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The Kingdom of Eswatini was last week catapulted to international news headlines for its conspicuous absence at the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) – given the zeal with which the leadership prioritises external travel - during which Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged US$60 billion in support to Africa’s development initiatives. 

Perhaps the kingdom’s absence would officially be explained by the fact that the FOCAC Summit on September 3 – 4 coincided with the annual Umhlanga (Reed) Dance. Or could it be that the latter was deliberately made to coincide with the former in order to create a credible alibi for the leadership’s absence except for the Eswatini flag. Paradoxically, it would not have been the first time that an important domestic event clashed with an international gathering, yet the kingdom has always been represented at official level, usually by the immediate former Prime Minister, Sibusiso Dlamini. And yes, the kingdom has not been known to miss summits of this magnitude. Why, in recent times, the immediate former PM lived a charmed airborne lifestyle – after all such trips are also known to carry mouth-watering financial yields - attending one summit or meeting after the other representing His Majesty King Mswati III.

These included even gatherings with no known direct or indirect benefits to the country notwithstanding the PM’s apparently ill-fated business unusual strategy that was meant to extricate the kingdom from self-inflicted financial woes by enforcing prudent fiscal discipline. It is also on the backdrop of increased external travel that was to inform the decision to purchase a jet for the King. The immediate former PM informed the nation that the first jet was a free-gift from a development partner who preferred to remain anonymous. He then warned the public to stop discussing the matter since it was personal and, therefore, private between the parties. It later emerged that this was not so when the relationship between government and Salgaocar over the exploitation of iron ore dumps at the former Ngwenya Iron Ore Mine went sour.

The wheeling and dealing that could well have come out of a suspense movie script in that ill-fated relationship was later exposed in a Canadian court, a case in which the kingdom spent tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of taxpayers Emalangeni defending. As I see it, the immediate explanation of the kingdom’s absence from the FOCAC Beijing Summit – of course after having summarily dismissed the Umhlanga as a credible excuse – could well have something to do with the ever deepening 50-year-old relations between the kingdom and the Republic of China (Taiwan). Deepening because more and more resources have been channeled toward these shores by Taiwan, after the last of the African countries that had traditionally supported the Taiwanese had switched their allegiance to Mainland China. In the event the Eswatini leadership must feel so beholden to Taipei to the extent of severing all ties with Beijing, including at multilateral levels.

Of course in recent times there has been noticeable increase in the amount of direct and indirect aid coming from Taiwan. However, what is not yet crystal is the ratio of benefits accruing to the country. Also not clear is how much of the Taiwanese largesse has been publicly accounted for in an environment where accountability is decidedly not currency of government, which otherwise nurtured and promoted – at least under the watch of the immediate former Cabinet - a cancerous policy of entitlement for the benefit of the political elites who have in turn not only undermined but also compromised the functionality of the country’s institutions at all levels. As I see it, it is unlikely that the kingdom’s apparent cooling off of relations with Beijing is as a result of pressure coming from Taipei as a trade-off for increased funding by the Taiwan Government.

Taipei is unlikely to put any pressure on the kingdom to do its bidding because that would almost be like emulating Beijing, which sees Taiwan as its renegade province that it hopes to bring under its fold one day. Of course, China has often used the carrot diplomacy, in the form of money, to lure countries with diplomatic relations with Taiwan in its bid to isolate the latter.Ultimately, the kingdom’s presence or absence from such forums boils down to its foreign policy imperatives. In the mix of what informs a nation’s foreign policy and the objectives thereof would be the system of governance that would in turn inform on the architects of national policies and their objectives. But for what it’s worth, diplomatic relations with Taiwan might in fact be the only genuine friendship this kingdom has with any foreign nation notwithstanding the fact that in recent decades, attempts have been made to subvert this to benefit individuals more than the nation State, the Kingdom of Eswatini. Therefore, it would be prudent for the leadership not to abuse this for all the wrong reasons that are obviously abroad for any discerning citizen to behold.

Talking about the nation State, it seems to me that Independence Day has lost its importance in the calendar of emaSwati. That September 6 has become just another day is sufficient proof of the collapse of the State edifice and the rise, in its place, of the personality cult deification systematically cultivated by the immediate former PM for the singular objective of securing his tenure by making himself indispensable. Or Independence Day may have never meant anything to the majority of the people since it was never a companion to freedom. 

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