Envoys press for reforms

Foreign diplomats in Swaziland, sub-Saharan Africa's last country without an elected government, are taking a more active role in pursuing political reform, to the anger of the royal establishment.

"There are increasing concerns over good governance issues in Swaziland," British ambassador David Reader told IRIN. "As the only European Union [EU] government with an embassy in Swaziland, we are also the permanent EU representative here, and I am obliged to raise issues like the sugar protocol, which is linked to democratic reform."

Swaziland's key export sugar, has a guaranteed customer in the EU, which purchases it sometimes at more than the prevailing world price. But like trade agreements with the United States, the concessions were given with the proviso that the Swazi government would improve its human rights record.

Previous envoys kept discreetly silent about the lack of democratic progress in the kingdom. Indeed, Reader's predecessor, John Doble, was an enthusiastic supporter of the royal government who once castigated a reporter for "extremely revolutionary stories" that quoted Swazi labour leaders who sought democratic reforms.

US ambassadors also avoided public criticism of the government. Both Reader and US ambassador James McGee have received rebukes from Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini for what the premier considered breaches of diplomatic protocol, by going public with views on controversial matters.

"I am disappointed in the manner they have handled issues because we have diplomatic protocols on how we should communicate with one another," Dlamini was quoted in the local press as saying.

Meanwhile, acting Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Guduza Dlamini, King Mswati III's brother, accused the British of deriding the purchase of a Canadian-built luxury jet for Mswati's personal use because a British firm had earlier attempted to sell a similar aircraft to the palace.

Envoys dismissed the prime minister's remarks as "politics", and Reader denied that any British manufacturer had sought to sell the government a plane.

"We made a formal demarche to the prime minister on the issue of the king's jet. The EU is deeply concerned about government's intention to acquire the plane given the continuing food crisis," Reader said.

The Swazi senate advised the foreign minister to speak with foreign diplomats about such pronouncements. Reader told IRIN: "We are not dictating. It is often presented as confrontation, but it should be seen as a dialogue."

The senate, a conservative body largely composed of palace appointees, also objected when McGee met with opposition leader Mario Masuku, president of the banned political party the People's United Democratic Movement. No previous ambassador had publicly met with a leader of the outlawed political opposition.

At the time, McGee told the local press he was fulfilling his obligation as an envoy to acquire information about the country for reports to his government. "This is normal diplomatic practice. Swaziland's ambassadors should be doing the same thing in their countries where they are posted," he said.

Vulindlela Msibi, president of the Human Rights Association of Swaziland, told IRIN: "What seems to upset government is that envoys are speaking out. This never happened before."

"Times have changed," Reader said. "There are obligations and commitments on both sides (in trade accords)."

The difference between today and previous years is that Western nations are more seriously pursuing democratic reforms that are tied to trade benefits, analysts explained.

"Times are absolutely changing," a senior Western diplomat said. "We are trying to see that Swaziland does not lose very important economic stimulus packages. The days of aid are over, and trade is tied to human rights and political reform."

Growth of Swaziland's industrial and export sectors has been linked to the kingdom's participation in two US trade schemes, the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) and the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). Both can be jeopardised if Swaziland does not carry out its commitments to the United States over democratic change.

McGee told IRIN: "US relations with Swaziland are based on three major issues: the creation of lasting democratic institutions in Swaziland, and we believe the constitutional review process is leading in the right direction; sustainable economic growth, and Swaziland's participation in GSP and AGOA are leading in the right direction; and HIV/AIDS management. The government of Swaziland needs to focus all its resources on AIDS."

UN Children's Fund Representative Alan Brody has also spoken out on what he considered unwise use of government resources at a time when at least a third of adult Swazis are HIV positive and over a quarter of the population lacks food.

"In Swazi communities, we find so many children in desperate conditions. About 50 people are dying from AIDS every day in Swaziland, and most of them are leaving orphans behind. I consider (the king's new) airplane to be the enemy of those orphans."