The United States has made it perfectly clear to Swaziland: make democratic reforms by May or lose a preferential trade agreement.
An estimated 20,000 Swazi people could lose their jobs in the textile industry if the US acts.
But, we should not expect King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, to care: every time in the past the international community has told him to democratise the kingdom, he has ignored them. There’s no reason to suppose this time will be different.
The United States has given Swaziland until 15 May 2014 to make significant changes to laws in the kingdom that restrict political and workers’ rights.
At stake is Swaziland’s continued ability to export textile goods to the US without having to pay tariffs under the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA).
US Ambassador to Swaziland Makila James told local media that Swaziland had been given eight years to comply with the requirements but nothing significant had happened. Now, things had to change. ‘We are not negotiating. The terms are clear,’ she told the Observer Sunday newspaper.
The Observer reported, ‘Listing the conditions, she said they include full passage of amendments to the Industrial Relations Act; full passage of amendments to the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA); full passage of amendments to the Public Order Act; full passage of amendments to sections 40 and 97 of the Industrial Relations Act relating to civil and criminal liability to union leaders during protest actions; and establishing a code of conduct for the police during public protests.’
She added that there needed to be greater accountability of the police force in Swaziland. ‘There is a need to give police better guidance so they can do proper law enforcement.’
The Observer estimated that if AGOA benefits were removed from Swaziland 20,000 jobs would be lost in the textile industry as firms moved out of the kingdom to other countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region that continued to have preferential tariff agreements with the US.
The US has been criticising the lack of democracy in Swaziland for several years. In a public statement in April 2013, the US Embassy in Swaziland said it had ‘deep concern’ about the way police engaged in ‘acts of intimidation and fear’ against people seeking their political rights.
The statement came after armed police, acting without a court order, barricaded a restaurant in Manzini to stop people attending a public meeting to discuss the national election in Swaziland.
The US embassy said it had deep concern about the manner in which representatives of political organisations and lawyers for human rights were treated by police.
The police blockade of the restaurant took place on 12 April 2013 and was intended to mark the 40th anniversary of the Royal Decree in 1973 by King Sobhuza II that tore up the constitution and allowed the king to introduce any law he wished and to change existing ones.
The decree has never been rescinded and his son, Mswati III today rules Swaziland as an absolute monarch.
The US embassy said it was, ‘[C]oncerned that a group of people were prevented from entering a restaurant, where they had planned to hold their meeting and were forcibly removed from the premises by police’.
The statement added that the 2005 Swaziland Constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
It further said Swazi security forces had a duty to protect the rights of citizens to, ‘communicate ideas and information without interference’.
This was not the first time the US embassy in Swaziland has criticised the Swaziland ruling regime. A year earlier in April 2012 it said, ‘We urge the Swazi government to take the necessary steps to ensure the promotion and protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of all Swazi citizens as outlined in the Swazi constitution, including freedom of conscience, of expression, of peaceful assembly and association, and of movement.’
The statement went on, ‘The United States government is deeply concerned about increasing infringements on freedom of assembly, as evidenced by the recent actions taken by Swazi security forces to prevent peaceful citizens from gathering for a prayer meeting on Saturday, April 14 in Manzini as well as reports of those same forces preventing people from gathering in groups of more than two people in Manzini and Mbabane on April 11 and 12.’
There is little expectation that Swaziland will comply with the latest US requirements. In the past King Mswati has refused to make democratic reforms in return for assistance. In 2011 he refused to accept a R2.4 billion (US$ 240 million) donation from South Africa to help his bankrupt kingdom and avert a humanitarian crisis because it had demands for democratic reform attached.