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About Eswatini

The Kingdom of Eswatini is Africa’s last absolute monarchy, governed by HM King Mswati III, who was crowned in 1986.

A former British colony, on the fiftieth anniversary of independence the King announced the country would change its name from Swaziland to Eswatini.

It is a landlocked country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. Around 60 percent of the 1.4 million population lived below the national poverty line in 2017. Unemployment was estimated to be at 23.4 percent of the labour force in 2020. UNICEF states that Eswatini has the highest rates of HIV in the world, with an estimated prevalence rate of 27 percent amongst 15-59 year olds.

An absolute monarchy

Executive power resides in the King. The 2006 constitution gives him the right to appoint the Prime Minister, the Council of Ministers and judges. He also has the power to dissolve the legislature and veto legislation. 

The last legislative elections were held in 2018. However, political parties have not been legally recognised since a 1973 decree.

Following the elections, both the African Union and the British High Commission called on Eswatini to lift the ban on political parties.

Calls for reform 

Signs of discontent with the current state of affairs have been growing in recent years.

King Mswati III has been accused of using both royal and state finances to fund an extravagant lifestyle, including purchasing a fleet of cars for his wives in 2019. His close circles have been criticised for living opulent lives while much of the population lives in poverty.

Lack of democratic freedoms is also fuelling the protests. Human Rights Watch notes that, as well as banning political parties, the judiciary is “severely compromised” and “repressive laws have been used to target independent organizations and harass civil society activists.”

HRW also says police have “sweeping powers under the Public Order Act.” There have been particular concerns about the heavy-handed response by police and security forces to demonstrations.

2021 anti-monarchy protests

One observer describes this year’s clashes as the country’s “worst bout of political violence” since it gained independence. Vito Laterza, an associate professor in development studies at the University of Agder in Norway, questions how much longer the monarchy can resist calls for reform.

A BBC News reporter in Mbabane, Eswatini’s capital, observed during the clashes that “the anger is on a scale rarely seen here.” Young people in particular “feel neglected by the monarchy and the government” with little in the way of job creation.

The protests began in late June 2021, initially focusing on police reform following the death in May of a young man allegedly at the hands of the police (the government says his death was the result of a car accident).

Security forces responded to protests with force, resulting in a number of deaths (numbers vary).

The Government responded by banning the delivery of petitions to government officials (a popular way of expressing opinions in Eswatini), imposing a curfew and restricting access to the internet. They also accused protestors of looting and vandalising property.

Regional and international response

There have been many expressions of concern about the political and security situation in Eswatini.

The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, expressed his concern in a statement on 1 July, condemning the violence and calling for calm.

On 6 July the UN Secretary-General similarly expressed his concern at the clashes between security forces and demonstrators and underlined the importance of “of enabling all Emaswati to exercise their civil and political rights peacefully.”

The UK Government coordinated its response with the EU and US in series of statements:

  • 1 July – the UK, EU and US missions urged the government to “exercise restraint and respect human rights” and for protestors to voice their concerns through non-violent means. On the same day James Duddridge, the Minister for Africa, tweeted his concern and reaffirmed the importance of peaceful protest and freedom of speech.
  • 4 July – the UK, EU, US and Taiwan missions called for all parties to engage in dialogue and reaffirmed their previous call to respect fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.
  • 15 July – the UK, EU and US missions said Eswatini is at a “critical moment

Will the monarchy survive?

Laterza observes that opposition to the monarchy appears to be growing, noting that demands for political reform are shifting from wanting to maintain the monarchy, albeit in a ceremonial rule, to calls for a “wholesale dismantling” of the monarchy.

High levels of unemployment (in 2020, unemployment in Eswatini was estimated at 23.4 percent of the labour force) and poverty, coupled with the perception that the monarchy and its associates benefit financially from Eswatini’s resources, are a clear driver of discord. The spokesperson for the pro-democracy Swaziland Solidarity Network has described how the country’s resources “are systematically confiscated by the king and his entourage.”

Mlungisi Makhanya, leader of opposition movement Pudemo, says Swazis want political plurality and a leadership that is accountable to its people. He warns the absolutism of the King risks escalating calls for a republic. Thabani Maseko, a lawyer and activist, says there needs to be dialogue with all stakeholders to find a consensus. Swazis in exile, like the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Swaziland Kenneth Kunene, says the first step is to end the ban on political parties. Dewa Mavhinga, the Southern Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, described the 2021 protests as a “wake-up call for the King… to heed the legitimate calls for reform.”

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