By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
On 18 March, 2014, Mpendulo Simelane, a judge of the High Court of eSwatini – the country formerly known as Swaziland – convicted Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu of criminal contempt, sentencing them to 18 months in prison. Bheki, a journalist, worked as editor of The Nation, the leading new magazine in the country. At the time, Thulani led the Lawyers for Human Rights, eSwatini’s leading non-governmental organization. Both had in separate articles criticized then Chief Justice, Michael Ramodibedi, for various acts of abuse of power.
Thulani did in fact publicly call for the Chief Justice to step down. His position would later be vindicated when Ramodibedi suffered the unique distinction of being forced to relinquish two high judicial positions in one year. In 2014, he resigned as president of the Court of Appeal of Lesotho where he faced judicial impeachment. Back home in Swaziland, in June 2015, King Mswati III fired him from the office of Chief Justice of eSwatini.
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Invited to speak for himself from the dock before the court sentenced him, Thulani, who was assassinated on 21 January 2023 while relaxing with his family in his home near Mbabane, capital of eSwatini, outlined his mission and worldview succinctly: “We deny that the call for a constitutional monarchy is a call to overthrow the monarch in Swaziland. We are calling for a system of government where democratic governance can and will co-exist with a monarchy whose powers are properly limited by law … so that nobody is above the law, but the law, is the ruler…”
Following their conviction, Amnesty International adopted both men as prisoners of conscience. 14 months later, on 30 June, 2015, the Supreme Court of eSwatini set aside the convictions.
When the King changed the name of the country at a whim to mark his 50th birthday in 2018, Thulani disagreed and sued to challenge it. It was an extraordinary act of courage in a country where powers over life and death reside in a rampantly over-sexed King Mswati III, whose harem includes at least 15 wives.
Born on 1 March, 1971, Thulani qualified as a lawyer in eSwatini in 1997. He undertook graduate studies in human rights law, receiving advanced degrees from universities in Pretoria,South Africa and Washington DC, United States of America. Seven years into a professional life dedicated to fighting for human rights, he founded eSwatini’s Lawyers for Human Rights.
In my own occasional scrapes with made-in-Nigeria tin-gods, Thulani was always a source of both inspiration and committed solidarity.
The cause of creating a more accountable country would increasingly draw Thulani into the vocation of advocacy for democracy and constitutional reform in eSwatini. Upon stepping down from the leadership of the organization in 2018, he became the leader of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a coalition of civic organisations for constitutional reform in eSwatini.
In July 2021, King Mswati met the peaceful advocacy led by Thulani and the Forum with cowardly brutality, leading to the killing of scores and the disappearance and torture of many more.
On Saturday, 21 January, the king warned pro-democracy advocates not to “cry when mercenaries deal with you.” Hours later, unknown marksmen, escorted by a convoy of King Mswati’s Police officers, shot and killed Thulani in his house.
On 25 January, Namibia’s President Hage Geingob on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), publicly asked the authorities in eSwatini to ensure Thulani’s killing be “swiftly, transparently and comprehensively investigated, and that any and all persons suspected of committing this heinous crime are brought to justice.” In a break with precedent, the African Union joined the SADC’s call for a “full and transparent” investigation into what it described as the “brutal killing” of Thulani. Both the SADC and the AU must go further and insist on an independent investigation.
Thulani Maseko was the outstanding lawyer of his generation. His crime was to believe that his beloved eSwatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, could be and deserved to be better. He believed that this cause was best served by reforming the country into a constitutional monarchy and he forged a formidable coalition to advance this goal. For this, he has given his life. His killers and those who procured them believe they can decapitate the movement he led. In this circumstance, it is not right to say Hamba Kahle. Instead, his soul will haunt his killers and his legacy will continue to inspire the living.
Odinkalu teaches at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Massachusetts.