Eswatini: Africa’s last absolute monarchy has had enough

The world may not have been paying a lot of attention to the tyranny of Africa’s last absolute monarch, who has ruled the country he renamed Eswatini for 35 years. But the people of Eswatini have, and now they are demanding change.

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Eswatini: Africa’s last absolute monarchy has had enough

Many years ago, an acquaintance told me a story from her childhood in the country then known as Swaziland that sounded like something from out of the distant past. One day, she said, officials from the king’s palace came to her high school and left with one of her friends, a beautiful girl, in tow. The country’s king, Mswati III, had caught sight of the girl and decided he wanted her as one of his many wives, who now number 15.

As startling as Mswati’s predatory marital practices are, so too is the fact that the depth of his despotism, then and now, has largely played out under the world’s radar.

The world may not have been paying a lot of attention to the tyranny of Africa’s last absolute monarch, who has ruled the country he renamed Eswatini for 35 years. But the people of Eswatini have, and now they are demanding change.

Demonstrators in the small, landlocked nation, which is enclaved within South Africa’s borders, have been taking to the streets since late June, demanding major constitutional changes, including an end to a ban on political parties and, at long last, the introduction of democracy. Images circulating on social media show fires, burning vehicles and other disturbances in several cities.

Security forces, including the military, have responded forcefully, firing live ammunition and tear gas to quell the demonstrations. Businesses have been ordered to close by 3:30 p.m., and a 6 p.m. curfew has been imposed. Acting Prime Minister Temba Masuku has called for calm, trying to ease the tensions with a conciliatory tone, saying the government has heard the demonstrators’ demands and will take action.

Opposition leaders claim the king has fled, but Masuku denies it.

The problem with King Mswati’s rule goes beyond the lack of democracy. Under his imperious, extravagant lifestyle, the 1.1 million inhabitants of Eswatini live in misery. Mswati’s regime combines tyranny with incompetence.

Swaziland gained independence from Britain in 1968, and a few years later, then-King Sobhuza, Mswati’s father, suspended the constitution. Sobhuza ended up ruling for 82 years, making him possibly the longest-reigning monarch in history. Upon his death in 1986, Mswati ascended to the throne and has ruled ever since.

In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of independence, he renamed the country, claiming that people kept confusing it with Switzerland. Swazis said the monarch was worrying about the wrong problem.

According to World Bank figures from 2017, almost 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The pandemic has undoubtedly made matters worse. The high poverty rate obscures the fact that the country is, in fact, classified as middle income. But income distribution is extremely unequal. In fact, Eswatini ranks among the world’s top 10 in income inequality.

Atop the pyramid of inequality sits the reigning monarch. Nobody knows exactly how much money Mswati has today, but in 2008, Forbes listed him among the world’s 15 wealthiest royals, estimating his fortune at $200 million.

Local media may find it perilous to delve into his profligate spending, but the king’s lavish lifestyle and eye-popping shopping sprees occasionally make headlines around the world. In 2019, the Times of London reported on his purchase of “at least 15 Rolls-Royces and dozens of BMWs,” part of a luxury fleet he provides for his wives.

The opulent spending would turn heads anywhere, but it is particularly galling to a people whose needs are so pressing.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic made public health a major issue across the globe, Swaziland had been battered by another devastating pathogen it failed to contain. The country has the world’s highest prevalence of HIV, with more than one-in-four residents carrying the virus that causes AIDS. Prevalence among women is even higher, at more than one-in-three. As a result, more than half of the country’s children under 17 are orphans.

It’s unclear just how badly the coronavirus pandemic has affected Eswatini. The king acknowledged he contracted COVID-19 and received treatment abroad. In December, the government announced that 52-year-old Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini had died, without giving a cause. It is widely believed he died of COVID.

In addition to the enduringly dismal public health and harsh economic conditions, Swazis live under repressive rule. The king enjoys practically unlimited power. He controls all branches of the national government, according to Freedom House, and can hire and fire the prime minister and his Cabinet members at will. In addition, he dominates local politics by influencing traditional chiefs, some of whom inherit their positions and still govern their localities but report directly to Mswati.

Meanwhile, criticism of the regime in the media is violently silenced. The parliament, many of whose members are appointed by the king, has shown some signs of independence recently, but it is still controlled by the monarch and has passed laws that the government exploits to maintain tight control. In its 2020 country report, Amnesty International said the government uses “draconian legislation, including the Suppression of Terrorism Act and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act, to silence the media,” citing multiple instances of arrests and torture of journalists and their relatives. Amnesty now says the government has launched “a full-frontal assault on human rights,” with “dozens killed, tortured, abducted,” by security forces.

During an earlier wave of protests in 2020, labor groups, public servants and democracy activists braved security forces who responded with tear gas and water cannons. This year the conflict has only intensified.

One of the groups organizing the latest wave of protests, the Economic Freedom Fighters of Swaziland, describes them as a revolution.

The current generation of Swazis is not the first to want change. But opposition figures say they are determined to obtain “freedom in our lifetime.” More than anything, they say, they want a government that will serve the interests of the people, not just those of the king.

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