Swazi situation worsens

The situation in Swaziland continues to worsen — although the South African government was willing to bail out the landlocked monarchy, pro-democracy protestors in both countries are complaining about the lack of insistence of stronger controls on human rights reforms associated with its recent loan.

As a result, the King is looking to places like Qatar and Kuwait to get out of the current financial bind. Meanwhile, citizens (subjects) are seriously suffering, as the UN News Service (IRIN) reports:

The impact of the current financial crisis is severe and according to the World Food Programme, annual production of the staple maize since 2000 has gradually dropped – from an average of 100,000 tons to about 70,000 tons – a consequence of erratic weather, high input and fuel costs, HIV/AIDS and the declining use of “improved agricultural practices”.

Stocks of antiretrovirals have become alarmingly low and were reportedly standing at one month’s supply. Swaziland has the world’s highest prevalence, with one in four Swazis aged 15-49 HIV-positive and about 70 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

This is another catastrophe in the making. I am not sure why Zuma is not taking a harder line on Mswati — he is not in the club of independence leaders (i.e. Mugabe), and there is no currency gained from supporting him. Why not use some political leverage to open the country, and earn serious political capital at home and abroad?

Open Budgets For People

The core of government is the budget — it’s what structures how private resources get translated into public ones, or redistributed in some form. Sometimes, of course, that redistribution is to the pockets of government employees! So democratic government ought to imply that people are heavily involved in the budget process, including monitoring those flows. In most countries, even ones generally understood to be “democratic,” this is not the case.

The Open Government Partnership, created by the International Budget Project, aims to make budgets accessible to people, following on the leads of countries such as Brazil.

Here is a post from Warren Krafchik from the Open Budgets Blog on the launch of this project:

I am extremely excited about the Open Government Partnership (OGP) and its potential impact on the quality of life of citizens around the world.  We know that there are sufficient public resources available globally to eradicate extreme poverty and inequality.  The problem is the distribution and management of these resources.   Open government practices offer great promise for improving our management of public resources and, therefore, our potential impact on poverty and inequality.

An opportunity for civil society around the world

On Tuesday, 20 September, eight governments will each commit to an action plan to enhance open government in their respective countries.  Approximately 37 other governments will signal their intention to submit similar action plans at a follow-up meeting in Brazil in March 2012.  The launch of the OGP presents a major opportunity for civil society organizations to influence the content and process of these governments’ commitments.  In each partner country, civil society organizations interested in any aspect of open government – including fiscal and extractive revenue transparency and service delivery –should start a conversation with their governments to suggest ambitious and meaningful commitments in these and other areas.   Civil society will also have an important opportunity to influence the consultation process that the government will use to arrive at these commitments and monitor their implementation. Continue reading

South African Unions join Swazi Democracy Protests

This week almost 50 members of South Africa’s largest labor organization, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU),  joined pro-democracy protests in Swaziland (Sowetan). Following SA’s recent bailout of the Swazi government, interest has grown in the political situation of the tiny kingdom neighbor. And for all sorts of good reasons, organized labor has a vested interest in similar rights being afforded citizens in all countries in the region. (NB: A great book on the strategies and impact of transnational activists is Keck and Sikkink’s Activists Beyond Borders.)


Meanwhile, a Swaziland-based human rights blog reports that King Mswati has cut mobile phone communications for the planned week of protests.

I still have not seen any coverage of the story in any American news outlets. It has been several months since pressure began to mount on the king, and I doubt he has the firepower to seriously contain waves of mass action, should they erupt. His real strength lies with his legitimacy as the traditional ruler of the Swazi nation in a largely homogeneous country.

Democracy and Famine in the Horn of Africa

One of the most profound statements of the benefits of democracy for human development was Amartya Sen’s observation that famines never occur when politicians must earn their jobs through the vote. Reflecting on the experiences of the world’s largest democracy, India, the Nobel Prize winner pointed out that despite droughts and natural shocks, the free flow of information and political pressures in that country helped to avert the massive hunger that often resulted in other poor countries under different political conditions.

Amartya Sen

The events of recent weeks in the Horn of Africa are putting Sen’s law to the test. So far, famine has been declared in Somalia, but not yet in Kenya, which is being described as a “severe food shortage.” In the scheme of African polities, Kenya is a democracy, and Somalia surely is not.

While the situation in Kenya is extremely worrying, it is notable that refugees are fleeing into not out of Kenya. If Kenya weathers the drought substantially better than Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, it will again suggest the power of Sen’s insights. On the other hand, much clearly has gone wrong in Kenya such that the severe malnutrition that is plaguing the region could have been averted. Recent news reports highlight problems of lack of trust in government, poor infrastructure, and artificially high food prices as among the drivers of food shortages in the Northern part of the country.

Nonetheless, I continue to be impressed by stories of sacrifice by Kenyans for Kenyans. Earlier, I posted about donations being made by mobile phone; more recently, farmers from other parts of the country, even those without excess produce, are donating to the drought-stricken North. Sen’s work highlighted the links between citizens and politicians. For a country that has experienced rather violent ethnic clashes in its recent history, I would not have expected such strong links among citizens themselves. It’s not yet clear how substantial or widespread such acts have been, but they do point to the important role of social capital and societal relations in human security and development.

USAID map of Horn of Africa Food Crisis

Should South Africa bail out Swaziland?

Should democratic governments that value human rights and civil liberties provide financial assistance to autocracies in times of dire need? It’s a catch-22: If they don’t, citizens may suffer because of possible reductions in services and financial stability. If they do, they may prop up that government at a time when it is likely to be most vulnerable to political challenges. Similar questions faced Western governments in the dying days of apartheid when the issue concerned divestment.

Now the shoe is on the other foot as South Africa is bailing out King Mswati III’s government, just as he continues to lead an unrepentantly luxurious lifestyle while maintaining an autocratic government that severely curtails political freedoms. Some South Africans want to “starve the beast.” Others point out that if they don’t “engage,”  China or some other country surely will provide the resources and South Africa will lose its political leverage.

See new story: Swazi loan ‘like giving money to a drunk wife-beater’ – News – Mail & Guardian Online.

It’s a difficult call, but lately I am wondering if the “tough love” option isn’t exercised often enough, and we really don’t know how well it would work. I don’t want to be glib — the Swazi government says it is grateful for South Africa’s loan so it can fund public schools and ARV treatment for its huge HIV-positive population. And even short-term reductions of those services would be disastrous. But Africa’s only absolute monarchy is much less likely to fall if good governments provide favorable financial support and especially without clear conditions for reform.

Swazi unions take to streets in protest strike

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the protests in Swaziland, and thought I would check in to see what’s going on, and it turns out that new surges of activity have emerged across several towns in the autocratic Southern African kingdom in just the past day:

AFP: Swazi unions take to streets in protest strike.

MANZINI — Hundreds of union members took to the streets Thursday in cities and towns around Swaziland to protest government moves to cut civil servants’ salaries amid a deepening financial crisis.

Some 400 people joined the protest in Mbabane, the capital, while about 300 marched in Manzini, the country’s commercial hub. Protests were also under way in two other towns.

See also brief business day  and ap articles

At the moment, it appears that King Mswati III is allowing the protests to proceed without massive repression, even as union organizers mobilizing the activities challenge him to resign.

While protestors are calling for democratic reforms, there’s not doubt that the protests were set off by a public sector wage freeze, not some particular denial of civil liberties. Also — and this is notable, because mass action around HIV/AIDS in Africa has actually been quite rare — citizens are voicing complaints about shortages of ARV drugs.

It’s still unclear whether there’s sufficient momentum to effect any real change, but this now marks several months of relatively sustained demonstrations. If the demands are ultimately material ones, however, Mswati may opt to follow the Saudi playbook, and buy off support using his reported $100 million+ fortune.

Leadership alternation in East Africa?

One of the biggest challenges for the institutionalization of democracy in Africa has been that leaders, once in power, have refused to leave. Several hypotheses abound for this epidemic of presidential inertia — unlike in rich democracies, the prospects for maintaining a decent lifestyle drop precipitously once out of office because there are so few opportunities for lectures, books, or cushy seats on corporate boards ; friends and family depend on the largesse associated with power; and so on. At the extreme, there’s Robert Mugabe, who has hung around more than three decades.

As a result, various organizations have tried to induce African presidents to leave office gracefully — for example Mo Ibrahim’s award for good governance. (Unfortunately, he’s had a tough time finding suitable candidates for the award, because too few presidents have met the criteria of leaving office within term limits and demonstrating excellence.)

But the East African is reporting that four Presidents from the region — in Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, and Rwanda — seem inclined to respect their term limits. The departures are not quite imminent, as the timetable for this group extends out all the way to 2017. Nonetheless, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame is stating explicitly that he will not try to pull a Museveni and re-write the constitution to stay in power. This type of signaling bodes well for the institutionalization of democratic norms — specifically the norm to respect the constitution and rules of conduct more generally, and should help to inspire others to do the same.

That said, making promises is one thing, keep them is another.

Cosatu plans blockade at Swazi border – News – Mail & Guardian Online

Cosatu plans blockade at Swazi border – News – Mail & Guardian Online. As I posted earlier, South Africa’s major labor confederation (COSATU) is applying increasing pressure on the Swazi King, in solidarity with domestic protesters who have been stepping up their own challenges to the monarchy. Echoing the slogans of the anti-apartheid movement, COSATU representatives say they aim to make the country “ungovernable.” However, they have retreated on plans to go inside the country, and instead will lead a border protest, which aims to have economic impact. Again, Swaziland is the continent’s last absolute monarchy, and it’s not difficult to imagine pressure escalating in the weeks and months to come for some type of major change. If South Africa can help negotiate the end to the Mugabe and Mswati dictatorships, it would certainly put some shine back on what has been a very lackluster foreign policy in recent years.