Swazi democracy activist: What we can learn from The Gambia

Thursday, December 15, 2016

After a coup and 22 years of authoritarian rule, The Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh conceded power in elections on December 1. We can learn from The Gambia that we are stronger united than divided, says Swazi activist Bheki Dlamini.

Swaziland and The Gambia are two of Africa’s smallest nations, both less than 20.000 km2 and with populations below 2 million. Both got their independence from Britain in the 1960s, and both are more or less engulfed by, and to a large degree dependent on, a much larger and more powerful neighbour. 

Both countries have also endured decades of authoritarian rule, dressed up as democracy, after an initial spate of democracy post-independence. And both are ranked near the bottom of the world’s nations, regarding human development, democracypolitical rights, civil liberties and press freedom

Strength in unity

Since the reopening of multi-party rule, the opposition in Gambia had remained weak and fragmented. Toung activist Bheki Dlamini insists its victory against Jammeh in the presidential elections would not have come about, had they not decided to form a coalition recently. 

Bheki Dlamini knows the price of fighting for democracy in a dictatorship. He was tortured, charged with terrorism and jailed for nearly four years in one of absolute monarch King Mswati III’s prisons. He had to flee Swaziland in fear of his life not long after the court dismissed the charges against him and released him.

And from the vantage point of exile in cold Scandinavia, Bheki believes that the democratic movement in Swaziland needs to unite as in The Gambia, if they are to gain true democracy.

"I am overwhelmed by the humbleness and political maturity shown by the Gambian opposition leaders to swallow their pride and put their country first in forming the coalition," says Dlamini. "The democratic movement in Swaziland is fragmented and too weak to challenge our undemocratic regime."

Big challenges

Even though there are similarities between The Gambia and Swaziland, there are also differences, especially as Swaziland is still fighting for laying the foundation for multi-party democracy.

"Uniting the democratic movement has been the most challenging endeavor of the movement. The Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) is trying to unite the forces but is facing big challenges. Why, for instance, are some organisations that claim to be in pursuit of democracy not part of the SUDF? We need unity, but are our leaders willing to swallow their pride like the Gambians and build a united coalition?"

Dlamini believes that instead of focusing on ideology and personal differences in forming such a coalition, the respective leaders and organisationa should focus on what unites them.

"And what unites us is that we want to bring down King Mswati’s undemocratic rule," he says. "No one organisation in Swaziland can deliver democracy alone. Our narrow self- and organisational interests are not taking us anywhere. Our division and weaknesses are prolonging the suffering of the Swazi people; the unemployed, the sick, the elderly, the rural poor.

"We need everyone who agrees on the need for democracy to come together. We are stronger united than divided."

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