New constitution brings growing demands for change

A pro-democracy group is threatening protest action against sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch if steps are not taken to start meaningful constitutional reform.

The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), an ad-hoc pro-democracy alliance of trade unions, human rights and legal support and advocacy groups, has given the Swazi government until early next week to respond to their concerns or face what they said would be a "peaceful march" to King Mswati III's Lozitha Palace, 20km southeast of the capital, Mbabane.

The NCA's direct demand to Mswati comes after the organisation recently delivered a petition to the parliamentary offices of Prime Minister Themba Dlamini and the Lozitha Palace offices of the Swaziland National Council Standing Committee, the king's handpicked counsellors, saying that "the supreme law of the land is illegitimate".

Previous attempts by pro-democracy reformers and other organisations, such as student and labour unions, to air their grievances have been broken up by riot police.

The NCA is currently embroiled in a High Court action challenging the legitimacy of the new constitution, which came into effect this year after a process lasting nearly a decade, giving the king ultimate executive, judicial and legislative control of government, an outcome that merely entrenched the prevailing political status quo.

The alliance petition included demands to investigate deaths in police custody and to respect the rule of law. A 2005 report by international rights group Amnesty International cited numerous instances of torture and abuse by the police and the military, resulting in the death of several suspects.

Political analysts, who declined to be identified, said the petition was designed to put the government on the defensive about its track record of ignoring court decisions it disliked.

"Government will probably not respond to the NCA's list of demands by Monday (16 October), and probably not ever. Any attempt by NCA to see the king will be broken up by police. The NCA strategy appears to be one of casting a spotlight on rule of law and human rights in the country, lest the international community become complacent about the situation in Swaziland," said one analyst.

The petition also called on government to comply with a court decision in November 2002, instructing the police to permit the return of political exiles, which had led to the resignation of the entire Court of Appeals bench after the government ignored the court's ruling.

The court had ruled that it was illegal to block the return of 200 residents of kaMkhweli and Macetjeni, who were evicted after refusing to transfer their allegiance from their traditional chiefs to Prince Maguga, a brother of the king, who had claimed authority over the two areas. Police prevented Macetjeni evictee Madeli Fakudze, brother to one of the deposed chiefs, and others, from returning home. It was only after Fakudze appealed to the king that he was allowed to return. The appeal court has since been reconstituted. Other evictees either remained internally displaced or in exile as refugees.

The government said it had resolved the issues of evictees and exiles, a claim disputed by the NCA. "We demand that government stops making political statements and meaningless promises at the expense of the weakest of the citizens, and abide by the orders of its courts," the petition said.

Most of the NCA's grievances deal with the new constitution, compiled under the supervision of Mswati's brothers, Prince Mangaliso and Prince David, and palace-appointed commissions. "From the beginning to end, the process of making the Swaziland Constitution and its purported adoption was a government project, as opposed to being an all-inclusive, people-driven process," said the NCA.

Opposition parties have been banned since 1973, when a state of emergency came into force, a situation that the prime minister has said remains unchanged, although Mswati has hinted that the country required further economic development before political parties could function legally.

Swaziland's economy has been in steep decline for the past three years. Tens of thousands of jobs in the garment industry have disappeared and an annual growth rate of 3.6 percent has dropped to 1 percent. Once a net exporter of food to the region, two-thirds of its one million people now live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

The NCA said that as long as the royal government writes the laws of the land, ordinary Swazis would be disenfranchised.

"This is due to lack of genuine and effective citizen participation during the process of its making [the constitution] and the environment which continues to be hostile to people and organisations with dissenting views. Yet, it is generally accepted that in order for a constitution to be legitimate, credible, and to enjoy popular support, it must be a product of consensus of all major stakeholders, and must not be controlled by those in government."

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