eSwatini dictatorship prepares for elections under police clampdown

Activists outside parliament in Cape Town calling for justice for slain lawyer, Thulani Maseko, and for democracy in eSwatini. Maseko was gunned down at his home in front of his children in January this year. Archive photo by Vincent Lali

Human rights groups are calling for the protection of human rights and government accountability ahead of general elections in eSwatini. Africa’s last absolute monarchy is set to hold general elections on September 29.

Human rights groups are calling for the protection of human rights and government accountability ahead of general elections in eSwatini. Africa’s last absolute monarchy is set to hold general elections on September 29, as part of the country’s Tinkhundla constituency system, whereby the monarchy of eSwatini holds judicial and executive powers, and the king appoints the prime minister.

It has been just over three years since civil unrest began in eSwatini. The pro-democracy demonstrations began in May 2021, where students, political movements and trade unions organised to demand changes in the country. The pro-democracy demonstrations were sparked by the killing, allegedly by the police, of Thabani Nkomonye, a law student at the University of eSwatini.

In response, the authorities banned all protests, deployed security forces to suppress gatherings, who shot at protesters with live ammunition. Human Rights Watch, an organisation that investigates and reports on abuses happening globally, is calling for accountability by the government and human rights. “Since pro-democracy demonstrations began in May 2021, the government of eSwatini has intensified its clampdown on dissenting views by arresting government critics on bogus charges, interfering with peaceful assembly, and resisting calls for democratic reforms,” reads the statement by Human Rights Watch.

They are accusing the government of failing to conduct transparent and impartial investigations into the killings and human rights violations by security forces. “Despite repeated calls by eSwatini’s international partners and other actors for rights reforms, the government has made no progress to address the country’s deteriorating human rights record.”

A global rights index by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) ranked eSwatini as one of the ten worst countries for workers in 2023 and also one of the countries with no guarantee of human rights in the world. More than 80 people were reported to have lost their lives as a result of the police crackdown on protests that demanded democracy and wage increases. Moreover, “two members of parliament were arrested in 2021 and are in detention without trial, and trade union leaders have been forced into exile following persistent persecution by security forces,” reads the report by ITUC.

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According to Human Rights Watch, the monarchy has failed to ensure meaningful investigation of the security forces’ use of violence during the protests and that the government has made no progress in addressing the country’s deteriorating human rights record.

“The protests that began two years ago have been seen as the beginning of a tipping point in eSwatini’s governance, human rights and democratic crisis,” said Nomathamsanqa Masiko-Mpaka, southern Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to realise that the movement for human rights and justice is not going to go away and that it needs to end its repression.”

The monarchy has banned political parties in the country since 1973, which alone “violates the fundamental right to freedom of association and to participate freely in the government of one’s country,” reads the Human Rights Watch statement.

The People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) a pro-democracy movement in eSwatini, has in the past called for the strengthening of international solidarity against Mswati lll and targeted economic sanctions to be applied against the king and the companies that he is involved with. Mswati III is involved in the sugar and telecommunication industry.

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