There are discontented murmurings in Swaziland about the reason why King Mswati III has put aside 10 percent of the nation’s annual E13.1 billion budget this year on ‘defence’ spending.
The kingdom is not at war and there are no potential enemies at the borders ready to invade. Swaziland’s international obligations in the military arena are few, so nobody expects Swazi troops to be deployed abroad anytime soon.
Government ministers will not talk about the issue, citing ‘national security’ issues as an excuse.
Despite the reluctance of King Mswati, who rules Swaziland as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, and the government he hand-picks, to disclose its need for such high levels of ‘defence’ spending, it is possible to piece together the possible reasoning by looking at past events in Swaziland.
In 2011, the Swazi Government set aside more than E1 billion for spending on the army and police force and Finance Minister Majozi Sithole admitted that the army was prepared for an uprising by the population in Swaziland.
This followed a series of prodemocracy uprisings in North Africa, leading to what became known as the ‘Arab Spring’. King Mswati was fearful something similar could happen in his kingdom. A Facebook group calling itself the April 12 Uprising had already called for an overthrow of the king.
In February 2011, Sithole told an open stakeholder dialogue on the 2011-2012 budget and Fiscal Adjustment Roadmap, ‘Yes, we are spending a lot on the army but we are not anticipating what is happening in North Africa to come here,’ he said.
He added, ‘However, the army is there to avoid such situations.’
Sithole was responding to a question about why so much money was being spent on the army and police – the total budget for Swaziland in the coming year was only E10.7 billion. The budget for the army and police was the equivalent of about half the national budget deficit (E2.243 billion for the 2011/12 fiscal year).
Nobody was much surprised by the high ‘defence’ spending of the government. A clue to its thinking had been revealed by a United States diplomatic cable that had been published by Wikileaks.
The cable, written in 2009 by Maurice Parker, the then US Ambassador to Swaziland, revealed that the UK Government had blocked an arms deal between a UK company Unionlet and the Swaziland Government because it feared their ‘possible use for internal repression’.
The Swazi Government wanted to buy equipment worth US$60 million (E426 million).
Among items listed for purchase were, ‘3 Bell Model UH-1H helicopters, FN Herstal 7.6251mm Minimi light machine guns, blank and tracer ammunition, armored personnel carriers, command and control vehicles including one fitted with a 12.7x99mm M2 Browning heavy machine gun and others fitted with the FN Herstal light machine guns, military ambulances, armored repair and recovery vehicles, weapon sights, military image intensifier equipment, optical target surveillance equipment, 620 Heckler & Koch G36E assault rifles, 240 Heckler & Koch G36K assault rifles, 65 Heckler & Koch G36E rifles, 75 Heckler & Koch UMP submachine guns 9x19mm, and 35 Heckler & Koch USP semi-automatic pistols’.
The Swaziland Government said it wanted the items to fulfil its United Nations ‘peacekeeping’ obligations in Africa.
The UK Government did not believe it and thought either the weapons would be used against the Swazi civilian population, or they were being bought in order to sell on to another country, possibly Iran. The UK Government blocked the deal.
In his diplomatic cable, Parker said, ‘The array of weapons requested would not be needed for the first phases of peacekeeping, although it is possible someone tried to convince the Swazi government they were required. The GKOS [Government of the Kingdom of Swaziland] may have been attempting to build up domestic capability to deal with unrest, or was possibly acting as an intermediary for a third party such as Zimbabwe or a Middle Eastern country that had cash, diamonds or goods to trade.’
The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, which first broke the story, reported at the time, Swaziland had a poor human rights record which was criticised by the US state department in its 2009 report (the year the deal was to have taken place).
‘Government agents continued to commit or condone serious abuses, and the human rights situation in the country deteriorated. Human rights problems included inability of citizens to change their government; extrajudicial killings by security forces; mob killings; police use of torture, beatings, and excessive force on detainees,’ the report said.
In the months before the attempted arms sale, Swaziland's government declared the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) the main opposition political party a terrorist organisation, and arrested its leader, Mario Masuku.
Once the cable became public in 2011, John Kunene, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, who signed the original deal in 2008, said the kingdom had never given up trying to buy the weapons.
The Swazi News, an independent newspaper in Swaziland, reported (26 February 2011) that Kunene was still trying to broker a deal.
‘We have been in constant discussion with Unionlet in buying arms for peacekeeping exercises in other countries, and have never abandoned the idea,’ the newspaper reported Kunene saying.
Kunene said the United Nations would reimburse the money Swaziland spent on the weapons. He said the weapons would be kept in Swaziland.
He attacked Parker who had raised concerns that the weapons could be used to suppress the Swazi population or be sold on and accused him of interfering in the affairs of Swaziland.
But, In March 2011 Lutfo Dlamini, who was then Minister of Defence, denied the Wikileaks report and, according to a report in the Times of Swaziland, told the Swazi Senate there was at no stage where the country spoke of purchasing guns.
The Swazi Observer reported him saying, ‘We never bought any guns anywhere and never spent E429 million. The information leaked was misleading, it was written by someone who had his own agendas.’
Clearly, Lutfo Dlamini was not telling the truth since Kunene had already confirmed that he was still trying to broker the deal.
In March 2011 Kunene was sacked from his job after a disclosure that the Umbutfu Swaziland Defence Force (the army) had run out of food to feed its soldiers.
A month after the Wikleaks revelation about possible arms sales to the Middle East, the AFP news agency reported Swaziland was importing two containers of firearms through a Mozambican port.
AFP quoted Mozambican state daily newspaper Noticias as its source. It reported the arms arrived in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, on a Panamanian vessel on February 28  from an unspecified country.
‘The containers in question at the Maputo Port were in transit to neighbouring Swaziland, in an operation authorised by Mozambican authorities and covered by a special agreement between the governments of Mozambique and the kingdom of Mswati III,’ said the paper, citing an unnamed police source.
Noticias said the arms would be transported to Swaziland under police escort.
SWAZI ‘SECRET ARMS DEAL FOR IRAN’
ARMS SHIPMENT HEADS TO SWAZILAND
POLICE CONFIRM ARMS SHIPMENT