Allegations of government corruption and mismanagement are threatening King Mswati III's hopes to turn this month's Commonwealth Global 2003 summit into a showcase for the political stability the royal family says it brings to Swaziland.
"Government has turned into a den of thieves," Attorney-General Phesheya Dlamini, a Mswati appointee with unimpeachable royal connections, told the local press. Dlamini said he would resign if a probe into alleged government corruption surrounding the summit is not launched.
The attorney-general has not revealed what he knows of government corruption, but the privately-owned Times of Swaziland, the nation's leading daily newspaper, has exposed extravagant spending and alleged financial mismanagement.
The Commonwealth Heads of State SMART Partnership Summit, or Global 2003, begins on 13 August. Former South African President Nelson Mandela is among the 20 confirmed past and present government leaders planning to attend an event to be held under a US $15 million marquee. The tent might have been sewn together by local women's empowerment groups, but was purchased under suspicious circumstances in Malaysia, according to the newspaper.
In contrast, the government has budgeted about $14 million for national agricultural activities this year, the fifth year of declining crop harvests and the third year of drought. Faced with a quarter of the population without food by early 2004, the government is accused by its critics of skewed priorities.
Worse, the tent is apparently not new. It is second-hand, judging by photos the Times has run of rusty air conditioners, and floorboards literally rotting away. "After the tent incident, our place will be guaranteed on the list of the world's top worst managed economies," Times editor Martin Dlamini wrote in a comment.
The nation's second daily newspaper, The Swazi Observer, owned by the royal conglomerate Tibiyo TakaNgwane, has kept quiet about summit spending, and has accused critics of being unpatriotic. Mswati's brother, Prince Guduza Dlamini, and Enterprise and Employment Minister Lutfo Dlamini, who are in charge of summit preparations, have characterised negative press reports as attempts to embarrass the king.
Two key government bodies are clashing over the repercussions of questionable summit dealings. The Swazi National Council Standing Committee, King Mswati's handpicked royal advisors, summoned Prime Minister Sibusiso and the 16-member cabinet, who are also Mswati appointees, to Lozitha Palace. The traditional leadership wanted to discuss the Global 2003 affair. The cabinet ignored the summons.
Reportedly angered by the Times exposé of the faulty marquee, the cabinet ordered principal secretary at the Ministry of Justice, David Lukhele, to draw up legislation that would haul reporters to the High Court and fine them R25,000 ($3,333) if they refuse to reveal the source of leaked government information.
The justice ministry is the only government body that can investigate corruption allegations surrounding the Global 2003 summit. However, its Anti-Corruption Unit has not prosecuted a high-level official since its establishment five years ago, nor achieved a single conviction in the courts.
If the palace hopes the summit will show that all is well under King Mswati, banned political parties intend picketing the event to demonstrate the contrary. But the most surprising of the protestors will be traditional leaders, the bucopho ("heads") and tindvuna ("headmen") of the nation's 55 constituencies, which comprise the royal governance system called Tinkhundla.
The local leaders are the backbone of royal support in the country. They are angered that palace promises for greater gratuities have gone unmet, while massive spending on the summit is taking place beyond public scrutiny. "There are rats in government. They are eating the treasury," said Samuel Mngomezulu, a headman from a rural constituency north of Manzini.