Monday, December 22, 2014

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Swaziland's Big Boss

Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi shows no sign of backing down in the face of a disgruntled Judiciary.
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A sexual harassment case has been filed against the Swazi Chief Justice Michael Ramodibedi by the Law Society of Swaziland. This is the latest in a series of vicious disputes that has seen the Chief Justice, a Lesotho national bought in by King Mswati III, and seen by many as a stooge of the monarch, come into conflict with an increasingly disaffected judiciary.

Last month Ramodibedi declared that "no summons or applications for civil claims against his majesty the King Ingwenyama, either directly or indirectly, shall be accepted in the high court or any other court in the country". According the Mail & Guardian an unnamed businessman claims he was “left penniless” without payment after the King’s office took over his guesthouse for a number of years. He will now be unable to seek redress for his losses.

This declaration was shortly followed by the suspension of Judge Thomas Masuka for supposedly “insulting the king” in the process of making a statement. Amnesty International reports that the Masuka had previously faced a campaign of “sustained” harassment. The judicial crisis grew worse as lawyers responded angrily to Masuka’s suspension. The Law Society of Swaziland declared a boycott of the courts, and demanded the resignation of Ramodibedi. This boycott was ended on July 14, with the lawyers taking their compliants to the Judicial Service Commision.

What is striking about the suspension of Judge Masuka is the fact that his statements, in themselves, can in no way be construed as critical of the king. In passing judgment on a group of policemen accused of cattle theft, Masuka dismissed the defence that they had been acting on behalf of the King, saying: “The actions of the police and [the defendant] in this context are in direct contradiction to His Majesty’s directive to the people of Swaziland and it would be hard to imagine let alone accept and thus incomprehensible that His Majesty could conceivably speak with a forked tongue, saying one thing to his people and then authorising his officers to do the opposite. I reject this notion as totally inaccurate and wrong, and which cannot be properly apportioned to the venerated office of His Majesty.” The judgement explicitly relied on the assumption that the King had not been speaking “with a forked tongue”. Masuka’s suspension would be deeply worrying if it were for criticism of the King, as it is it is not only illiberal but arbitrary.

Ramodibedi doesn’t look like he plans to go anywhere soon. Opening the High Court on Monday, he declared himself the Makhulu Baas, or “Big Boss”, and stressed that his position is a constitutional one, and not subject to contest by the judiciary. As King Mswati faces a rising fiscal crisis and international criticism, his man in the courts is determined to face down any threat from dissenting judges or lawyers. It seems likely that the latest accusations being levelled at him, whatever their basis in fact, have much more to do with Ramodibedi’s relationship with the legal profession than his past behaviour toward women.

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