The small kingdom of Eswatini has been thrown into turmoil after pro-democracy demonstrations were met with a violent backlash from police and soldiers throughout July.
Dozens of protesters have been killed and hundreds more injured by security services, since demonstrators started taking to the streets of the southern African nation, known until 2018 as Swaziland.
Protesters are demanding an end to the absolutism of King Mswati III, the world’s so-called ‘last absolute monarch’, with an estimated net-worth of $500 million.
They have faced a heavily armed response from the regime, denounced as ‘a full-frontal assault on human rights’ by Amnesty International.
One of the poorest countries on earth, with an average daily income of less than $2 a day, Eswatini has seen living conditions worsen even further as a result of global Covid-19 lockdowns.
There is also deep-seated resentment over the lack of basic civil rights, such as freedom of expression and legal recognition of political parties, which have led to periods of social unrest over recent years.
The latest protests began after the May 9 murder, allegedly by the police, of a student leader and member of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS), Thabani Nkomonye. Since then, protests have spread, attracting more supporters in cities, towns and rural areas alike.
The 25-year-old law student was killed during a peaceful demonstration by Swazi youth demanding political reform. He has become a symbol of police brutality in the country, with his image appearing on banners. His death, and the violence it provoked, also led three members of parliament to demand substantial changes to the current political system.
The MPs’ decision to speak out is seen as a bold step in the country, according to a local source who asked not to be named for his own safety.
‘These MPs asked the government to at least elect their own prime minister, given that currently the prime minister is appointed by the king. They were suggesting a constitutional democracy in which the king would be out of politics.’
He added: ‘Citizens from other constituencies started delivering petitions across the country, urging other parliamentarians to discuss these issues.’
Absolute monarch King Mswati III.
Meanwhile, civil society organisations, including the Swazi United Democratic Movement (SUDM), started a campaign that went from community to community collecting petitions, according to our source. He claimed the most common demand in the petitions was that ‘the king must go’.
Unnerved by the protests, Eswatini’s acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, issued a statement forcing an immediate halt to the delivery of petitions across the country on June 24, claiming that ‘this movement has created a fertile breeding ground for anarchy and was intentionally on purpose to sow division within the people and in total disregard of public safety, the rule of law and Covid-19 regulations’.
The suspension of the petitions led to further escalation of street protests and the ensuing violent reaction that saw people shot dead and unable to reach hospital because roads were blocked. The protests also restricted the movement of cargo and passenger trucks.
According to the local press, the protests were brutally put down by the military and police, using extreme violence, including barbaric murders, brutal beatings, persecutions and the kidnapping of protesters.
It is reported that at least 60 people were killed and dozens injured by members of the Royal Swazi Police Service and the Umbutfo Eswatini Defence Force (UEDF) during the crackdown. There are also reports of torture and kidnapping of pro-democracy activists and journalists.
Pro-democracy activists report that the protests have only subsided in recent weeks because of the ferocity of the police and military's response.
‘The security forces are being more careful, they are acting at night and not in broad daylight,’ explained one of the activists. ‘Two people also told us that several activists have disappeared, presumably kidnapped, although some may have fled to South Africa.’
As well as gunning down protesters in the street, activists complain of people being shot during house searches. A vehicle belonging to the US Embassy was also fired upon by members of the Eswatini Defence Force, with a statement from the embassy confirming ‘shots were fired at an embassy vehicle on July 1’.
Eswatini's Minister for Communications, Princess Sikhanyiso, however, denied that security forces were killing civilians, and pointed ‘the finger of blame’ at foreign mercenaries for the killing of civilians.
The heavy-handed response to the protests has led pro-democracy activists to call for intervention by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
A letter sent to SADC by human right’s lawyer Thulani Maseko, of the Institute for Democracy and Leadership, said that ‘the problem facing Eswatini is a crisis of governance’.
It called for SADC to help implement a five-point plan that included ‘a mediated and comprehensive political dialogue/negotiation, full promotion of political parties, a Transitional Executive Authority, a new democratic constitution [and] a multi-party democratic dispensation’.
The letter urged SADC to intervene in the mediation process and to bring all interested parties together ‘to prevent the country from returning to open conflict, which is not in anyone's interest’.
This is not the first time the monarch, who ascended to the throne in 1986 and has 14 wives, has been denounced by his subjects. In 2011, there were demonstrations calling for political reforms and the separation of the executive, judicial and legislative powers. These protests were also violently suppressed and did not result in significant political change.
Despite the similarities with the 2011 protests, southern Africa watchers believe the on-going disturbances might prove less problematic for the king.
‘What has been experienced in recent weeks has not been a repetition of history,’ said Nic Cheeseman, a British political scientist and professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.
‘While the previous protest movements [in 2011] were coordinated and led by civil society groups and trade union leaders from Eswatini, this time the protests started as a spontaneous uprising following the death of the law student, Thabani Nkomonye at the hands of the Swazi authorities. This means that peace can no longer be guaranteed without reform.’
In the last Afrobarometer survey, conducted in 2018, only five per cent of people surveyed said they were satisfied with the way ‘democracy works in Eswatini’.
When asked about the best political system to govern the country, the most popular answer was ‘democracy is preferable to any other type of government’.
The monarchy faces major challenges: a declining economy, a devastating HIV/Aids epidemic and one of the lowest life expectancies in the world.
Although the country’s constitution provides for freedom of expression, in practice, political parties are banned, and the authorities often meet political demonstrations with violence.