WHEN Lesotho appointed an impeachment inquiry into that country’s top judge, Michael Ramodibedi, citing alleged fraud and other serious misconduct, it seemed the standing of the judiciary in this region could sink no lower.
But not so. Almost exactly a year ago that impeachment inquiry was scrapped because Ramodebedi, at the time the head of his country’s appeal court, resigned. Not that this left him jobless: he was already the chief justice of Swaziland and with the consent of the two governments, had been sitting in both countries for some time.
Since then the situation in Swaziland has rapidly declined. This week, as police maintain a siege of his official home in Mbabane, Ramodibedi remains holed up, defying an order for his arrest on charges including corruption. Electricity and water have been cut off, but he remains defiant in the face of what must inevitably be the prelude to impeachment action.
And that’s not all. A number of other people are going down with the CJ in a scandal that is dealing a crushing blow to Swaziland’s once proud tradition of judicial integrity and independence.
As at Wednesday midday two other judges, the registrar of the high court and the minister of justice had all also been arrested. One of the two imprisoned judges claims that he was tortured by police and lost a tooth as a result.
There’s a long and unhappy backstory to all this. For some time the chief justice has countenanced or instigated court-sanctioned human rights violations, including the unprecedented sacking of his colleague Judge Thomas Masuku, and the conviction and jailing of two human rights activists, journalist Bheki Makhubu and lawyer Thulani Maseko for their criticism of Ramodibedi’s behaviour.
Believing he was in complete control over the judiciary and the outcome of court action in Swaziland, the CJ then took several increasingly rash decisions.
He appointed the former registrar of the high court, Mpendulo Simelane, as a judge, despite objections that he was not properly qualified. He has effectively been the CJ’s mouthpiece on and off the bench since then.
Last month he delivered a decision in a dispute between the CJ and the tax authorities, despite the fact that he, Simelane, had been actively involved in the matter in his previous capacity as registrar, when he wrote letters to the tax authorities on behalf of the CJ, and conved meetings between the disputing parties.
Simelane refused to recuse himself and found in favour of the CJ, awarding him R128 000 in tax refunds, with interest and punitive costs.
This evidently caused a good deal of anger and concern in political high places because the country, in thrall to the lifestyle of Africa’s last surviving absolute monarch, Mswati III, is desperately short of money.
Then, last Monday, 13 April, the CJ went too far. The Anti-Corruption Commission had brought an application for the arrest of the minister of justice whose law firm’s bank records showed movement of large amounts of cash about which he refused to answer questions.
The CJ stopped the application in its tracks. Attempts to arrest the minister were invalid, he said, and no further action against the minister would be entertained. No other judge would be allowed to consider such a case without the CJ’s express permission.
After this things moved fast. The ACC obtained an arrest warrant for the CJ and for Simelane, signed by the principal judge. The warrant cited both these two most recent court cases as evidence of corruption, as well as other counts of misconduct.
Police tried to serve the warrant on the CJ but when he refused to come out of his official residence the electricity and water were cut off. The CJ had Judge Jacobus Annandale sign another order, rescinding the initial arrest. As a result of this Annandale has also now been arrested. So has the minister of justice, to be replaced by a senator who previously held office in correctional services and the police as commissioner. So has the registrar of the high court, Fikile Nhlabatsi, who helped get the arrest warrant against Ramodibedi rescinded.
Appearing in court on Tuesday, Annandale made allegations of police torture and argued he should be released on his own recognisances.
By Wednesday, 22 April, the situation was still very fluid. Two things must now be certain however: first, the release of Makhubu and Maseko can’t be delayed much longer; second, Ramodibedi cannot escape this snare; his career must be over.
Less clear, unfortunately, is whether the judiciary in Swaziland will ever recover from this international scandal.