Why does this thing we sometimes call a country even have a standing army if it can’t help Mozambique?

When news broke out that a small insurgent group with links to ISIS had taken control of a strategic port in Mozambique there was genuine panic that Swaziland would be an inevitable victim of a war of attrition.

 The media has been reporting that Islamists in Mozambique have started posting online videos of armed to the teeth militants attacking bigger towns in that country. This has caused worry for regional leaders and heightened security concerns especially for neighbouring countries like Swaziland, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The obvious question on everyone’s lips is to what extent is the Swazi government, and by necessary extension the army, prepared for a spillover effect of this war? Better yet, is the country’s army up to the task should these ISIS affiliated groups retreat to the country or even be driven to this side of the border? 

Little is known about the military capacity of the Swazi army because they have never fought any war. In fact, the only war the army has fought (with little success) is that against HIV. Nothing else!

Compounding matters for little Swaziland is that the Umbutfo eSwatini Defense Force has never been involved in any peacekeeping mission to gain the requisite experience of real war. In fact, the only reference to the Swazi army training for a peacekeeping mission was back in 2002 when 36 Swazi troops were dispatched to Tanzania for what was supposed to be the start of our raison d’etre.

The Swazi army’s none involvement in peacekeeping mission is in line with the country’s foreign policy which is largely dictated by geographical and economic realities plus the inherent conservatism of the monarchy. 

For obvious reasons, the Swazi army cannot intervene in the conflict in Mozambique on their own. The country needs sanction and direction from SADC’s Organ on Defense, Politics and Security Cooperation currently chaired by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangwagwa.  

The situation in Mozambique is so serious that even the African Union (AU) has acknowledged the crisis but cannot intervene ahead of SADC. The AU has to respect the principle of subsidiarity that governs relations between the AU and Regional Economic Communities.

The recent Extraordinary Organ Troika Summit in Harare has already resolved that SADC would assist Mozambique in whatever form and shape to ward off these Islamic militants. 

The next logical question for many of us in Swaziland is what exactly will be the role of our army in the ensuing battle? To answer this question we need to understand the historic role of the army and how it is neatly woven into the country’s traditional system for no other reason except to provide royal protection and fight internal opposition.

The Swazi army: a dark history

Swaziland maintains a relatively small army of about 3 000 servicemen. The country operates two service branches; the ground force and air wing. We do not have a naval base because we are a landlocked country.  

The army’s air wing is mainly used for transporting the King as well as cargo, and personnel; surveying land with search and rescue functions, and mobilising in case of a national emergency. 

The country once had two IAI Arava 201 aircrafts but both crashed. The first was on a demo flight that crashed in the 1980s and the second crushed in 2004.

But the real story of the army was once told by Fonono Dube, former Brigadier General of the Umbutfo eSwatini Defense Force. He told an often forgotten yet very important history. 

About 18 years ago Dube sat down to speak to veteran journalist, James Hall, about the history of the Swazi ‘army’. If there was any doubt how much of a British poodle the country’s authorities have historically been, then Dube put an end to all speculation.  

In terms of armed intervention,” Dube told Hall, “there has been nothing since 1879, when Swazi warriors conquered the BaPedi tribe on behalf of the British.” 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a historical fact; among the Nguni tribes Swazis have never taken up arms against anyone never mind the white colonialists. On the one occasion that we did, we helped the British eviscerate an African tribe. Let that sink!

 The British were to repay the country by colonising us as a protectorate from 1902 to 1968. When Independence talks were underway, the Swazi leadership under King Sobhuza II expressed an interest in a post-independence army for the nation. British authorities dismissed the idea with a rejoinder, “Who are you going to fight?”

The comment was a rather cruel reminder of Swaziland’s small size and geographic isolation, landlocked as the kingdom is between two large neighbours, Mozambique and South Africa.

World Military and Police Forces: Eswatini
The Swaziland army. The writer says they are useless

On March 15, 1973, five years after Independence, King Sobhuza went ahead and established an army and named it Umbutfo Swaziland Defense Force.

 It is telling that the army was announced to the nation on that fateful Tuesday afternoon on April 12, 1973 when the late king abrogated the constitution and turned the country into a royal fiefdom ruled by decree. 

At the close of his address on that day the King commanded the Second World War veterans and traditional warriors from the Umbutfo who were present to board waiting trucks and proceed to the nearby Etjeni Camp (located near the present Matsapha industrial site) for registration.

 The ready presence of war veterans at the address partly confirms the assumption that there had been some prior consultation and that the events of April 12 had long been thought of.

It is worth remembering that when Sobhuza II read the 1973 proclamation repealing the constitution he knew that he did not have any legal instrument upon which his decision was based. He knew his decision was illegal and would likely be resisted. 

For this reason he announced the formation of an army that would be placed ‘at strategic sectors of the country’ to monitor any form of resistance to this royal coup.

The formation of the army was partly funded by the Swaziland Sugar industry through a sugar levy applied on all sugar exported to Europe. 

The sugar levy had been initially intended to fund developmental projects such as the Mobeni housing scheme in Matsapha and Mbabane.

It is precisely due to the change of policy in 1973 that the Mobeni Housing schemes have not been expanded as funding was diverted from social development to ‘security’. It is clear that right from the beginning the army was a pillaging leech to the country’s development potential.

The late King provided the model of the military structure to be followed. The makeup of volunteers entering the new army were to be seconded from King Sobhuza II’s two trusted Umbutfo traditional regiments—the Lindimpi (watchman/guard) and Gcina (the final protector). 

These created the platform upon which the new army was to be built. Training of the new force was delegated to the Second World War veterans who were in command, assisted by the Matsapha Royal Swaziland Police (RSP).

Drawing troops of existing regiments obviated the need to address basic training and unit organisation issues, and also provided a ready and effective command structure that was integral to the units, and from the units to the head of state and commander-in-chief, and vice versa. 

The regular Swazi army emerged as part of the larger traditional military structure and remained wedded to this system through the formal and informal appointments made. This dynamic has remained true to this day.

Founding the new army on the basis of the trusted traditional forces, transferred the close links and trust generated by their earlier role as the monarchy’s personal aides and protectors. 

The new army, therefore, did not have to earn its stripes, so to speak, as this loyalty and trust was inherent; this was because cadres were drawn from the already existing traditional structures.

In the first four years of establishment, the Royal Swaziland Defence Force experienced several internal and external challenges that impacted on its evolution. These challenges included:

• Volunteers were not prepared to leave after the initial six-month training period;

• A burgeoning part-time force;

 • A tense political environment in which the King now ruled by decree; and

• The deteriorating security situation in Southern Africa following Mozambique’s hasty independence in 1975.

All these factors required an urgent review of the military thinking that was dominant before March 1973 when the formation of the defence force was first decreed.

Over the years the army was to be used to rein in internal opposition but was not immune to political wranglings and power play within the royal family itself. 

But if the army called itself a defence force, what was it defending Swaziland from? After all, the kingdom has never been under military threat from anyone. Even if the country faced any threat it would not even stand against armies of the size of South Africa or Mozambique.  

Apologists for the army argue that the use of soldiers stationed at the Matsapha army barracks, for example, augment the police force. So useless are our troops that they have been reduced to police work and patrolling the borders to counter pervasive cross-border cattle rustling or just idling in royal residences all over the country.

To their credit though, Swazi soldiers have interdicted car hijackers and on occasion exchanged gun fire with criminals. That is all the gunfire the Swazi troops know; fighting civilian criminals. 

Critics of the army do not dispute the need any sovereign state has for a defence force, but they question the use of the soldiers for civilian work. Soldiers are not policemen, and they should not be involved in internal matters or have anything to do with civilians, however. 

The army’s most controversial policing role is during times of civil unrest, such as national stay-aways called by the labour unions in 1996 and the deployment of the army in towns on April 12, 2011.

Even worse for the country is that legislators are not permitted to debate the army’s budget in parliament. Their budget is approved without being seen. 

Military Expenditure in Swaziland has gotten so bad that it is expected to reach 83.00 USD Million by the end of 2020, according to Trading Economics global macro models and analysts expectations.

In the long-term, the Swaziland Military Expenditure is projected to trend around 85.00 USD Million in 2021, according to the Trading Economics econometric models.

The cost of the army to the national budget is very conservative because everything is cloaked in secrecy. What is an open secret though is that budget for the Umbutfo eSwatini Defence Force has been steadily growing without any corresponding justifiable reason.

In 2018, for example, the military expenditure amounted to 1.5 of the country’s gross domestic product. Today the country spends about US$150 million on security, at least according to the kingdom’s 2020 annual budget.

This amounts to 11 percent of our total budget. This is criminal for a country with a collapsed health, an education system in tatters and unemployment rate skyrocketing.


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American soldiers talking to Swazi soldiers. The USA regularly trains the Swazi army

Even the amount budgeted for the army is misspent. This year alone Auditor General (AG) Timothy Matsebula noted that there was an over expenditure on personnel costs amounting to over E125 million incurred by the ministry of defence in the 2019 financial year.

The army justifies this illegal act by blaming the ministry of finance, saying the budget allocated to the defence ministry was inadequate.

The Swazi Observer reported early this year that Matsebula noted that what the army did was not only illegal but also contravened the Financial and Accounting Instruction number 0202 (ii), which states that controlling officers are responsible for ensuring that no amount is spent in excess of the amounts specified in the Treasury Warrants.

I am not aware of any authority that allowed the controlling officer to spend beyond the authorised budget limit,” Matsebula was quoted saying.

Even recruitment to the army is a scam. In fact, the operation of the entire Swazi army is like a criminal syndicate run by an incompetent mafia with low IQ. 

Promotions are not done openly and fairly, recruitment is manipulated to favour those who come from the royal family or Chiefs. Parliament has no oversight role over the finances of the army. Officers are ill treated and fired willy-nilly. 

There is no justifiable reason for Swaziland to have a standing army for a country consistently food insecure and where about 70 percent of the 1.02 million population lives on $1 or less a day. Many countries of bigger geographical size than us do not have a standing army. I count here Costa Rica, Panama, Iceland etc.

However, because we already have an army it must avail itself to the mission to fight ISIS in Mozambique. Israel, USA and Britain have long invested in our army in different capacities. 

The existential threat posed by ISIS in Mozambique means that the need to give some work to our army officers has come. Will they respond?

Zakhele Dlamini

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