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Why is the Swazi government buying weapons?

Manqoba Nxumalo is a senior investigative reporter for the Times of Swaziland, the country's only independent group of newspapers. He is also a Norway-based activist, with particular interest in issues of human rights and media freedom.

The Swazi army was formed in the early 1970s – not with the goal of protecting the Swazi people, but to quell internal dissent. As reported by WikiLeaks, the Swazi government may have been stopped from purchasing arms from the UK, but it is still importing them via other means. The people of Swaziland are fearful.

Recently WikiLeaks revealed that Swaziland had tried to acquire arms from the UK. It was reported by The Guardian – and later local newspapers – that Britain had blocked a $60 million sale of helicopters, armoured cars and machine guns to Swaziland, fearing the weapons could end up in Iran, at least according to US diplomatic cables.

Cables released by WikiLeaks reveal that an export licence for the deal was refused to a UK arms broker, Unionlet, run by a former ministry of defence official. Mark Ranger, managing director of Unionlet, told The Guardian the proposed shipment of 925 Heckler & Koch assault rifles, five heavy machine guns, armoured personnel carriers and three Bell H1U1 helicopters was intended to be used by Swaziland on African peacekeeping missions for the UN.

Coincidentally, a few days after these revelations, the Mozambican daily newspaper, Noticias, reported that two containers full of weapons were on their way to Swaziland early this month. “Apparently the Swazi government has entered into a specific agreement with its Mozambican counterpart which will see the Mozambican Army escorting two containers from the Maputo to the Swazi border. The consignment came from an unnamed country in a ship named MSC Chaneca…” reads an email I received from a source.

Principal secretary in the Swazi ministry of defence, John Kunene, told the Times of Swaziland that even though the government may have failed to get what it wanted from the Brits, it had not given up its ambition to acquire  arms.

Is the government of Swaziland preparing for war? With no eminent threats posed by our neighbours, or even our perceived “enemies”, it becomes conceivable that this war is against any form of popular uprising in this tiny, landlocked kingdom with no “natural” enemies outside its borders. Put differently, these weapons could quite possibly be used against the peaceful yet oppressed people of Swaziland.

Even if there was a threat against Swaziland by any of our neighbours, reasons Bongani Nxumalo, a Swazi attached to the US Marines, Swaziland would be no match. “Swaziland is surrounded by Mozambique and South Africa. The Kingdom cannot stand against the armies of these countries… Since the country cannot afford to fight any of its neighbours the only logical explanation for this arming is to wage war against the civilians,” Nxumalo said during an interview with the Times on 6 February.

In fact, that a country the size of Johannesburg with a population of less than 1 million people would have a standing army is startling. Countries like Costa Rica, Grenada, Haiti, Panama, Iceland, Mauritius have no standing armies, yet Swaziland, with a far smaller a population, smaller geographical size and ailing economy, spends millions on the army yearly.

It is instructive at this point to explain the background of how the army came into existence in Swaziland. After Swaziland gained independence in 1968, the country had no army for five years. Scholars have said the reason why an army was not necessary at the time was because the late King Sobhuza II was witty, revered, charming and possessed great oratory skills that had won him the hearts of many Swazis. It was for that reason that his party, the Imbokovo National Movement, won all parliamentary seats in the first democratic elections in 1968. However, in the following years the INM was exposed as a corrupt collaborationist party, hell-bent on protecting and being the gatekeeper of international capital – with no interest in advancing democracy and empowering the people of Swaziland.

Instead, Sobhuza II sought to advance a narrow traditional nationalist ideology entrenched in the feudal mode of social relations. In the next 1972 elections, the INM was defeated in some areas of the country by the opposition Ngwane National Liberatory Congress. Even though the NNLC won only three of the 21 seats in parliament this new development unsettled the royal family to the point of paranoia. After frantic efforts to remove the NNLC from parliament using illegal and unorthodox means, Sobhuza II abolished multiparty democracy and ruled by decree under a state of emergency. After repealing the constitution, dissolving parliament and criminalising political parties, the king knew he had done something wrong and illegal. He knew it was a matter of time before people revolted and, to ensure his will stood against those of the people, an army was established to quell any form of public uprising.

In a speech on 12 April 1973, the king said he would place his army at “strategic places of the country” to ensure his order was respected. From that day, till the coming of the constitution in 2005, Swaziland was ruled by decree under a state of emergency. However, to this day political parties remain banned.

The army was, therefore, established to enforce an illegal decision and was formed, not in the public interest or to prevent foreign aggression, but rather to protect the interest of the monarchy. The army’s financial records are to this day not open to parliament scrutiny while recruitment to same is largely based on loyalty to the monarchy. When WikiLeaks reported Swaziland had sought to buy arms, it became clear they were intended to fulfil the army’s historic mission – quelling any form of internal opposition to the royal misrule.

What then would be a plausible alibi for the government’s fixation with acquiring such a massive amount of weapons? Firstly, Swaziland is in such financial crisis that there is a looming danger that civil servants could not only face pay cuts, but also have their salaries not paid this coming month.

Reporting on a meeting between the Swaziland National Association of Teachers with a high-powered International Monetary Fund delegation, Snat president Sibongile Mazibuko told members of her organisation they had been told their salaries might not be paid this month. During a Snat mass meeting called in early March, teachers called for the government to resign or be forced out during protests planned for March and April. The country’s largest labour organisation, the Swaziland Federation of Trade Union, the Swaziland Federation of Labour and the Swaziland National Union of Students are also preparing for a protest action on Monday and Tuesday, calling for the government to resign. This follows the passing of a controversial scholarship policy that will substantially reduce funding of students in tertiary institutions. Typical of this government, instead of responding to the crisis all we hear is an upscale of the arsenal.

The Swaziland Times Sunday reported on 6 March that a white jet had landed at the Matsapha International airport where heavily armed police officers offloaded mysterious cargo into a long horse-and-trailer truck. The paper left it up to speculation as to what the police were offloading. Of course, the government has denied it is acquiring arms, but evidence on the streets points to the country fast becoming a police state.

However, what remains to be seen, in light of the looming protests and the 12 April uprising, is to what lengths is the government of King Mswati III is prepared to go to cling to power. Could it be that Mswati wants to take a cue from long-time friend, embattled Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and order a mass killing of Swazi citizens? Only time will tell. DM

Manqoba Nxumalo is a senior investigative reporter for the Times of Swaziland, the country’s only independent group of newspapers. He is also an activist, with particular interest in issues of human rights and media freedom.


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