Africa’s last absolute monarch faces push for democracy as unrest rocks Eswatini

Mswati III has ruled the landlocked kingdom of Eswatini with an iron first for the past 35 years.
Mswati III has ruled the landlocked kingdom of Eswatini with an iron first for the past 35 years. © Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP

The landlocked and impoverished kingdom of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, has been rocked by days of violent clashes between security forces and demonstrators calling for democratic reforms. Amid the mounting unrest, the government has denied reports that King Mswati III fled the violence to neighbouring South Africa.


Has Africa’s last absolute monarch gone into hiding? 

Mswati III, Eswatini’s longtime ruler known for his extravagant lifestyle, is facing some of the biggest protests of his 35-year reign – but his whereabouts are in dispute. His opponents claim the king slipped out of the country on board his private jet on Monday as protests took a violent turn. Their claims have not been verified, but the swirling rumours have prompted Eswatini officials to issue a statement denying the “false media reports” and appealing for calm.

The tiny African nation of 1.1 million, which was renamed Eswatini in 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary of its independence, has been rocked by days of violent clashes between security forces and protesters. Demonstrators have barricaded roads and set fire to businesses owned or linked to the royal family, according to witnesses, while videos posted on social media purportedly show soldiers assaulting demonstrators. 

Activists say soldiers and police have killed more than 20 people since the start of the unrest. Police and health workers have not confirmed the toll, while government officials refuse to answer queries from the press. The authorities have banned all protests and warned that there will be “zero tolerance” of breaches of the ban. They have also imposed a nighttime curfew, ostensibly to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, and drastically reduced access to the internet.

Student death

The protest movement began in May when students and teachers rallied in anger at the alleged killing by the police of Thabani Nkomonye, a law student at the University of Eswatini. The authorities opened an investigation into Nkomonye’s death, but the protests escalated in late June when youths took to the streets demanding democratic reforms in a country where the king boasts of many lavish palaces while his people suffer. 

Such protests are a rare occurrence in Eswatini, where the king appoints ministers and controls parliament, says Human Rights Watch, stressing that political parties have officially been banned since 1973.

“The judiciary is severely compromised, and repressive laws have been used to target independent organizations and harass civil society activists,” the rights watchdog said in a statement. “Over the years, there has been no progress on essential democratic and human rights reforms.”

Led by Eswatini’s youth, the protest movement has now broadened to include an array of demands, from the introduction of multi-party democracy to improved economic prospects and an end to brutal crackdowns. In an interview with news site Voice of Africa, the head of Eswatini’s national teachers’ association, Sikelela Dlamini, said it was “perfectly legal for citizens to demand the end of police brutality and better living conditions from the government”.

Cars – and wives – aplenty

Mswati III was 18 when he came to the throne in 1986. He is known to rule the country with an iron fist and enjoy an extravagant lifestyle with his family, including his 15 wives and numerous children. In a 2010 report, FRANCE 24 shed light on a notorious annual ceremony, known as the ‘Reed Dance’, during which the monarch picks a new wife among thousands of parading young virgins from across his kingdom.  

The festivities, which attract their fair share of foreign tourists, conceal a sinister reality in the deprived former British protectorate, where two thirds of the population live in poverty, life expectancy averages just over 51, and more than a quarter of adults are believed to be HIV-positive – the world’s highest rate of infection.

Two years ago, the plight of ordinary Eswatinis triggered a series of strikes by civil servants who accused the royal family of squandering the nation’s wealth to the detriment of the population.

“The country’s resources (cotton, tobacco, rice, iron, wood etc) are systematically confiscated by the king and his entourage: all foreign companies, such as Coca-Cola’s local subsidiary, are obliged to cede 51% of their shares to a sovereign fund controlled by the monarch and accept one of his relatives on their board,” said Lucky Lukhelé, spokesperson for the pro-democracy Swaziland Solidarity Network, in an interview with the magazine Geo.

Despite the widespread misery endured by his people, Mswati III makes no secret of his passion for luxury cars and expensive watches. In 2019, the exiled opposition revealed that the king treated himself and his clique to a fleet of 19 Rolls-Royce cars and 120 BMWs, at a cost of 15 million euros. A few years earlier, he spent ten times as much on a brand-new international airport named after him – despite the fact that Eswatini has few flights while the country’s road network is a shambles.  

Earlier this year, the eccentric monarch claimed to have recovered from Covid-19 thanks to a mysterious retroviral drug sent by Taiwan – a historic partner for Eswatini, now the last African state to recognise its independence from China. However, no miracle cure could save Eswatini’s previous prime minister, Ambrose Dlamini, who died from the virus last December after months of treatment in South Africa.

‘Call Mswati to order’ 

Regional heavyweight South Africa, which Eswatini relies on for its supplies, has expressed concern at the mounting unrest in its much smaller neighbour and urged its security forces to “exercise total restraint” and protect lives and livelihoods. “We are particularly concerned by reports of loss of life and destruction of properties. The right to peaceful protest is universally recognized,” the South African foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

In a rare rebuke, South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) has criticised the government for violence against demonstrators. "The use of security forces to quell political dissent and the failure to address legitimate civilian concerns complicates the conflict and adds fuel to the fire,” said the ANC’s head of international relations, Lindiwe Zulu.

The US State Department has also urged Eswatini authorities “to exercise restraint and also maintain the utmost respect for human rights”, including the right to protest peacefully.

The United States has a cordial relationship with Africa’s last absolute monarchy, which ranks among the key beneficiaries of Washington’s multi-billion-dollar campaigns against Aids. But on Thursday it warned Americans against travelling to Eswatini and announced it would allow non-essential US diplomats and their families to leave the country due to the deteriorating security situation.

Inside the landlocked kingdom, protesters have urged the international community, including the African Union and the 16-nation Southern Africa Development Community, to exert greater pressure on the ruling monarchy.

“We urge you to call Mswati to order,” said Sonke Dube, president of the Swaziland Youth Congress, which is involved in the demonstrations. “Isolate him from the community of peace-loving nations. Impose sanctions on him and his immediate family and cronies until we have a people’s government in Swaziland,” Dube added in a statement, appearing to shun the name Mswati III has chosen for his country.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app