There was an unprecedented wave of anger in the streets of Eswatini. (Photo: supplied)

What regional leaders will do next, especially South African neighbor Eswatini, is essential to prevent an escalation of the crisis. The authorities in Eswatini should be urged to recognize the grievances of the citizens and to move swiftly towards the creation of a constitutional democracy.

Tiseke Kasambala is Head of Party for the Southern Africa Rights Promotion Program at Liberty house.

Eswatini is in crisis, with dozens of people killed by security forces in recent days. To prevent an escalation of violence and further loss of life, leaders in southern Africa should heed the desperate appeals of the citizens of Eswatini for democratic and economic freedoms.

The recent protests are the culmination of years of frustration with a repressive political regime and a weakened economy that has left citizens in poverty and concentrated wealth in the hands of the ruling elite.

Authorities imposed a curfew, shut down the Internet, and deployed soldiers to violently crack down on protests. (Photo: supplied)

Eswatini, the last absolute monarchy in Africa, was ruled by King Mswati III for over 30 years. His to reign was marked by widespread repression. Political parties are not legally recognized and they are prohibited from standing for election. Civic space is very limited. The authorities use draconian laws such as the Suppression of Terrorism Act and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act to silence critical voices.

Human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and union members are often victims of arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture and other abuses for speaking out against the government.

Poverty

On the economic plan, almost 60% of Eswatini citizens live below the poverty line, and 23% of the country’s 1.2 million inhabitants are unemployed, a situation made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic. As citizens scramble to earn a living to feed and educate their families, King Mswati and his political acolytes are accused of spending lavishly on the country’s much-needed financial resources for their extravagant and luxurious way of life.

After several years of sporadic protests, citizens of Eswatini took to the streets in June 2021 in large numbers to protest against conditions in the country.

The protests were sparked by two incidents. The first was the murder in May of a 25-year-old law student, Thabani Nkomonye, allegedly by members of Eswatini’s notoriously brutal police. Students and other young people took to the streets to protest.

The second was the demand by three parliamentarians that the Prime Minister be elected by the people, and not chosen by the king. Citizens across the country have echoed the call and petitioned the government, demanding political reforms. In response, authorities in Eswatini issued a decree banning such petitions, sparking protests across the country.

Unprecedented anger

There was an unprecedented wave of anger in the streets, with sporadic looting and some citizens torching properties belonging to the monarchy. In response, the the authorities imposed a curfew, shut down the internet and deployed soldiers to violently suppress protests.

Soldiers and police have shot and killed more than 40 people and injured many more. Security forces raided the homes of citizens of Eswatini and arrested dozens of people, including young people and political activists. Those arrested reported beatings and torture to the police. To hide the scale of the brutal response by the security forces, the authorities have targeted journalists.

On July 5, the South Africa-based online publication New frame reported that two of its journalists covering the protests were “detained, assaulted and tortured” by security forces, and forced to remove equipment from their phones and cameras.

The regional response has taken several forms. Recognizing the root causes of the protests, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa issued a strong statement expressing its deep concern at the violence and called for an end to the crisis, for the lifting of political parties and an end to autocracy and the brutal repression of citizens.

SADC intervenes

In contrast, the South African government’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation issued a brief, lukewarm declaration calling for a constructive dialogue. He also called on the security forces to “show total restraint and protect the life and property of the population, in accordance with the constitutional provisions and the laws of the country”.

The regional Southern African Development Community (SADC), recognizing the urgency of the situation, issued a declaration by the president of his body responsible for politics, defense and security, President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana, and on July 4 sent a delegation to Eswatini to meet with authorities and others.

SADC later reported that the delegation had not met all the actors concerned and would send a second mission.

What regional leaders do next, especially neighboring Eswatini’s South Africa, is essential to prevent the crisis from escalating. Eswatini authorities should be urged to quickly calm the situation and return the army to its barracks.

Regional leaders must demand justice

SADC should support the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to promptly and transparently investigate the role of the military and other security forces in the killings of civilians and other human rights violations. Soldiers and other security forces found responsible should be promptly brought to justice.

The authorities in Eswatini should be urged to recognize the grievances of the citizens and to move swiftly towards the creation of a constitutional democracy. This includes opening up a political space for national dialogue, suppressing political parties, repealing repressive laws and ensuring citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The citizens of Eswatini deserve the support of the region. The country’s authorities must not doubt that the brutal and repressive responses to the dissatisfaction of the citizens will take a heavy toll.

SADC should clarify that the region’s economic support to Eswatini through trade and membership in the Southern African Customs Union will depend on ending the abuses of the past few weeks and implementing meaningful political and economic reforms. SM / MC

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