August 18, 2006

Chiefs: new constitution disagreeable

Swaziland's chiefs have condemned the new constitution as a plot by political progressives to "steal the country" from them. At a gathering of traditional leaders, called this week by the country's executive monarch, King Mswati, 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 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. 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 ten years. The delay is attributed to an absence of unified opinion as to what actually constitutes Swazi customs and traditions. According to a government development officer, "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 Swaziland's people live below the poverty line.
Before the gathering of the chiefs, a new royalist party was launched, while at the same time tear-gas and rubber bullets were used to break up a rally by an opposition party, demanding a constitutional monarchy. Sive Siyinqaba ("the nation is a fortress") described itself as a "cultural organisation" when it was formed in 1996, complying with a ban on political parties. But with the signing of a new constitution by King Mswati III earlier this year, which some analysts believe indirectly legalises political organisations, Sive Siyinqaba has been reborn as a party, and is eyeing the 2008 parliamentary elections. Sive Siyinqaba's membership includes government officials, current members of parliament and individuals from the royal family. As a "cultural organisation" it has stoutly defended the power wielded by King Mswati, sub-Saharan Africa's last executive monarch.
On the other side, SWAYOCO, the youth wing of the opposition Peoples United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), attempted to march through Msunduza, a rundown informal settlement on the hill above the capital, Mbabane. Swazi press reports described the "bashing" of demonstrators by riot police as they pursued the mostly youthful protesters among shanty dwellings. One marcher was shot in the arm with a rubber bullet. A Royal Swaziland Police Force spokesman said in a statement, "Police were only present to ensure law and order prevailed during the march but, to their surprise, the marchers provoked them to extreme limits until they [police] decided to suspend the whole march, using minimum force available, that being teargas and warning shots." SWAYOCO officials said they were also considering standing in the 2008 parliamentary elections, and more marches would take place to promote their message of political change. (IRIN)

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