Will British arms be sold to Swaziland?
By Mark Beacon
1 March 2011
Last week it emerged that in 2008 the British government refused a $60 million licence for assault rifles, heavy machine guns, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters to be exported to Swaziland.
This disclosure, among the latest tranche of US diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks, will come as no surprise to many in the southern African kingdom.
Swaziland is the only absolute monarchy in sub-Saharan Africa. It has endured the restrictions of a state of emergency since 1973, has the highest rate of HIV in the world, and almost 70 per cent of the population live in absolute poverty. Political parties are banned and the country scores lower than Zimbabwe for its political rights on the respected Mo Ibrahim Index.
While investing in major vanity projects such as the $1 billion Sikhuphe International Airport and propping up the lavish lifestyles of an ever increasing royal entourage, the Swazi government is responding to the country's worsening economic crisis by increasing the tax burden on the poorest and through mass redundancies in public services.
The population of Swaziland, while being plunged deeper into poverty have rapidly seen their few remaining rights eroded with a raft of repressive legislation, designed to crush dissent. Most controversial of all is the Suppression of Terrorism Act, which is used liberally to declare anyone or anything opposed to the regime as terrorist, including the main opposition party, PUDEMO. Arbitrary arrests and torture are common place as the government responds to the growing momentum of dissenting voices with a stronger and more brutal security force.
Despite its major economic crisis the government is proposing to spend almost 10 per cent of its 2011-12 budget on the army and police. On 23 February the minister of finance Majozi Sithole said ‘Yes, we are spending a lot on the army but we are not anticipating what is happening in North Africa to come here...However, the army is there to avoid such situations'.
The arms involved in the failed 2008 deal were, according to the Swazi government, intended to be used by African peacekeeping missions for the UN, but according to the cable may have been intended ‘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'. In recent days it has emerged that the Swazi government remains resolute in their determination to obtain arms from Britain. According to the Swazi News John Kunene, the principal secretary in the ministry of defence, who signed the original deal in 2008, said "We have been in constant discussion with Unionlet [a UK based arms agency] in buying arms for peacekeeping exercises in other countries, and have never abandoned the idea."
Yesterday (28 February 2011) defence secretary Liam Fox said that the UK's arms sales policy was under review, in order to strike the 'right balance' between the right of countries to protect themselves and a duty to ensure 'that what we do supply is not being used for internal repression'. In the case of Swaziland we hope that the right balance is one that ensures that the regime is denied the weapons it so desperately wants to repress its own people.