Supporting a meaningful national dialogue in Eswatini

King Mswati III of Swaziland (now Eswatini) at the closing ceremony of the 37th Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo by GULSHAN KHAN/AFP via Getty Images.
King Mswati III of Swaziland (now Eswatini) at the closing ceremony of the 37th Southern African Development Community (SADC) Summit in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo by GULSHAN KHAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Protests in the kingdom of Eswatini which first started back in May 2021 – and in which scores of citizens have died – have continued into 2022, creating increased domestic pressure to address longstanding demands for democratic reforms.

But critics are sceptical that the announced ‘sibaya’ – a process by which citizens’ views are collated by traditional leaders before a national gathering at the king’s own ‘kraal’ – will be a genuine platform for discussion, and instead see it as just a means for the monarch to reassert authority.

Although the primacy of domestic stakeholders in national political processes must be sacrosanct, given the context in Eswatini of a polarized political landscape and a significant trust deficit, the international community must play an important role in supporting a constructive and meaningful process.

This would still be led and ‘owned’ by the EmaSwati people, ensuring the dialogue is a tool for conflict resolution, socio-political transformation, and national cohesion. But international actors must be coordinated and take an approach which is both strategic and deliberate, remaining highly cognisant of local cultural sensitivities.

International engagement and political change

Eswatini’s key international relationships are with its largest trading partners South Africa, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – particularly the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) – and the US, alongside key donors the European Union (EU) and Taiwan. Eswatini is the last state in Africa to retain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei City. And as part of the UK government’s ‘Africa uplift’, it reinstated a High Commission in Mbabane in 2019, joining a handful of diplomatic missions on the ground.

But while a physical presence in country brings advantages, over time international diplomats have learned the hard way that overt calls for reform result in ostracization. And international economic pressure brings little political change – the Obama administration removed Eswatini, then known as Swaziland, in 2015 from its preferential trade programme under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), but Eswatini simply re-joined a few years later.

Despite Eswatini’s economic dependence on trade and customs receipts from South Africa, this has not directly translated into political leverage on issues such as democratic reform, in part due to disagreements in South Africa’s governing alliance – the trade unions have long called for a more assertive stance on Eswatini but President Cyril Ramaphosa prefers to act through SADC, not engage unilaterally.

In accordance with the Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, SADC is taking the political lead in shaping regional responses to Eswatini’s dialogue. But it faces a significant challenge in drawing up terms of reference for a process for which there is no regional precedent or blueprint, and for which the ultimate objectives are still uncertain.

It has also received criticism over the balance of SADC engagement between state and non-state actors, so it is important to widen the framework for consultations, and draw upon other intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations such as the African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN) which have both condemned the violence at a senior level.

The Commonwealth has also maintained an active interest, albeit often in a less public role. Dr Bakili Muluzi, the former president of Malawi, was making positive strides in securing commitment for constructive dialogue between the king and pro-democracy groups in his role as the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s special envoy to the country – but his tenure came to an abrupt end in 2016.

However, the inclusion of Eswatini on the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to ramp up political pressure remains a focus for advocacy from local and international civil society groups, as well as trade unions.

In view of the kingdom’s ongoing complex political situation, the wider international community has a moral responsibility to help build trust and confidence in the dialogue, underpinned by fundamental principles of inclusivity, transparency, broad public participation, and a clear and practical agenda which addresses the root causes of the grievances.

International actors can be important guarantors of these principles while respecting the principle of subsidiarity, SADC’s leadership, and the importance of local ownership. Such integrated – but sensitive – engagement also helps mitigate the risk of the process being manipulated by the monarchy or other political groups to consolidate power.

International partners must be coordinated

For the international community to play a meaningful role, it is important to speak with one voice and act collaboratively. Any divisions or siloed approaches among international partners may increase the risk of derailing the dialogue process and could undermine both the credibility of its outcome and its implementation.

A wider and more coordinated international framework strengthens the international community’s leverage, avoids duplication and ‘forum shopping’, and widens the framework for technical support, political accountability, and follow-up. The international community should directly engage the king and amplify the calls for an inclusive, genuine, and constructive dialogue which addresses the root causes of the political crisis in Eswatini.

International partners can also assist in facilitating pre-dialogue talks to set the foundation for dialogue, deliver capacity-building to participants to ensure they engage in the process in a constructive and meaningful way, and provide technical assistance, such as supporting the infrastructure for the dialogue, developing terms of reference, translating outcomes into actionable policy, and establishing a framework for effective and practical implementation. They could also mobilize funds to support the process, including its preparation and outcomes.

Given the high levels of distrust between the monarchy and pro-democracy groups, independent international actors can encourage transparency, accountability, trust, and confidence in the process through serving as observers, facilitators, or independent moral guarantors. This could be done by the appointment of an elder statesperson or a small group of regional political heavyweights, offering opportunities to share lessons learned from other jurisdictions or countries which have dealt with a similar situation.

Balancing effective international support with protecting the local legitimacy of the process is not easy – there are significant sensitivities around perceived imposition or bullying by donors, both in Eswatini and the wider southern Africa region, and SADC may be protective of its leadership role.

But as Eswatini gears up for this widely anticipated national dialogue, a strategic, careful, and collaborative international community would be pivotal in seizing a rare chance to address the real drivers of the country’s complex and recurrent socio-political crises.

Christopher Vandome, Research Fellow, Africa Programme and Koffi Sawyer, Independent Consultant.

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