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Why Performing For A Dictator Can Be A Huge Problem For A Star

Why Performing For A Dictator Can Be A Huge Problem For A Star
May 29
23:04 2014
King of Swaziland Mswati III (Front) and one of his 13 wives Photo: Reuters/voanews.com King of Swaziland Mswati III (Front) and one of his 13 wives Photo: Reuters/voanews.comU.S. rhythm and blues star Erykah Badu hopped on a helicopter April 24 in South Africa, where she is recording her latest album, and took an hour-long flight to neighboring Swaziland.

During her time in the tiny sub-Saharan country African country, Badu performed at Swazi leader Mswati III’s birthday party, including a rendition of Happy Birthday for the leader. Unfortunately for her, the performance led to a tremendous headache.

Why was the performance so controversial? Mswati III isn’t just the leader of the country. He is King Mswati III, Swaziland’s absolute monarch. In performing at his birthday party, Badu added her name to a long list of internationally famous artists who have performed for dictators.

Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch. Swaziland is one of very few absolute monarchies remaining across the globe. The short list includes some of the world’s worst human rights violators such as Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Oman.

Among the biggest critics of Badu’s performance in Swaziland was Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer who focuses on Southern Africa at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. When we reached out to Smith via email he highlighted the despotism of Mswati III’s regime through the story of two jailed activists.

The jailed activists include Thulani Rudolf Maseko, a human rights lawyer, and Bheki Makhubu, a writer and the editor-in-chief for The Nation, “considered…the sole independent newspaper” in Swaziland.

According to Smith, the two “…were arrested for ‘scandalizing the judiciary’ and ‘contempt of court.’ In other words, they’ve been imprisoned for exercising free speech, which is evidently illegal in Swaziland.”

The arrest and harassment of Maseko and Makhubu fit a common theme in the sub-Saharan African monarchy. “(Maseko and Makhubu’s) form of judicial harassment is not uncommon in Swaziland and forms part of the larger narrative which is Swaziland’s abysmal record on human rights,” Smith said. “Authorities routinely use any excuse to crack down — sometimes physically and more recently under the guise of the ‘rule of law’ — on what is seen as dissent to the king’s total autocratic rule.”

This climate of harassment is reaffirmed by Freedom House, a Washington-based non-governmental organization that measures and quantifies freedom in the world. According to the organization there is virtually no room for political expression in Swaziland and journalistic censorship is commonplace. “Constitutional rights to free expression are severely restricted in practice and can be suspended by the king. Publishing criticism of the ruling family is banned. Self-censorship is widespread, as journalists are routinely threatened and attacked by the authorities.”

Such is the trouble with absolute dictatorships of all stripes, including monarchies. Constitutional rights mean very little when they are subject to restriction at the behest of the tyrant. Similarly, the rule of law means nothing when those close to the center of power are not subject to it. To quote The Nation column that landed Maseko in jail, in Swaziland “…the closer you are to the monarch, the more one is immune to legal proceedings.”

When the judiciary is subjugated to the will of the king, checks and balances are nonexistent. Maseko, for his part, found himself imprisoned merely for acknowledging this atmosphere.

Maseko said, “Nelson Mandela and the many lessons we learn from him has told us that the judiciary is the cornerstone of democracy. What is even more important, he says, is the commitment to abide by its decisions even when such decisions are not in favor of the powerful.”

Maseko sits behind bars.

It is not just the lack of political space that torments Swazi citizens, but also corruption. According to estimates by Swaziland’s own minister of finance, the amount of money lost to government corruption is more than 170 percent of the annual social services budget. IRIN reports that, as of 2011, nearly $128 million USD disappear annually. For perspective, the country’s annual social services budget is $75 million USD. This includes a $33.6 million USD annual budget for health in a country with the world’s highest rate of HIV infection. More than a quarter of the adult population are thought to be infected.

So why do we care if a star like Badu performs for a despot? The argument most frequently made is that by performing for the Swazi King, Badu gives international credence to his rule. This argument is further amplified when she sings happy birthday directly to the authoritarian monarch. This is the same argument made repeatedly. It was made when Mariah Carey twice performed for Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, when Beyonce, Usher, Nelly Furtado and 50 cent performed either for or at events sponsored by now deceased Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Some good may yet come out of the performance. For her part, Badu denied any previous knowledge of the political and human rights abuses in the country. Internationally she is not alone in this ignorance. Hopefully, instead of giving legitimacy to Mswati III’s tyrannical monarchy, her performance serves as an opportunity to educate and bring attention to an often ignored corner of the world.

Instead of languishing anonymously in prison with only the support of human rights advocates and Swazi supporters, Maseko and Makhubu — and their names — have been published by prominent news outlets throughout the world.

While awareness does not necessarily lead to action, lack of awareness absolutely leads to inaction.

– See more at: http://afkinsider.com/54340/erykah-badu-performing-for-a-dictator-swazi-king-thats-problem/#sthash.3Px30IA7.dpuf

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Jide Adesina

Jide Adesina

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