Eswatini protests: ‘we are fighting a liberation struggle’

Authorities in Eswatini have promised a “national dialogue” in an attempt to avert further unrest after dozens died and hundreds of businesses were burned down in weeks of protest in Africa’s only remaining absolute monarchy.

The move has been greeted with scepticism by opposition leaders and analysts, with fears of further violence in the landlocked country of 1.3 million if there are no significant reforms to the autocratic political system.

The UN expressed deep concern on Tuesday at the reaction of authorities in Eswatini, which was formerly known as Swaziland, to recent protests and sporadic looting, calling for an independent investigation into allegations of “disproportionate and unnecessary use of force, harassment and intimidation” by security forces.

The allegations include “the use of live ammunition by police”, a UN spokesperson said, adding that the organisation was worried by “the potential for further unrest”.

Protests by mainly young people in Eswatini, which has been ruled by 53-year-old King Mswati for 35 years, started when a law student was murdered in May in circumstances that suggested police involvement. But unrest intensified dramatically last month when authorities said they would refuse any further “petitions” to the king, closing one of the few ways in which complaints and grievances could be expressed in the kingdom.

Protests that followed led to a more general breakdown in law and order, with sporadic arson and looting. With police overwhelmed, the army was deployed “to regain the rule of law, [restore] peace and to protect all”, said acting prime minister Themba Masuku in a statement.

Observers say there are echoes in Eswatini of protests and violence elsewhere in Africa which have pitted educated and connected urban youth against long-standing rulers and elites. In Uganda, where the median age is 17, Bobi Wine, a popular singer turned politician, has challenged the rule of veteran president Yoweri Museveni and provoked harsh repression. In Nigeria too, a youthful population with new aspirations of prosperity, security and freedom have taken to the streets to protest and been met with violence.

“We are fighting for democracy, freedom, jobs and for food. Yes, there were some people who tried to exploit the protests for their own agenda but … they were not our people. We are fighting a liberation struggle, not stealing,” said one 26-year-old student leader contacted by the Guardian in Eswatini, who requested anonymity for fear of arrest.

The country’s median age is 21 and unemployment is at more than 40%. Though the king lives in ostentatious luxury, with a fleet of luxury cars, private jets, numerous palaces and 15 wives, almost 60% of his subjects live in poverty, according to the World Bank. A large royal family also enjoys an opulent lifestyle, and members have unashamedly posted images of their extravagance on social media.

Though some local-level representatives are elected, the king effectively choses MPs, controls parliaments and appoints ministers, analysts say. Dissidents have long been silenced by a raft of repressive laws, with the largest opposition party, People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), banned under terrorism laws.

Menzi Ndhlovu, an analyst with Signal Risks, a South Africa-based threat advisory firm, said there had been successive waves of protest in Eswatini, including widespread unrest in 2011 dubbed the “Swazi spring”.

“It’s a fairly familiar process. The authorities first repress and contain, then offer some concessions. The aim is basically to preserve the status quo,” Ndhlovu said.

However, this time a tipping point may have been reached.

“The offer of a national dialogue is an attempt by government and monarchy to calm and appease the masses. I don’t think there is any intent to carry out serious reform … We could well see a second wave of protests,” he told the Guardian.

Officials admit that at least 27 people had been killed, some by police, others by security guards hired to prevent looting. Opposition leaders say at least twice as many have died. More than 150 are thought to have been injured.

Chris Vandome, an expert at London’s Chatham House, said the recent protests differed from early episodes of unrest in which unions and other formal organisations had played a significant role.

“This time it is more organic and less structured. That makes it much harder to control but also harder for the protesters to have a cohesive position on what they want … A national dialogue is a first step but does that mean you respect the legitimacy of the people you are dialoguing with?” he said.

Officials in Eswatini admit there are problems in the kingdom but say the unrest was due to “terrorists” and “rabble rousers” from South Africa.

Manqoba Khumalo, a senator and Eswatini’s minister of commerce, industry and trade, told the Guardian that though last week had been “horrible” Eswatini had returned to normal.

“What is being portrayed [by media outside the kingdom] is sensationalism. We are short of some supplies and a lot of shops were burned so that makes things difficult but there are no protests at the moment, no vandalism and nothing has been looted since Saturday morning,” he said.

Khumalo said that security forces had intervened when authorities “had been made aware of a grand plan to sow a trail of destruction” in Eswatini. Without offering evidence, he alleged the plan involved the Economic Freedom Fighters, a radical leftwing political party in neighbouring South Africa.

“The EFF was bringing in people to lead the destruction and who would train and mentor its local branch to do this … We were able to intercept the plan on the internet. We had to protect business and security for all citizens. It was beyond a protest,” the minister said.

The government claim violence preceded the ban on petitions – though opposition parties deny this, saying that protests turned violent in response to harsh measures and police violence.

Internet access has been limited, straining communication. Banks and many shops remain shut, hundreds of others have been burned out, and many petrol stations had run out of petrol.

Amnesty international described “a full-frontal assault on human rights” in the former British protectorate, and Wandile Dludlu, secretary general of Pudemo, accused authorities of a disproportionate response.

“These people are unarmed… … but the amount of force that the state is responding with, on the basis that people looted… … is brazen dictatorship,” Dludlu said.

Two witnesses contacted by the Guardian described wild and indiscriminate firing of live ammunition by police, the army and some private security guards in response to looting and arson attacks directed primarily at businesses linked to the king.

In a statement, the Swaziland Union of Students said the dead were “unarmed citizens who are genuinely calling for political change”.

Khumalo said it was inevitable that the government “needs to address grievances” through a national dialogue “based on our constitution” but said that this could only take place after Covid-19 “had subsided”.

“We would like to sooner but we will not have this dictated to us … by rabble rousers or those who instigate violence,” he told the Guardian.

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