Africa, Headlines

POLITICS: ‘Rule of Law’ Crisis in Swaziland

James Hall

MBABANE, Jan 10 2003 (IPS) - This week, the United States government put the tiny Southern African kingdom of Swaziland on notice that it is on probation with regards to the African Growth and Opportunities Act.

The trade scheme allows Swazi goods to enter the U.S. market duty free. Washington is not convinced that King Mswati is sincere about democratic reforms in his realm, and the rule of monarchy is running roughshod over the judicial system.

‘’If government does not honour court rulings, why are we here?” Chief Justice Stanley Sapire asked Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini, who represents government in high-profile cases argued before the High Court.

Jurisprudence as far as government cases were concerned has come to a halt at the nation’s highest court as high court justices contemplate a work stoppage that will continue until they are satisfied that rule of law exists in the kingdom.

The justices sent the attorney general to cabinet offices to seek clarification from Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini whether government intends to continue to disregard appeal court rulings the palace finds objectionable.

The prime minister said in late November that government would ignore a Court of Appeal ruling that overturned King Mswati’s power to issue laws by decree, bypassing parliament. A second appeal court decision called for the jailing of Police Commissioner Edgar Hillary for contempt of court. Hillary refused to carry out a high court ruling instructing him to permit the return of political detainees to their ancestral lands.

The prime minister’s portfolio includes the police, and he chose to stand by the commissioner in the face of the court’s ruling. He told the Times of Swaziland, ‘’A judge might tell you to take a rope and hang yourself, but will you do it?”

Six South African judges on loan to Swaziland who made up the nation’s highest judicial body, the Court of Appeal, resigned en masse to protest government’s decision to ignore their rulings.

‘’The statement that the government of Swaziland does not intend to recognise the two judgements of the Court of Appeal is intolerable," Judge President Charles Leon said in a statement released to the local media recently.

Leone described as ‘’outrageous” the prime minister’s accusation that the justices were influenced by outside forces, and sought to rewrite Swazi history by denying the king the power to rule by decree. ‘’The suggestion that the government believes judges of the Court of Appeal are influenced by forces outside the system and have not acted independently is rejected with the contempt it deserves,” he said.

A statement issued jointly by the Swaziland Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Federation of Swaziland Employers said, ‘’The business community of Swaziland has grave concerns with the deteriorating state of affairs with regard to the rule of law and independence of the judiciary in the kingdom.”

This week, the business groups joined the Swaziland Law Society as partners in a new force on the political scene, the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civil Organisations. The coalition has given government until Jan 20 to reverse its decision to ignore court rulings that it feels go against its interest.

‘’Government must immediately desist from issuing threats against judicial officers,” the coalition’s manifesto demanded.

Attorney General Phesheya Dlamini had informed three high court judges that they would be fired if they did not drop a case involving a mother who sued the palace for the return of her teenage daughter abducted from her school to become King Mswati’s tenth wife.

The Council of Swaziland Churches is also a coalition member. In a statement released earlier, the council said it feared anarchy in the country, and expressed ‘’greatest disappointment at the blatant abuse and disregard for the rule of law by the government”.

First Secretary at the South African High Commission to Swaziland, Thando Dalamba, was reported in the local press as saying his government seeks clarification on the dismissal of the appeal court rulings because the justices are South African.

‘’As the South African government, we are very concerned about what is going on in Swaziland. The statement issued by the prime minister is of grave concern to us,” Dalamba said.

‘’The current conditions are no longer conducive for lawyers because government has overturned court judgements at a whim. It would be pointless for lawyers to continue going to courts under such conditions,” Paul Shibulane, president of the Law Society of Swaziland, said in a statement.

Shibulane accused government of ‘’gross interference with and contempt of the rule of law”.

A Swazi attorney and law society member told IPS this week, ‘’It would appear that the palace does not understand the role of the courts, that they don’t exist as mere advisory bodies to the king, as parliament and cabinet does, but they make independent rulings based on law. In a monarchy, the king’s decision is the law.”

Attorney Lucas Maziya, who led the challenge to Mswati’s ability to rule by decree, told IPS, ‘’This comes down to rule of law. Government cannot choose which court rulings to obey. Either there is consistency, or there will be a complete breakdown, and we will have jungle law.”

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