweeping 24 seats, during the country’s first post-independence election in 1967. During the next election in 1973, however, Sobhuza’s party lost three of the 24 parliamentary seats [to the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress] and the King dissolved Parliament, suspended the Constitution, and assumed power by decree.’
The CIA report added, ‘Most of the vote against Sobhuza’s party in 1973 came from an area that contained the capital city [Mbabane], much of the country’s developed industry, the civil servants, and almost half of Swaziland’s urban population.
‘While many observers did not feel that the loss of three parliamentary seats represented a serious threat to the King and his party, the King probably interpreted the vote as the initial stages of the breakdown of tribal authority.’
The CIA report that was published in 1979, six years after the King’s Proclamation, stated, ‘As the Swazi people and the economy become more sophisticated, Sobhuza’s autocratic style is being viewed as an anachronism by growing numbers of educated Swaziland.’
A confidential cable (later declassified) from the US Embassy in Swaziland to the State Department in Washington dated 13 April 1973, the day after King Sobhuza’s proclamation, read in part, ‘King Sobhuza stated he had taken drastic action to prevent breakdown of law and order and to reverse process of disharmony, bitterness and division which existed in country. Prince Sifuba [head of the Swazi National Council], on behalf Swazi nation, had stated that nation wished King to know it had never been so divided as at present. King laid blame for present “very serious situation” in country directly to constitution which introduced “undesirable political activities” into country bringing bitterness and threats to peace, law and order.’
It added, ‘Extent of action surprised Western observers who perceive no serious threat to law and order. Non-Swazis and even some Swazis profess belief King yielded to pressures and over-reacted to insignificant opposition.’
The cable said the King repealed the Swaziland constitution, dismissed parliament and assumed personal control of the country as King-in-Council. ‘He took the action after an unanimous resolution of both houses of parliament stating present constitution was unworkable and appealing to King to find ways and means to resolve present “constitutional crisis” with members placing themselves entirely at disposal of King-in-Council.’
He added, ‘King took extreme measure of assuming personal rule and issued series of decrees giving him wide-ranging powers, including that of preventive detention. Royal Proclamation stated that King was decreeing preventive detention powers for six- month period.
‘But there was no repeat no other mention of time for which King proposes hold personal rule nor was there any announcement of plans for drawing up new constitution or substituting revised parliamentary system.’
In the event a new constitution did not come into effect until 2006, more than 30 years after the Royal Proclamation, and it confirmed the King (now Sobhuza’s son Mswati III) as an absolute monarch. Political parties remain banned and the people are only allowed to elect 59 members of the House of Assembly; the King appoints another 10. None of the 30 members of the Swazi Senate are elected by the people. The King chooses the Prime Minister and members of the government.
The cable listed what he called some ‘fairly tame’ activities that had taken place in the previous months that traditionalists and monarchists said was disruptive. They included brief work stoppages at the Havelock and Ngwenya mines; some civil servants requested a meeting of all civil servants in December 1972 because they were dissatisfied with wage increases; modernization and proliferation of commerce and industry in Swaziland had led to attempts to organize unions; students had voiced complaints and grievances and there had been growing pressure in the rural areas for different rules for land tenure which, the cable said, implied a reduction in the real power of the local chief.
It added that the tactics of the opposition NNLC party were, ‘Basically negative, involving direct criticism of the predominance of the Dlamini clan in Swaziland. There is also some evidence that very recently NNLC members were initiating and spreading rumors that prominent figures, including the Prime Minister, were directly involved in ritual murders.’
It added, ‘Accusations that members of his family and clan had practiced ritual murder and cannibalism shocked and disgusted him.’
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