Fighting corruption remains an uphill struggle

King Mswati III & Indlovukazi Ntfombi surrounded by parliamentarians

Fighting corruption remains an uphill struggle

By Vuyisile Hlatshwayo

Whilst there is still no progress in curbing corruption, eSwatini’s Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) has greeted with scepticism the zeal of the Russell Mmiso Dlamini administration to tackle it head-on a day after its 100 days in office.

The MDM, under the Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), is a loose alliance of 25 opposition parties and civil society groups advocating for multiparty democracy in eSwatini. A majority of its affiliates has dismissed as a nonstarter the premier’s newly established anti-corruption task team mandated to fight corruption with immediate effect. 

Ngwane National Liberatory Congress (NNLC) leader Sibongile Mazibuko, the eSwatini’s oldest opposition party, said the Russell Dlamini-led government’s hands were not clean to fight corruption. She pointed out that both he and Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Thulisile Dladla were prime suspects in corruption cases. She viewed this action as a ploy of the ruling elite to protect influential people from prosecution for corruption crimes. 

“We view this as a desperate effort to sweep under the carpet corruption involving those in the high echelons of power. We know the defrauding of the poorest women by the Queen Mother’s organisation SWEET, which was run by the current DPM. We also know about the misappropriation of E180m Covid-19 funds in the hands of the new PM. Its investigation was, however, stopped after he was appointed,” Mazibuko told Inhlase.

The Swaziland Women Economic Empowerment Trust (SWEET) was Indlovukazi Ntfombi’s women’s bank initiative. It was hailed as the gateway to economic and financial independence for women. This was not to be. The Central Bank of Eswatini (CBE) was forced to put it under liquidation due to looting of funds invested by mainly rural poor women. Interestingly, former CBE deputy governor Sibongile Mdluli and Thulisile Dladla were at the helm when all this happened. No one had been held accountable. 

MSF spokesperson Sivumelwane Nyembe shared the same sentiments about the action taken by the Russell Mmiso Dlamini administration. He pointed out as a major flaw the absence of robust political opposition within the current political system. He said this created a breeding ground for corruption due to lack of the checks and balances. He noted that the appointment of only government officials in the task team was its recipe for failure. 

“It appears more symbolic than a genuine commitment to addressing corruption. MSF recommends an appointment of a respected former judge to lead the anti-corruption body, with members selected from civil society to enhance its independence and credibility. The appointment of its members has been done without taking into account conflict of interest,” he said.  

Nyembe emphasized the need for all emaSwati to engage in a political dialogue and discuss multiparty democracy with checks and balances that make corruption more difficult and ensure successful prosecution. He questioned the current investigative abilities of the Swazi state evident in the unresolved case of slain human rights lawyer and defender Thulani Maseko. 

“This raises doubts about the state’s capacity to investigate corruption involving the well-resourced individuals and politically connected entities. MSF calls for a more credible and effective anti-corruption effort, a political opposition and an anti-corruption body led by an independent judicial officer including members of the civil society. The current actions and composition of the ACC are inadequate and potentially counterproductive in the broader fight against corruption,” he noted. 

As corruption was on everyone’s lips during the Sibaya dialogue boycotted by the MSF affiliates late last year, King Mswati III commanded the new government to spare no effort in the fight against corruption undermining development in his February 9 Speech from the Throne.  

“Corruption stands in the way of progress in the nation’s plans, programmes and projects for development. EmaSwati have made their voices heard at Sibaya, expressing frustration with the lack of tangible progress in addressing this issue. We strongly encourage government to prioritise taking on this matter. It’s high time that we witness judgments passed on individuals involved in corruption, holding them accountable for their actions. Law enforcement agencies and structures must work together in our quest for zero tolerance for corruption in eSwatini,” said Mswati in his speech. 

In response, PM Dlamini, who was appointed on November 4, 2023, sprang into action to set up the anti-corruption task team to report directly to him. Headed by the minister of justice and constitutional affairs Prince Simelane, it comprised of acting Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Lomvula Hlophe, acting ACC Commissioner Maphevu Mkhatshwa and acting National Police Commissioner Lydia Dlamini. He tasked it to investigate corruption allegations, prosecute cases and use preventative measures and strengthen legal frameworks to address corruption effectively. 

He urged the members to hit the ground running in order to ensure that offenders were put behind bars with immediate effect in response to the royal directive. He also ordered them to ensure that all corruption cases were dealt with to finality and not dropped mid process. He challenged emaSwati to cooperate with the team to bring corrupt individuals to book.

“Speaking about corruption and doing nothing about it is worse than corruption itself as it exacerbates it because those who are corrupt gain confidence that nothing will be done to them. Hence, we’re tasking this team to act decisively on corruption. We look forward to bobhabuli kutsi babanjwe lihhuka, baye ebhodweni (we look forward to the arrest of the big fish),” he said. 

Also speaking at the launch, attorney general (AG) Sifiso Khumalo allayed fears that it was formed to replace the ACC. He made it clear that it was meant to support its operations. He added that it would make sure that state agencies working on corruption issues were well coordinated and work seamlessly. 

However, it served as a stark reminder of the aborted anti-corruption task team to emaSwati. That was set up illegally in 2010 by the late PM Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini to settle political scores. It is cause for concern that Russell Dlamini decided to follow suit. He established it without a law allowing that. Small wonder, he admired the late iron-fisted leader to the extent that he listed his autobiography in the books he was reading on social media. 

In the Times of Eswatini interview, former principal secretary in the ministry of justice and constitutional affairs, Sicelo Dlamini dismissed the previous anti-corruption task team as a sham because it targeted the late PM political enemies. 

He questioned the reluctance of government to amend certain sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 2006 Chief Justice Bheki Maphalala found to be unconstitutional in 2016. The CJ made obiter statements in a case filed by the ACC against former Minister of Commerce, Industry and Trade, Gideon Dlamini tried with Nigerian businessman Fred Ngeri and his wife Sindile.  

“To me this is a deliberate move. They (legislators) should have amended the sections and the ACC should have operated effectively. This matter is old and no one has had the courage to amend the sections. This is a clear sign that no one is interested in dealing with corruption,” the newspaper quoted him.      

The need to eradicate corruption in eSwatini has never been greater. Eswatini is no stranger to corruption. Corruption, has, for example, collapsed the country’s healthcare system as the poor citizens cannot access health services in the public health facilities. 

Global reports identify eSwatini as failing to make tangible progress in ending corruption. According to the corruption perceptions index (CPI) by Transparency International, eSwatini CPI scores have been declining since 2005. In 2023, it scored 30 points out of 100 like in the CPI 2022. It averaged 33.82 points from 2005 until 2023, reaching an all-time high of 43.00 points in 2014. It has experienced stagnation rated 130 out of 180 countries for two years running.

The Afrobarometer 2023 survey also paints a bleak eSwatini picture with a high level of corruption. It places eSwatini number one out of 39 African countries. Eswatini scored 87% followed by South Africa with 82% and Lesotho with 81%. Seventy-nine per cent (79%) of the respondents think that some resources meant to COVID-19 were lost to corruption.   

The ENACT Organised Crime Index 2023 for Africa provides deep insight into the criminality and resilience patterns on the continent through monitoring the criminal markets, criminal actors and state of resilience. The eSwatini criminality score is 4.38, rated 42nd of 54 African countries and 7th of 13 Southern African countries. The criminal markets score is 3.87 while the criminal actors score is 4.9. The resilience score is 3.29 and rated 33rd of 54 African countries and 10th of 13 Southern African countries.    

King Mswati III & Indlovukazi Ntfombi surrounded by parliamentarians

According to ocindex, high-level corruption is a big problem in eSwatini where the main organized criminal activities are facilitated by the corrupt political elites, law enforcement and regulatory authorities. It also finds that looting of public funds is widespread among high-profile officials, including MPs and the military command. 

In the private sector, fraud is common in real estate and on plantations. Corruption and tax evasion are the main forms of financial crime and the proceeds are invested in the relatively unregulated real estate sector. The construction industry features prominently in other corruption reports. The construction companies, business owners, government departments and officials are being implicated in bribery and tender corruption.

“Eswatini’s absolutist regime and patronage politics continue to provide a favourable environment for criminality. Corruption and criminal activity at high levels are not investigated, and transparency and accountability have deteriorated in recent years. The lack of transparency and enforcement mechanisms has resulted in the continued existence of corruption and nepotism,” says the ocindex.

It adds that the private sector is closely linked to state-embedded actors. The most prominent businesspeople and high-level officials are said to be part of a business syndicate. This close relationship allows these individuals and businesses to acquire companies, public properties, and licences for mineral exploitation, consolidating their wealth and power legally and illegally.

The ocindex concludes that eSwatini government has made no progress in preventing corruption or organized crime. Despite having a legal framework in place, the lack of willingness and capacity to enforce laws and implement policies, bureaucratic delays, lack of funding, and communication gaps have hampered the prevention efforts. Patronage, which is at the centre of governance, is a source of crime and corruption.

Therein lies the rub.

Nomfanelo Kunene hit the nail on the head in her 2011 LLM study of the ACC titled Grand Corruption in Swaziland. She attributes eSwatini’s failure to uproot corruption mainly to the absence of good governance. She defines good governance as a “basket of many practices‟ including accountability, transparency and participatory governance which sustain economic development. She decries the shielding of senior politicians from accountability for their actions which affects good governance in the country. She recommends the introduction of good governance by reforming institutional structures to enhance accountability, transparency and effectiveness to reduce corruption. 

“The influence of the King in all arms of government should be decreased. The appointment of a majority of parliamentarians by the King has made them use the King as a shield against accountability. They have no sense of responsibility to the citizenry. The appointed politicians are not inclined to be accountable and have the best interest of the citizens at heart,” she concludes.

Coordinating Assembly of Non-Governmental Organizations (CANGO) executive director, Thembinkosi Dlamini, expressed cautious optimism that it can curb corruption. He welcomed the PM’s move, stressing that a multi-agency approach to combat corruption is key. 

“The PM has created a platform for the staff of these respective state agencies to meet formally and discuss any existing bottlenecks to the successful prosecution of corruption cases. Each comes with their strengths and possibilities to the table,” he said.

It remains to be seen if the Russell Mmiso Dlamini administration will win the uphill struggle against grand corruption without allowing the media, civil society and progressives to play a role.

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