A Vulgar Caricature of an African King

King Mswati III of Swaziland

By George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D.

King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch of the tiny kingdom of Swaziland, wedged between South Africa and Mozambique. The king lives an extravagant style while his people live in abject poverty. His lavish lifestyle includes the trappings of luxurious modernity: Maybach limousines, a DC-jet, and foreign bank accounts worth billions of dollars. Forbes.com recently listed Mswati III as the world’s 15th wealthiest monarch. Yet 80 percent of the Swazi 1.1 million population makes less than two dollars per day. HIV afflicts 31 percent of the country’s adults, the highest national rate on Earth. The average Swazi can only expect to live about 50 years.

His Majesty has no rivals. Political parties are illegal, and any defiance or criticism of the royal family is outlawed. Even insulting the king’s name is liable to be punished by imprisonment. The king controls all lands and local barons, along with the court system, press, police, and army. Anyone who choose not to bow their heads to his decree are rewarded with a stay in theroyal dungeons, where a pair of leg irons, or worse—an ancient and excruciating form of foot torture—is the punishment of choice. Dissent is not tolerated. Human-rights lawyer Thulani Maseko and journalist Bheki Makhubu languish in prison for the crime of questioning the independence of Swaziland’s judicial system.

To the uninformed, King Mswati III represents the epitome of the terrible African rulers that provided the colonialists their raison d’etre. The nonsensical myth or propaganda of the 19th century was that colonialism was good for Africans because it freed them from their terrible and despotic rulers. The truth of the matter is the other way round. Those terrible and despotic rulers were, in fact, the product of colonialism.

Traditional African Kingship – Separating Religion and Politics

Traditionally, the African king – qua king – had little or no political role. His role was spiritual or supernatural. Many traditional African societies believed the universe was composed of three elements: the sky, the earth, and the world. The sky was the domain of spirits of both the living and the yet to be born as well as powerful forces: lightning, thunder, rain, drought, etc. The earth was the domain of the dead ancestors, other dead tribesmen as well as the activities of the living: agriculture, fishing, hunting, etc. The world was peopled by the living – the ethnic group and other tribesmen as well and therefore the domain of war, peace, trade and relations with other tribes. Each of the three cosmological elements was represented by a god.

Metaphysically, the cosmos operated in a strictly orderly manner and it was essential for the three components to be in perfect harmony, called kiet by the Nandi of Kenya. If an element was out of balance, there would be chaos, disease, and death. For example, if the sky was out of equilibrium, thunder or floods would strike. Similarly, if the earth was out of balance, its god would be “angry” and there would be disease, poor harvests, famine, and barren women.

In this scheme, the king – or chief in some ethnic societies – had a precise function to play as a vital link to the universe, “maintain[ing] harmony between society and its natural environment by means of ritual action,” according to Basil Davidson, author of “Africa and Africans.” For example, the Swazi king, through the annual ncwala ceremony, mediates between the world of the living and the world of supernatural beings, taking on to himself, in the words of writer T.O Beidelman, the “filth of the nation” and thus purifying and renewing his kingdom. On the Swazi king thus falls the onerous task of reproducing the social order.

The king’s ability to preserve harmony and balance among the cosmological elements required the African king possess a great, supernatural force powerful enough to deal with all three. Only in this way could he mediate or interact with the universe without throwing any of the three elements out of balance. In most ethnic societies, the king’s supernatural powers came from the throne, or stool, which was the repository of ancestral powers as well as the confluence of all residual powers in the kingdom. In sitting on the stool, the king’s own power was expected to be sufficiently augmented by all other ancestral powers, enabling him to perform this all important mediating role.

In order to carry out this extra-ordinary function, the king was confined to his palace to propitiate the gods. Strict and extra-ordinary code of conduct was required of the king. An “angry” god could wreak havoc and bring misfortune. Accordingly, his sex life, symbolically fused with his fertility and vigor, might be severely restricted while more mundane activities and such as crying, eating, drinking, or defecating could be ritually controlled.

Such physical restrictions were common to the traditions of many groups. Among the Mossi, the king could not leave the capital. The Oni of Ife could return home to visit his relatives only incognito and under cover of darkness. He appeared in public only once a year. Similarly, the Yoruba Oba rarely appeared in public. The Suku of southwestern Congo restricted the activities of their king in order to instill awe or enhance his divinity. No one could see him eat and he could not walk in cultivated fields, lest the fertility of the soil be affected; he could not see a corpse nor cry over the dead. When the king drank, those present had to cover their faces while one of the attendants recited proverbs and sayings recapitulating historic events, praising the king for his good deeds. When the king of Loango of Central Africa was thirsty, he would order his attendant to ring a bell, and all present, even European guests, had to fall flat on their faces so as not to behold the king drinking.

Most of these restrictions were designed to reduce the king to an executive nonentity, curtail the discretionary use of political power, and confine the king to his palace where he would be safely removed from people’s private lives. This physical separation, along with the emphasis on the king’s spiritual duties meant a separation of kingship and political leadership.

“The king’s role [wa]s small: he [was] the representative or symbol of the chiefdom and may have some religious duties, but his participation in the political decisionmaking process [was] insignificant,” wrote
Jan Vansina, in his book “Kingdoms of the Savannah.”

In fact, the king hardly spoke – he had a spokesperson, called a linguist, through whom he communicated with his people. Similarly, he hardly decided policy – his advisers and chiefs would determine policies and present them for royal sanction. His role in legislation and execution of policy was severely limited. Custom and tradition set limits to the authority of the king, his cabinet, and advisors. Furthermore, most of the political organizations which had a king surrounded him with councils and with courts. “Almost all ha[d] institutionalized means to keep him from abusing his power,” wrote Paul Bohannan in the book “Africa and Africans.”

Checks, Balances, & Regicide    

The king was an embodiment of his kingdom and people. If he was sick, it meant his kingdom was also sick or some misfortune had befallen it. To lead his people well, the king must obey the rules and save his people from such calamities as droughts and famine. When such evil occurred, the king had not ruled well and was to be deposed or killed (regicide). Among the Kerebe of northwest Tanzania, kings were expected to regulate rainfall and that the inability to conform to these expectations over an extended period of time was a major reason for deposing an omukama.

“Two kings are said to have been deposed in this manner at the beginning of the nineteenth century: Ruhinda, who was unable to prevent an excessive amount of rain from falling, and his successor, Ibanda, who fell victim to an extended period of drought,” according to Randall M. Packard.

For some groups, misrule was dealt with in a far more severe manner. The Junkun of Nigeria believed that “kings were supposed to be killed if they broke any of the royal taboos on personal behavior, fell seriously ill, or ruled in time of famine or severe drought: whenever they could no longer be regarded as fit guardians of the `right and natural,'” Davidson adds. And in the Ga Kingdom, where the role of the king (mantse) was strictly military, the punishment for failing to properly use his magical powers so as to bring success in battle was swift – off went his head. As actual regicide began to be abolished by most ethnic groups, failure of the king to provide the vital link to the universe, remains grounds for dethroning.

Despite this long tradition of checks to royal power, King Mswati III remains firmly ensconced in the Swazi throne, begging the questions: how did the institution of the King survive while shedding traditional forms of checks, balances, and oversight? And, what hope does that leave for reform in Swaziland? It is to those questions that we will turn in part two.



George B.N. Ayittey, Ph.D., Native of Ghana, is an economics professor, author, and the president of the Free Africa Foundation. He is based in Washington, DC.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia]

This blog post is part of a two-part series. Read the follow up article, “The Imported Tradition of African Dictatorship,” here.