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Pro-democracy activists targeted in Africa's last Monarchy

February 13, 2023
topic:Political violence
tags:#Eswatini, #democracy, #authoritarianism, #Africa
by:Cyril Zenda
The recent killing in of human rights defender Thulani Maseko in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) is seen as a wake-up call to the authoritarian reality of Africa’s last absolute monarchy.

"These people started the violence first, but when the state institutes a crackdown on them for their actions, they make a lot of noise blaming King Mswati for bringing in mercenaries," fumed Eswatini’s King Mswati III while addressing his traditional army regiments on 21 January.

"Nobody should shed any tears or complain if mercenaries kill them," added the absolute monarch who has ruled the tiny kingdom with an iron fist since 1986. 

Later that night, the country’s leading human rights advocate, Thulani Maseko (52), was shot dead in his home through the window. Maseko - a long time thorn in King Mswati’s side - was a senior member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland and chairperson of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a convergence of various stakeholders calling for constitutional reforms in Eswatini.

Maseko’s killing is widely seen as confirmation of the king’s threats.

'Chilling Reminder that Rights Defenders are Unsafe'

"The cold-blooded unlawful killing of Thulani Maseko offers a chilling reminder that human rights defenders, especially those at the front of calling for political reform in Eswatini, are not safe," said Robert Shivambu, Amnesty International’s southern Africa spokesman. "If they’re not being persecuted, harassed or intimidated by the state, they are at risk of losing their lives."

Shivambu said Maseko’s death, which has already sent a chilling message to pro-democracy activists across the kingdom, could signify an escalation in attacks against those who are openly seeking political reforms.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said Maseko’s killing - which it described as an assassination – must be a wake-up call to the true nature of the absolute monarch’s rule.

"That such grave Human Rights violations and outright political assassination appear to be incited by the King is the reality that the international community needs to accept when dealing with Eswatini," the international NGO said in a statement.

"Whether the king’s threats were an ill-fated warning or the expression of something darker, relishing as the bearer of deathly promises, both are underserving of a public figure and a monarch," FIDH president Alice Mogwe added in a statement shared with FairPlanet.

Lloyd Kuveya, assistant director at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, told FairPlanet that Maseko’s killing itself sends the message that dissenting political views and opinions are not tolerated in Eswatini.

"The killing of Thulani is a cowardly act. Thulani stood for peaceful dialogue, nation building and transformation of the autocratic political system to a truly democratic, constitutional monarchy.

"His death may end up galvanising pro-democracy forces to greater actions and more commitment to achieve Thulani’s dreams for his country."

Arrested and jailed in 2014 for two-years for criticising the kingdom’s judiciary, Maseko was also mounting a court challenge against Mswati’s 2018 arbitrary decision to change the country’s name from Swaziland.

Kuveya added that if Maseko’s killers are not apprehended and prosecuted, this extrajudicial execution would show that impunity for grave crimes is entrenched in Eswatini.

"Thulani’s killing will have a chilling effect on activists and human rights defenders," he said. "Pro-democracy forces must unite, speak with one voice, engage regional and international community, ask for solidarity from national opposition forces and take leadership in the fight to achieve democracy in Swaziland by conscientising ordinary Swazis about what is good for the Kingdom."

Strident Denials

Eswatini government spokesman Alpheous Nxumalo reacted angrily to what he said were unjust "insinuations" on social media that King Mswati’s government had a hand in Maseko’s killing.

The position of government is the same, we are baffled, we are taken aback, and we are very disappointed that you are quoting political activists in the country and in South Africa who are blaming government for the murderous crime that has been committed against the person of Mr. Maseko," Nxumalo said.

"Government has got no, absolutely no, hand in the murder of Mr. Maseko… He was absolutely no threat whatsoever at any given time as we were pursing our political agenda in the country."

Nxumalo added that an investigation into the killing was under way.

Maseko’s killing made international headlines, with United Nations Human Rights chief Volker Türk urging an impartial investigation. The US embassy in Eswatini expressed "profound sadness" at the killing, while the European Union expressed outrage at what it described as "brutal assassination."

Authoritarian Rule

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.

For the past 37 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, making it easy for him to rule by decree. This type of rule effectively makes all emaSwati subjects of the king, not citizens of the country. 

On-going Crackdown on Pro-democracy Movement

In June 2021, violent protests broke out in Eswatini against King Mswati’s rule, resulting in the death of 46 people. Since then, the king has faced sustained protests from activists that have been demanding the democratisation of the kingdom’s political space.

In response, Mswati’s government resorted to brute force, arbitrary arrests, detention and abductions of pro-democracy leaders and protestors, as well as the shutdown of the internet and imposing blanket bans on protests. 

More than 80 people have since been killed and over 200 others injured while thousands of others have been arrested and detained. Two Members of Parliament have been in arbitrary detention ever since the outbreak of the protests more than 18 months ago, while hordes of Mswati’s opponents have been forced into exile. 

It was from this unrest that the MultiStakeholder Platform, which the late Maseko chaired, emerged. 

Despite efforts by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to resolve the crisis, Mswati has ignored the pleas of citizens, opposition politicians, civil society, the regional and international community, and instead escalated the government’s crackdown on dissenting voices.

This has further worsened the dissatisfaction that the citizens of the kingdom - which consistently ranks lowly in global freedom charts - have always felt.

"Eswatini authorities have escalated their crackdown on human rights, continuing their assault on human rights, the rule of law and justice," pointed out a September 2022 joint statement by Southern Africa Litigation Centre and Amnesty International. "The government often uses force to quash opposition and dissent to suppress dissent and legitimate concerns of the people."

Image by S´mile Vilakati.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Thulani Maseko (52), a senior member of Lawyers for Human Rights Swaziland, was shot dead in his home through the window.
Embed from Getty Images
“The cold-blooded unlawful killing of Thulani Maseko offers a chilling reminder that human rights defenders, especially those at the front of calling for political reform in Eswatini, are not safe.”
Embed from Getty Images
“That such grave Human Rights violations and outright political assassination appear to be incited by the King is the reality that the international community needs to accept when dealing with Eswatini.”
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