Eswatini Prime Minister: King’s preference trumps people’s choice

Eswatini Prime Minister: King’s preference trumps people’s choice

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo

There was a moment of stunned silence followed by muted applause from the crowd when King Mswati III announced the new eSwatini Prime Minister, Russell Mmiso Dlamini during the nine-day Sibaya People’s Parliament held inside the cattle byre at Ludzidzini Royal Residence. 

About 5 000 emaSwati, who gathered at the traditional headquarters, were taken aback after giving Dlamini a slim chance of becoming the premier. This was due to Sibaya polls which ranked him the lowest in the list of eight hand-picked Dlaminis given a chance to campaign for the top position. However, his unpopularity evident in his posting of 2,344 points proved immaterial to the appointing authority. 

Arguably an accomplished development expert, albeit a political novice, the former chief executive officer of the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) ticks all the boxes of the head of government according to the king. He was looking for someone to steer the country ravaged by poverty after the Covid-19 pandemic and civil unrest of June 2021. In the 50-year-old Dlamini, he finds a youthful, energetic and highly educated premier to tackle the triple ‘disaster’ of poverty, unemployment and inequality. He was spot-on as the World Bank 2023 report confirms that poverty, unemployment and inequality remain stubbornly high in the country.

“In all the corners of the country, poverty is the biggest challenge. It is now evident that the time has come to declare poverty a disaster. Since this has become a disaster, it is clear that the candidate I appoint will need to act quickly. Kufanele agijime atsi nkwe ekulweni nebusweti, (act quickly to fight poverty),” the king commanded the new PM. 

Still unprepared to break away from tradition, Mswati continues determinedly to perpetuate the Dlamini dynasty. He has turned a deaf ear to some emaSwati calling for a non-Dlamini and elected PM during the nine-day Sibaya proceedings. One of the speakers, Mlamuli Dlamini told the king that the time had come to appoint a prime minister with a different surname, as long as they have the required qualities. The newly appointed premier lineage can be traced back to Prince Mbilini, one of the senior princes of King Mswati II. He is a descendant of Prince Logiyela and a son of Steven Sipho Dlamini. He was raised by his parents Steven and Joanah Dlamini (nee Vilakati), in the sprawling Logoba area in the Kwaluseni constituency. 

With 24 years in the development field, the new PM boasts extensive national and international experience at the technical and leadership level. In his impressive curriculum vitae, he describes himself as a highly accomplished and resourceful chief operating officer. He gained extensive experience from World Vision International (WVI), one of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Started his career as a development facilitator at World Vision Swaziland (WVS) in 1999, hard work ensured his meteoric rise to WVS Director of Integrated Programmes in 2009 and Director of Integrated Programmes & Operations at World Vision Rwanda (WVR) in 2011. 

After an 18-month stint as director at Virtue Time Consulting (VTC) in the Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, he caught the attention of eSwatini government. In 2015, it recruited him to establish the NDMA as a public company responsible for disaster management. He acquitted himself well although his coming coincided with the country’s worst drought. His notable achievements included the NDMA responses to Cyclone Eloise, Covid-19 and civil unrest simultaneously. He came up with a multi-sectoral approach focusing on issues of preparedness, response and resilient building while also providing practical support to communities and all emaSwati. 

Under his leadership, SGS Company awarded NDMA the ISO 9001:2015 which is a quality management system that helps businesses and organisations to be more efficient and improve customer satisfaction. This certification recognized the NDMA’s efforts to implement a Quality Management System (QMS) compliant to ISO 9001:2015 standard. 

Born on October 23, 1973, Dlamini is a first product of St. Mark’s High School to occupy the high office. He  graduated with an MPhil in Sustainable Development Planning and Management from University of Stellenbosch. He earned his BA (Hons) in Development Administration from the University of South Africa. He also holds a BSc in Agriculture from the University of Swaziland.  

The new premier is not a saint in the eyes of some emaSwati as a product of a public service sector riddled with corruption. His Achilles heels will remain the lingering controversy surrounding the NDMA’s alleged failure to account for millions of public funds and ‘providing questionable responses some of which were hand-written, contradictory responses and bank statements that were stamped’. He reportedly unaccounted for over E3 million spent on hand sanitisers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Acting on the compliance audit report of the Government of Eswatini for the financial year ended March 2021, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hauled him over coal for flouting procurement procedures. Auditor General Timothy Matsebula reported that the NDMA purchased 1 192 sanitisers for E3 144 052 without following the agency’s procurement policy and procedures. The sanitisers were also priced differently yet they were of the same make and quantity. About 656 sanitisers were charged at E3 260.75 each while 536 sanitizers were priced at E1 875 each.

The NDMA boss told PAC that no procedures were breached when the transaction was made. But the chief financial officer and supply chain manager confirmed that procurement processes had been breached. He later informed PAC that the NDMA had been granted a waiver by government not to follow the normal procedures. But he could neither produce the instrument nor specify who had given him the authority, if it was a verbal instruction. 

The NDMA Board spared him embarrassment by not implementing the PAC’s recommendation to suspend the Agency’s three executives. It turned a blind to some audit queries of unaccounted expenditures for emergency response projects  amounting to over E11.4 million, COVID-19 response project amounting to over E30.9 million, undisclosed fuel funds amounting to E10.8 million, child-headed households programme and Cyclone Eloise project amounting to over E34 million, to name a few. 

Dlamini’s appointment has received mixed feelings across the spectrum. Eswatini Sexual and Gender Minorities (ESGM), a network representing interests of the LGBTIQ+ community, expects him to first exorcise his ghost of homophobia. ESGM executive director, Melusi Simelane, described Dlamini as ‘homophobic’ in his complaint letter dated September 1, 2020.  He reported him to then Deputy Prime Minister Themba Masuku for making derogatory and offensive comments about the LGBTIQ+ community in a social media conversation. He made no bones about his prejudice against the LGBTIQ+ community as an African and Christian. He disclosed his support of the anti-homosexuality stance of African countries including Uganda.  

With him at the helm, Simelane said: “It’s disappointing and quite frankly very scary. But we’re hopeful that the country has strong institutions and it isn’t a one-man show. We’ll rely on the institutions that hold each other accountable. So we’ll try to abide by the Constitution and also if there are issues, we’ll rely on the other institutions to hold him accountable.”

Failed twice to force government to register their organisation, the LGBTIQ+ community can still count on Dlamini’s last words in the conversation. “I am an African and a Christian. I am relatively internationally exposed. This informs my position. But this does not have to be about me,” he said. The African proverb that he once posted on his Facebook page ‘No matter how black a cow is, the milk is always white’ inspires hope. 

The Non-Governmental (NGO) sector welcomes Dlamini as a new PM, who is one of their own. Thembinkosi Dlamini, the Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organisations (Cango) executive director, expects the veteran humanitarian specialist to mend the love-hate relationship between government and NGOs. He is highly regarded as the right man to lead the long overdue efforts to regulate the NGO sector. He says a well-regulated NGO sector will benefit the country, emaSwati and the international community in the quest to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities and remove abuse of public power for personal aggrandisement. 

On the AG and PAC allegations levelled against the former NDMA boss, the executive director said: “He who alleges must prove’. It cannot be that with all the power and collective wisdom that the financial services cluster in government and the security apparatus could not trace E180 million because money has no legs. They must follow the money and bring the culprits to book, not scandalise people. Cango will accept the outcome of any due diligence process, even if it impacts His Excellency negatively.”

The Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC), the oldest opposition party, decries King Mswati’s failure to heed emaSwati’s call for multiparty democracy. NNLC president Sibongile Mazibuko says this appointment means nothing because the king has absolute power and the PM will be doing his bidding. She argues that eSwatini does not lack skills to contribute to social, economic and political development.

“We’ve a pool of technocrats like Russell who are restricted by the king’s power from exercising them if they conflict with his interests. To us it doesn’t matter who the king chooses because such will not have the power to even exercise his skills. Whatever vision he might have since his mandate to do anything lies with the king who has absolute power,” she says, adding: “We’ll continue to demand multiparty democracy where the PM will be chosen by the people from the political party that will win more seats in parliament as it was before 1973. As a person Russell is a good person and God-fearing. If the country was democratic, he was going to steer the ship towards the correct direction.” 

The People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) maintains that the PM’s appointment is unconstitutional. Pudemo secretary general Penuel Malinga points out that the king has contravened Section 67 (1) which empowers him to appoint a prime minister from among Members of the House of Assembly. In total disregard of the constitution, he appointed him when he was still not and sworn in as a member of the House of Assembly. 

“As Pudemo, we’ve said many times that the king does not take the people seriously. Because he believes that he owns the Swazi people, the king will never take us  into consideration. We’ll continue mobilising our people and engaging them in political education. This will be done through community-based organizations and strengthening trade unions and youth organisations to ensure that we challenge the regime,” says Malinga.

With a proven track record in the development/humanitarian sector, the new premier has been charged with the herculean task to eradicate poverty in his five-year tenure. 

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