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Eswatini Protests: Could Africa’s Last Absolute Monarchy Be Nearing Its End?

July 21, 2021
tags:#Eswatini, #Swaziland, #democracy, #freedom of speech, #protest
by:Cyril Zenda
Violent protests rocked the tiny African kingdom of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) for two weeks from June into July, as fed-up subjects demanded an end to King Mswati III’s authoritarian rule.

The standoff resulted in the death of more than 40 people, the hospitalisation of dozens and the arrest of hundreds, as the embattled king responded by deploying his security forces to crush the protests. 

“We are not surprised by the heavy response of the regime,” Mlungisi Makhanya, leader of the banned People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), told Al Jazeera. “We, the people, are saying we need to open up the constitutional space […] for people to make their own choices on how they want to be governed.”

The protests were sparked by a 24 June decree by the king banning his subjects from petitioning parliamentarians to demand democratic reforms in this mountainous kingdom of 1.3 million, which is wedged between South Africa and Mozambique and in which political parties have been banned for nearly five decades. 

The petitions for political reforms had been prompted by a public outcry against the killing, allegedly by the police, of a law student, Thabani Nkomonye, in May.

Throughout the two weeks of protests, the angry subjects, led mostly by impoverished and hopeless youths, demanded that a Transitional Authority take over power from the authoritarian king, whom they claim has squandered his moral authority to rule over them.

Amnesty International expressed concern at the heavy-handed way Mswati responded to the protests. 

“The government of Eswatini has launched a full-frontal assault on human rights in response to on-going pro-democracy protests,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa. “Dozens of people have been killed for daring to demand that their government respects human rights, many of them human rights defenders and activists.” 

Authoritarian Rule in Eswatini

Crowned as regent at the age of 18 in 1986, Mswati inherited the throne from his father, King Sobhuza II, who had banned all political parties in the kingdom in 1973. Over the past 35 years, Mswati has maintained a political system that allows candidates to run individually for parliamentary seats, leaving no room for a political organisation that can lead to a parliamentary majority to run a government. 

He appoints a titular prime minister, but keeps all executive power to himself, which makes it easy for him to rule with an iron fist. This type of rule makes all emaSwati subjects of the king, not citizens of the country. 

“The judiciary is severely compromised, and repressive laws have been used to target independent organisations and harass civil society activists,” noted Human Rights Watch in a statement in early July. “Over the years, there has been no progress on essential democratic and human rights reforms, including the removal of all legislative and practical restrictions to the registration and operation of political parties; allowing free, fair, and transparent democratic elections; and allowing for civil and political rights, including [...] freedom of association and expression.”

Growing Demand for Political Freedoms

Over the past decades, the pro-democracy movement has found it hard to force change on this impervious political and cultural system dominated by the royal establishment.

Political activists like PUDEMO’s Makhanya have been demanding an end to the ban on political parties and wide-ranging reforms that include the overturning of a constitution that gives Mswati the right to unilaterally make all executive appointments, that also include those of judges and heads of government agencies.

“We need to transition to a new dispensation where there is political plurality and a leadership that is accountable to its people, not one that hardens hearts against the monarchy,” said Makhanya.

It is these demands that angered Mswati into issuing a royal decree banning all petitions for political reforms, to which the citizens - in a rare challenge to the monarch - responded by mobilising street protests.

Royal Extravagance Amid widespread Poverty

Disaffection with Mswati’s rule has intensified due to the opulent lifestyle that the king and his harem of 15 wives and several dozen children flaunt in the face of the poverty that characterises the kingdom. 

According to the World Bank, about two thirds of emaSwati live below the poverty line. And while international donors scramble to raise funds to provide basic social services in the kingdom, Mswati has his own royal initiatives as priorities. These include a multi-million dollar International Convention Centre and a five-star hotel under construction at his Ezulwini royal enclave; a massive international airport named after him; an Airbus A340-300 passenger plane for himself and a fleet of 20 Rolls-Royce and 120 BMW cars for his family, among other extravagant expenditures.

Dawn of Mswati’s End?

While the violent protests may not have succeeded in bringing the desired change, they did succeed in bringing the plight of the emaSwati to the world. 

They also forced Mswati to convene a stakeholders meeting to discuss the crisis - a meeting that opposition activists boycotted. 

It is hoped this could be a crucial step in the long journey towards the end to Africa’s last absolute rule.

Image: Oladimeji Odunsi

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Vendors sell fruit and vegetables on the city streets of Mbabane on 3 July, 2021 as a tense calm returns to Eswatini after days of widespread pro-democracy protests.
© -/AFP via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
Resentment towards Mswati has intensified due to the opulent lifestyle the king and his harem of 15 wives and several dozen children flaunt in the face of widespread poverty in the kingdom.
© Dmitry Feoktistov
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