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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Inside the Last Absolute Monarchy in Africa

Written by: Andrew Firmin

Andrew Firmin is the CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society ReportCIVICUS is the world’s biggest alliance of civil society organisations and activists, with over 12,000 members in 175 countries. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Release Peace. A version of this article was originally published in the CIVICUS Lens.

Heading to the Polls

Eswatini heads to the polls on 29th September. But where there are elections there is not always democracy . The Southern African country is ruled by King Mswati III, Africa’s only absolute monarch. The King dissolved parliament on 11 July 2023, confident there is little prospect of people who disagree with him winning parliamentary seats.

MPs as Political Prisoners

There will be some notable absentees at the election. At least two current members of parliament (MPs) certainly will not be running again: Mthandeni Dube and Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza. They were convicted on charges of terrorism and murder in June. However, their real crime was to break ranks and do what Swazi MPs are not supposed to do: During pro-democracy protests that erupted in back in 2021, they demanded political reform and a constitutional monarchy, with strong rights for the parliament and therefore a strong curtailing of the King’s influence. A third MP, Mduduzi Simelane, remains subject to an arrest warrant for the same reasons but managed to go into hiding.

Dube and Mabuza currently await sentencing and could face up to 20 years in jail. In detention they were beaten and denied access to medical and legal aid. Both were found guilty by judges appointed and controlled by the King. Trade union leader Sticks Nkambule is likewise subject to contempt of court charges for his role in organising a December 2022 stay-at-home strike demanding the release of Dube and Mabuza. Other activists face terrorism charges like Dube and Mabuza did. But not every crime is prosecuted so mildly. In January of this year, human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead at his home by unidentified assailants. Maseko was the chair of the Multi-Stakeholder Forum, a network that brings together civil society groups, political parties, businesses and others to urge a peaceful transition to democracy. He had previously spent 14 months in jail for criticising the country’s lack of judicial independence. He was also Dube and Mabuza’s lawyer. There has been little evident investigation into his killing.

The 2021 Pro-Democracy Protests

In 2021, the killing of law student Thabani Nkomonye by police triggered nationwide, youth-led protests for accountability and democracy. At least 46 people are estimated to have been killed by security forces during the protests. . Security forces reportedly fired indiscriminately at protesters and leaked footage revealed that it was the King himself that ordered them to shoot to kill. He also ordered the arrest of the pro-democracy MPs.

Deploying the Army Against Schoolchildren

In some areas of the country security forces went house to house, dragging young people out for beatings. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the injured. Some bodies were reportedly burned to try to conceal the state’s crimes. To this day, no one has been held accountable for the killings. A second wave of protests arose in September 2021. This time it was led by schoolchildren. In response, King Mswati ordered the army into schools, closed many schools, and imposed a nationwide protest ban. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was enforced with the army on the streets and an internet shutdown imposed. Hundreds of protesters and opposition supporters were jailed during that time.

Brokering a Dialogue to no Avail

Following the intervention of the regional body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), brokered by Eswatini’s neighbour South Africa, the King agreed to hold a national dialogue. But two years on, that has not happened. Instead he held a Sibaya – a traditional gathering in which he was the only person allowed to speak.

A Pretence Elections

Now, the election is going ahead. The chances of reform-minded candidates winning significant representation are slim. To do so, they would have to navigate a two-round process that is exclusionary by design, with candidates first needing to win approval at the chiefdom level. And no party affiliations are allowed. To then further rein in those elected, King Mswati directly appoints most of the upper house and some of the lower house.  Official results from the last two elections were never published, but it may be little wonder that turnout in previous elections has reportedly been low.

No End in Sight

Evidence suggests that repression is further intensifying ahead of the 29th September elections. The King has hired South African mercenaries – described as ‘security experts’ . Moreover, reports have surfaced of a hit list of potential political assassinations. Lawyers who defend the rights of criminalised activists and protesters report coming under increasing threat. And a proposed new law on civil society organisations gives the state more powers to interfere and restrict their activities.

Desire for Political and Economic Change

The desire for change has not disappeared. The people of Eswatini are not asking for much. They want a competitive election where they can choose politicians who serve them. And they want a constitutional monarchy where the King has limited rather than absolute power. If they got that, they might even get an economy that works in the public interest, rather than as a mechanism designed to accumulate wealth for the royal family while everyone else struggles to make ends meet.

The Pressure by Civil Society

In May 2023, the Multi-Stakeholder Forum urged the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to throw its weight behind an eight-point plan to respect human rights and enable dialogue. The demands were presented by Tanele Maseko, Thulani Maseko’s widow. Eswatini’s activists also expect more from SADC, and of the government of South Africa, the country to which so many activists have been forced into exile. But for now, there is a King getting away with murder.


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