On November 28, 2002, the façade of eSwatini as a nation governed by laws crumbled when former Prime Minister (PM) Barnabas Dlamini declared the government’s disregard for the rule of law.

In his statement, infamously known as the “November 28 Statement,” the PM asserted that his administration would not acknowledge the rulings of the Court of Appeal. This declaration came after the Appeals Court deemed the eviction of the residents of Macetjeni and KaMkhweli illegal and unlawful.

This statement formalized what the civilized world had long suspected: the Swazi judiciary served merely as an extension of the royal clique, revealing the non-existence of a functioning, independent legal framework within the country. The consequences were severe, damaging the state's integrity and triggering unprecedented reactions from the international community and investors.

The then Prime Minister likely underestimated the impact of his statement, failing to recognize that such a declaration would effectively become policy. No one wants to live in a country without the rule of law, where the government defies court decisions, because the courts are fundamental to societal order, justice, and the impartial resolution of disputes.

Fast forward to June 6, 2024, and history appears to be repeating itself. During an official session with Editors, the relatively new eSwatini Prime Minister, Russell Mmiso Dlamini, made a statement reminiscent of the infamous November 28, 2002 declaration.

Dlamini, visibly emotional when questioned about the missing COVID-19 funds at the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) during his tenure as CEO, accused the Auditor General (AG)’s Office of providing incorrect information to the media, questioning its competence and undermining its constitutional integrity.

As a political newcomer with questionable political credentials, it is uncertain whether Russell fully comprehended the gravity of his allegations against the AG's Office. Appointed Prime Minister on November 3, 2023, by His Majesty King Mswati III, Dlamini was selected at the end of the country’s Sibaya after public submissions highlighted frustrations over poverty, unemployment, health, education crises, and corruption. According to Section 232 (1) of the eSwatini Constitution, the Sibaya is the nation’s highest policy and advisory council (Libandla).

When King Mswati announced the Prime Minister at the end of the Sibaya discussion in November last year, he declared poverty and other national issues as disasters, instructing the Prime Minister to address these issues urgently.

His Majesty emphasized Dlamini’s experience in disaster management, given his previous role as CEO of the NDMA from November 2015 until his appointment as PM. Before the NDMA, Dlamini had a brief tenure at World Vision Rwanda as Integrated Programmes Director between May 2011 and April 2014, and prior roles at World Vision International – Eswatini Office. However, Dlamini had no political experience before becoming Prime Minister.

This inexperience explains his careless demeanour and emotional, often arrogant, responses. Dlamini’s behaviour comes across as being childish and impertinent, lacking the structure needed to move the country forward. His excitement over his new role appears to overshadow the gravity of his responsibilities.

Auditor General Timothy Matsebula

Following Dlamini’s controversial June 6 statement, there has been significant national upheaval. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) suspended operations in protest, and the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, along with seasoned politicians like Member of Parliament (MP) Marwick Khumalo, expressed their displeasure.

The business community and international observers are also concerned, especially in light of recent revelations about financial misconduct within the country, as reported by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists when they published Swazi Secrets.

The Swazi Secrets, a ground-breaking cross-border investigation by 38 journalists from 11 countries, uncovered vulnerabilities in eSwatini’s financial institutions.

With 890,000 internal records from the Eswatini Financial Intelligence Unit (EFIU), the Swazi Secrets leak exposed how politicians and corporations exploit these systems, fuelling money laundering and organized crime across Southern Africa. The implications extend far beyond Swaziland’s borders, raising global concerns about its financial systems.

In this turbulent context, Prime Minister Dlamini’s statement has only added to the nation's woes, highlighting the challenges eSwatini faces in establishing a stable and lawful governance system.

For Russell to question the integrity of the Office of the Auditor General (AG) in the manner he did speaks volumes about him as a politician. According to Section 207 of the Constitution of Swaziland (2005), the Auditor General is appointed by the King, acting on the advice of the Minister responsible for Finance, following a recommendation by the Civil Service Commission.

The AG is tasked with auditing and reporting on the public accounts of the country and all government offices, courts, and authorities. In performing these duties, the AG reports to parliament and is supposed to be independent, not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority. The significance of the AG's office is underscored by the fact that the procedure for removing the AG from office is as stringent as that for removing a Supreme Court Judge.

Questioning the AG's integrity and competence purely because he is being asked to account for public funds demonstrates gross irresponsibility on Russell's part. But why is Russell behaving this way, and why is he so emotional about the matter?

This is a significant blemish on his record, and it is a matter that is far from being resolved. He must confront it and provide the nation with a transparent account of what happened while he was still the CEO of the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA). The Auditor General is merely seeking answers regarding the use of public funds, acting in the public interest.

For context, the AG’s report concerning the audit of the NDMA as of March 31, 2021, indicated that the AG had reported to the Deputy Prime Minister’s (DPM) Office, which oversees the NDMA, about an unaccounted expenditure amounting to E11,455,236.14 in the Statement of Comprehensive Income related to Emergency Response Projects.

Russell's reaction to these inquiries raises concerns about his transparency and accountability as a leader. His emotional and defensive stance suggests a lack of readiness to address serious allegations of financial mismanagement. This situation demands a clear and honest response from him, as evasion or confrontation will only deepen public distrust. As Prime Minister, it is his duty to uphold the principles of good governance and accountability, reassuring the nation that public funds are managed responsibly.

“An analysis of the General Ledger revealed that total expenditure incurred in the year ended 31st March 2021 amounted to E513,469,774.14 whilst the Statement of Comprehensive Income for the year ended 31st March 2021 depicts a total of E502,014,538.00, hence the discrepancy of E11,455,236.14. This implies that the Emergency Response Projects funds were spent on unknown expenditure,” reads the AG’s report.

When the AG sought an explanation, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office stated that all received funds and incurred expenditure were accounted for in the financial statements of the NDMA, and that no transactions were omitted in the Financial Statements.

The DPM’s Office further informed the AG that NDMA was fuelling Government vehicles that were pooled for the COVID-19 Emergency Response activities. It further explained that, for control purposes, NDMA acquired four debit cards that were centrally controlled and monitored.

Civil Service Commission Chairman Simanga Mamba

“Funds were transferred from the COVID-19 Account to the Fuel Account. All fuel-related transactions in the COVID-19 General Ledger are also in the Fuel General Ledger which is the reason for the discrepancy of E11, 455,236.14,” explained the DPM’s Office.

However, the AG noted the response and stated that it was not satisfactory, saying the cause of the E11, 455,236.14 discrepancies had not been accounted for. “The transfer of funds from the COVID-19 bank account to the Fuel Account does not account for the discrepancy, since as stated in the response all fuel-related transactions were recorded in the COVID-19 General Ledger,” said the AG.

Continued the AG:

“I reported to the Controlling Officer (DPM’s Office) that the financial reports of management revealed that there was an unaccounted-for expenditure (funds) amounting to E30,936,887.72 for the COVID-19 Response Project in the financial year ended 31st March 2021. The audited Financial Statements (Detailed Statement of Comprehensive Income) reported a total expenditure amount of E349,955,313.00 whereas the records and management performance reports submitted to my Office through a letter dated 29th March 2022 presented an expenditure amount of E319,936,887.72 for the COVID-19 project. This indicates an unaccounted-for expenditure (funds) designated for the COVID-19 Response Project.”

The AG further mentioned that it was disturbing that the NDMA was reporting various expenditure amounts for the COVID-19 project, saying this implied that there was no proper recording of transactions in the cash book as at the date of occurrence and no accurate record keeping and the incurring of the expenditure was not monitored and recorded by the NDMA, and the actual amount spent was uncertain.

The AG therefore raised concern about the contradictory financial reports on COVID-19 Response expenditure, which indicated that there were unaccounted-for funds, and there was a risk of overstated expenditure in the financial statements.

When the AG advised the DPM’s Office to account for the funds, the response was not satisfactory. “The response is noted, however it does not reconcile the discrepancy of the E30, 936,887.72,” said the AG.

In essence, Prime Minister Russell Dlamini must address the issues stemming from his tenure at the helm of the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA). It is deeply troubling that when the Auditor General (AG), an office of significant importance, requests accountability, the Prime Minister responds with attacks, labelling the AG as incompetent and untrustworthy. What, precisely, is incorrect about the AG's report, Mr Prime Minister?

Russell Dlamini's actions suggest a determination to dismantle an already troubled nation. ESwatini has not fully recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the country has experienced political unrest that left many people dead and the socio-economic fabric in tatters. The health crisis is dire, with hospitals lacking essential drugs and people dying.

The education system is also in crisis, exemplified by the closure of the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) due to unpaid electricity and water bills. Unemployment and poverty are escalating, with the World Bank reporting that unemployment in eSwatini increased from 23% in 2016 to 33.3% in 2021.

Instead of presenting a clear strategy and addressing these critical issues, the Prime Minister appears to be undermining institutions such as the AG's office. Recently, he hinted at government intentions to regulate the media, further stoking concerns about his leadership. During the Workers' Day celebrations, he misread the mood of the workers, leading to embarrassment. He engages in superficial public relations gestures, like stopping at Mankayane markets to get sweets and greet people without offering tangible help to those in need.

Moreover, Dlamini has invested in social media campaigns to promote himself, with his every move posted on Facebook and other platforms, yet there is little mention of concrete actions to address poverty and unemployment. This behaviour raises questions about his priorities and commitment to the people. Does he care about the nation’s welfare, or is his indifference rooted in the fact that he was not elected by the people and thus feels no obligation to respect their needs and concerns?

Prime Minister Russell Dlamini's recent actions, particularly his attack on the AG, reflect a troubling disregard for accountability and good governance. As the leader of the government, he must provide clear answers regarding the missing funds during his tenure at the NDMA and demonstrate a genuine commitment to addressing the myriad challenges facing eSwatini. Failure to do so will only deepen the nation's crisis and erode public trust further.