By Andrew Firmin
LONDON, Jul 21 2023 (IPS)
Eswatini heads to the polls soon, with elections scheduled for September. But there’s nothing remotely democratic in prospect. The country remains ruled by King Mswati III, Africa’s last absolute monarch, who presides over Eswatini with an iron fist. Mswati dissolved parliament on 11 July, confident there’s little chance of people who disagree with him winning representation.
A long history of repression
There’ll be some notable absentees at the next election. At least two members of parliament (MPs) certainly won’t be running again: Mthandeni Dube and Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza were convicted of terrorism and murder in June. Their real crime was to do what Swazi MPs aren’t supposed to do: during protests for democracy that broke out in 2021, they dared call for political reform and a constitutional monarchy.
Dube and Mabuza could face up to 20 years in jail. In detention they were beaten and denied access to medical and legal help. They were found guilty by judges appointed and controlled by the king. In Eswatini, the judiciary is regularly used to harass and criminalise those who stand up to Mswati’s power: people such as trade union leader Sticks Nkambule, subject to contempt of court charges for his role in organising a stay-at-home strike demanding the release of Dube and Mabuza. Other activists face terrorism charges.
But not every crime is so zealously prosecuted. In January, human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead by unidentified assailants. Maseko was 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’d previously spent 14 months in jail for criticising Eswatini’s lack of judicial independence. He was also Dube and Mabuza’s lawyer. There’s been little evident investigation of his killing.
There’s plenty more blood on the king’s hands. The 2021 democracy protests were initially triggered by the killing of law student Thabani Nkomonye. At least 46 people are estimated to have been killed in the ensuing protests. Security forces reportedly fired indiscriminately at protesters; leaked footage revealed that the king ordered them to shoot to kill.
In some areas security forces went house to house, dragging young people out for beatings. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the injured. People who survived shootings weren’t allowed to keep the bullets extracted from them, since this would have constituted evidence. Some bodies were reportedly burned to try to conceal the state’s crimes. When a second wave of protest arose in September 2021, led by schoolchildren, Mswati sent the army into schools, and then closed schools and imposed a nationwide protest ban. Hundreds of protesters and opposition supporters were jailed. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was enforced with the army on the streets and an internet shutdown imposed.
To this day, no one has been held accountable for the killings. There’s also been zero movement towards reform.
Farce of an election forthcoming
Following the intervention of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the king agreed to hold a national dialogue. But two years on, that hasn’t happened. Instead he held a Sibaya – a traditional gathering in which he was the only person allowed to speak.
Now the election is going ahead without any constructive dialogue or reform. The chances of reform-minded potential MPs winning significant representation are slimmer than ever. To do so, they’d have to navigate a two-round process that is exclusionary by design, with candidates first needing to win approval at the chiefdom level. No party affiliations are allowed.
To further rein in those elected, Mswati directly appoints most of the upper house and some of the lower house. And just to make sure, he picks the prime minister and cabinet, can veto legislation and remains constitutionally above the law.
— tdebly (@tdebly1) July 12, 2023
It’s a system that serves merely to fulfil a kingly fantasy of consultation and pretend to the outside world that democracy exists in Eswatini. Official results from the last two elections were never published, but it’s little wonder than turnout in this electoral farce has reportedly been low.
With the king unwilling to concede even the smallest demands, evidence suggests that repression is further intensifying ahead of voting. The king has imported South African mercenaries – described as ‘security experts’ – to help enforce his reign of terror. There are reports of a hit list of potential assassinations. Lawyers who might defend the rights of criminalised activists and protesters report coming under increasing threat.
Time for international pressure
People have been killed, jailed and forced into exile, but desire for change hasn’t gone away. After all, people in Eswatini aren’t asking for much. They want a competitive vote where they can choose politicians who serve them rather than the king, and they want a constitutional monarchy where the king has limited rather than absolute powers. If they got that, they might even get an economy that works in the public interest, rather than as a vast mechanism designed to funnel wealth to the royal family while everyone else stays poor.
The pretence of an election shouldn’t fool the outside world. Civil society keeps calling on African regional bodies not to let them down. In May the Multi-Stakeholder Forum urged the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to back an eight-point plan to respect human rights and enable dialogue. The demands were presented by Tanele Maseko, Thulani Maseko’s widow.
The full text of the MSF statement to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) on 1 May, 2023 in Banjul, the Gambia pic.twitter.com/V790L3ELRn
— Swaziland Multi-Stakeholder Forum (@crisis_forum) May 17, 2023
Eswatini’s activists also expect more of SADC, and of the government of South Africa, the country where so many of them now live in exile. Governments and organisations that claim to stand for democracy and human rights need to exert some pressure for genuine dialogue leading to a transition to democratic rule. They shouldn’t keep letting the king get away with murder.