Row over new Swazi constitution

At a gathering of traditional leaders, called this week by the country’s executive monarch, King Mswati III, chiefs discussed the new constitution, which includes a Bill of Rights permitting freedom of assembly and speech, among others.

Mswati’s signing of a new constitution earlier this year, according to some analysts, has indirectly legalised political parties by overturning a 1973 royal decree that effectively banned them.

“The constitution is open to huge abuse. We have noted that some cabinet ministers and MPs (Members of Parliament) are plotting to topple the King through this constitution. This is a serious cause for concern to us, as chiefs,” said Chief Magudvulele, of KaNdwandwa chiefdom in the northern Hhohho Region.

This apparent loophole in the constitution has seen Sive Siyinqaba (“the nation is a fortress”), formed as a cultural organisation in 1996, reborn as a political party this month, with an eye on the 2008 parliamentary elections.

The legality of political parties is steeped in confusion. Swaziland’s Prime Minister Themba Dlamini said in a statement that political parties remain illegal.

Although Chief Magudvulele did not specify the individuals involved in the alleged treason conspiracy, observers deduced he was referring to Sive Siyinqaba.

Most of the country’s nearly 350 chiefs attended the meeting, where some viewed the concept of human rights as an affront to traditional Swazi custom.

“These human rights, I am afraid, are trampling on what is genuinely Swazi, and that should be a cause of concern for all of us,” Chief Gija Dlamini, of the Nkamazi chiefdom, told the gathering.

Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, the king’s brother, who led the five-year Constitutional Review Commission, criticised the chiefs for not taking part in the consultative process before the constitution was drafted, led by Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Prince David Dlamini, another of Mswati’s brothers.

In their submissions, the chiefs highlighted the rift between traditional authorities ‘ whose power holds sway over a majority of the country’s one million people ‘ and the progressive elements embodied in the constitution, such as the rights bill.

Mswati assured the chiefs, through his representatives, that their powers would not be diminished by the constitution.

Swaziland’s chiefs hold hereditary positions that fall under a parallel national constitution called Swazi Law and Custom. These customary laws have not yet been transcribed, despite repeated attempts over the past 10 years. The delay is attributed to an absence of unified opinion as to what actually constitutes Swazi customs and traditions.

A government development officer told IRIN that “chiefs see the constitution as a threat to their power. To them, human rights mean human independence, which they also see as a threat to their authority”.

However, not all chiefs were hidebound traditionalists ‘ some were educated and socially progressive, and willing to take risks for the benefit of their subjects. “It’s a matter of educating the chiefs, which is what the King has begun with this meeting of chiefs,” the officer said.

Prior to promulgation of the constitution, chiefs could evict any resident who engaged in political activity, and some chiefs maintain that this right stands, in light of the prime minister’s statement that political parties remain banned.

The chiefs have authority over about 80 percent of the population because they reside on communal Swazi Nation Land controlled by the chiefs. According to the United Nations Development Programme, about two-thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line. ‘ IRIN.

August 2006
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