Africa’s last absolute monarch faces a push for democracy amid unrest in Eswatini. is upside down

The landlocked and impoverished kingdom of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, has been rocked by days of violent clashes between security forces and protesters calling for democratic reforms. Amid mounting unrest, the government denied reports that King Mswati III fled the violence to neighboring South Africa.

Is Africa’s last absolute monarch in hiding?

Mswati III, the longtime ruler of Eswatini known for his extravagant lifestyle, is facing some of the biggest protests of his 35-year reign, but his whereabouts are up for debate. His opponents allege that the king slipped out of the country aboard his private jet on Monday as protests turned violent. Their claims have not been verified, but the swirling rumors have prompted Eswatini officials to issue a statement denying the “false media reports” and calling for calm.

Government Statement: Government assures the nation that His Majesty King Mswati III is in the country and continues to lead in cooperating with the Government to further the goals of the Kingdom.

— Government of Eswatini (@EswatiniGovern1) June 29, 2021

The small African country of 1.1 million inhabitants, which was renamed Eswatini in 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary of its independence, has been rocked by days of violent clashes between security forces and protesters. According to witnesses, protesters have barricaded roads and set fire to businesses owned or affiliated with the royal family, while videos on social media purportedly show soldiers attacking protesters.

Activists say soldiers and police have killed more than 20 people since the unrest began. Police and health workers have not confirmed the toll, while government officials refuse to answer questions from the press. Authorities have banned all protests and warned that there will be “zero tolerance” for violations of the ban. They have also imposed a curfew, ostensibly to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, and drastically reduced access to the internet.

dead student

The protest movement started in May when students and teachers protested the alleged murder by the police of Thabani Nkomonye, ​​a law student at the University of Eswatini. Authorities launched an investigation into Nkomonye’s death, but protests escalated in late June as young people took to the streets to demand democratic reforms in a country where the king boasts of many lavish palaces while his people suffer.

Such protests are rare in Eswatini, where the king appoints ministers and controls parliament, Human Rights Watch says, stressing that political parties have been officially banned since 1973.

“The judiciary has been severely compromised and repressive laws have been used to attack independent organizations and harass civil society activists,” the rights watchdog said in a statement. “Over the years, there has been no progress on essential reforms in the areas of democracy and human rights.”

Led by Eswatini’s youth, the protest movement has now expanded with a range of demands, from the introduction of multi-party democracy to improved economic prospects and an end to brutal repression. In an interview with news site Voice of Africa, the head of Eswatini’s National Teachers’ Association, Sikelela Dlamini, said it was “perfectly legal for citizens to demand the end of police brutality and better living conditions from the government”.

Cars – and women – galore

Mswati III was 18 when he came to the throne in 1986. He is known to rule the country with an iron fist and enjoy an extravagant lifestyle with his family which includes his 15 wives and numerous children. In a 2010 report, Jowharsheds light on an infamous annual ceremony known as the ‘Reed Dance’, in which the monarch selects a new wife from thousands of parading young virgins from across his kingdom.

The festivities, which attract a fair share of foreign tourists, disguise a sinister reality in the deprived former British protectorate, where two-thirds of the population live in poverty, life expectancy is just over 51 on average and more than a quarter of adults live in reportedly HIV positive – the world’s highest infection rate.

Two years ago, the plight of ordinary Eswatinis led to a series of strikes by officials who accused the royal family of squandering the country’s wealth at the expense of the population.

“The country’s resources (cotton, tobacco, rice, iron, wood, etc.) are systematically confiscated by the king and his entourage: all foreign companies, such as the local subsidiary of Coca-Cola, are obliged to give 51% of their shares to a sovereign fund controlled by the monarch and accept one of his relatives on their board,” said Lucky Lukhelé, spokesperson for the pro-democracy Swaziland Solidarity Network, in an interview with Geo magazine.

Despite the widespread misery of his people, Mswati III makes no secret of his passion for luxury cars and expensive watches. In 2019, the exiled opposition revealed that the king treated himself and his clique to a fleet of 19 Rolls-Royce cars and 120 BMWs, at a cost of €15 million. A few years earlier, he spent ten times as much at a brand new international airport named after him – despite Eswatini having few flights and the country’s road network being a mess.

Earlier this year, the eccentric monarch claimed to have recovered from Covid-19 thanks to a mysterious retroviral drug sent by Taiwan — a historic partner for Eswatini, now the last African state to recognize its independence from China. However, no panacea could save Eswatini’s previous prime minister, Ambrose Dlamini, who died of the virus last December after months of treatment in South Africa.

‘Call Mswati to order’

South Africa regional heavyweight, whom Eswatini relies on for its supplies, has expressed concern over the growing unrest in its much smaller neighbor and has called on security forces to “use total restraint” and protect lives and livelihoods. . “We are particularly concerned about reports of loss of life and destruction of property. The right to peaceful protest is universally recognised,” South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

In a rare rebuke, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has criticized the government for violence against protesters. “Using security forces to quell political dissent and failing to address legitimate civilian interests complicates the conflict and adds fuel to the fire,” said Lindiwe Zulu, the ANC’s head of international relations.

The US State Department has also urged the Eswatini authorities to “use restraint and also uphold the utmost respect for human rights,” including the right to protest peacefully.

The United States has a cordial relationship with Africa’s last absolute monarchy, one of the main beneficiaries of Washington’s multi-billion dollar campaign against AIDS. But on Thursday it warned Americans against traveling to Eswatini and announced it would allow non-essential American diplomats and their families to leave the country amid the deteriorating security situation.

In the landlocked kingdom, protesters have urged the international community, including the African Union and the 16-nation Southern Africa Development Community, to put more pressure on the ruling monarchy.

“We urge you to bring Mswati to order,” said Sonke Dube, president of the Swaziland Youth Congress, which has been involved in the demonstrations. “Isolate him from the community of peace-loving nations. Impose sanctions on him and his immediate family and cronies until we have a people’s government in Swaziland,” Dube added in a statement, appearing to eschew the name Mswati III has chosen for his country.

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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