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Swazi MPs in dramatic U-turn

Parliamentarians made their shock U-turn a fortnight after they called for the Cabinet to resign over its handling of a legal row between the Swaziland Posts and Telecommunications Corporation and MTN Swaziland.

MTN Swaziland – whose shareholders are reported to include King Mswati III and Prime Minister Barnabas Sibusiso Dlamini – won a court case against the state-owned corporation. As a result, the parastatal was required to cease some of its mobile internet services.

The MPs' original vote was a protest against the Cabinet's decision to implement the "switch-off", a move blasted by business leaders who said the corporation's presence in the market had ended MTN's monopoly and greatly reduced costs.

Joining in the widespread condemnation from rights groups, the country's law society has now resolved to go to court to challenge what members say is a violation of the Constitution and the rule of law.

According to Swaziland's 2005 Constitution, the king must dismiss Cabinet members if they do not resign within three days of a vote of no confidence. In this case, the vote was passed, but nobody resigned and the king said nothing. Then the MPs changed their mind.

Personal interests
Lawyer Lucky Howe said the reversal was illegal and the initial motion should have been respected.

"There are rules that must be followed, and this is our Constitution and it must be respected," he said.

Mswati, it is claimed, is behind the pressure exerted on the parliamentarians to reverse the vote.

Muzi Masuku, from the Swaziland office of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, said: "A lot of personal interests are being protected here; this is what this is all about. The whole thing tells us a lot about who really runs our country. Our Constitution has been run over roughshod and Swazis feel very upset about this."

Pro-democracy campaigner Musa Hlophe, who heads the Swaziland Coalition of Concerned Civic Organisations, wrote a stinging column in the Times of Swaziland accusing MPs of being "cowards" who had buckled under pressure.

Unaccountable elite
He said ordinary Swazis had been "left bewildered and almost hopeless in the face of the arrogance of the powerful and unaccountable elite".

This week the United States lobby group Freedom House said: "The recent actions taken by the king and his appointed government demonstrate a lack of consideration for the rule of law and the authority and independence of Swaziland's governing institutions, including the House of Assembly, as written in the Constitution."

Unhappiness about how Swaziland is governed has been growing. It has been exacerbated by a drop in revenues from the Southern African Customs Union that has left the economy in tatters and a pay freeze that sparked mass labour unrest.

In August last year, South Africa offered its neighbour a R2.4billion loan. It has been reported that traditionalists in Swazi royal circles are unhappy about the conditions of government reforms attached to the loan and it is no secret that the king has been seeking alternative, "no-strings-attached" money.

This week, the king and his finance minister, Majozi Sithole, visited a trade fair in Dubai and, according to Swazi media, a consortium of Middle Eastern businesspeople offered them a $3billion loan.

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