Official Calls For A National Dialogue In Eswatini Questioned By Opposition, Critics

The authorities of Eswatini (formerly called Swaziland) have called for a national dialogue after weeks of protests. Popular discontent in Africa’s only remaining monarchy has led to hundreds of businesses being burned, dozens of deaths, and many more injuries. The need for dialogue is obvious, but what’s less obvious is how many concessions the state is willing to make.

Protests began earlier this year after the death of Thabani Nkomonye, a 25-year-old law student who’d been taken into police custody. Nkomonye died under mysterious circumstances, and it’s widely believed that the cause was police brutality. This underscores a problem in Eswatini that has been highlighted before: the fact that brutality and torture occur but are very rarely reported to authorities. The protests were exacerbated after authorities put a ban on petitions to King Mswati III. Petitions are one of the few ways for citizens to raise grievances, highlighting another aspect of the discontent. During the protests, there have been accusations of live ammunition being used against people. Officially, 27 have died, but this number is twice as large according to opposition sources. 150 have been injured so far.

These protests highlight two, intertwined issues: the brazenness of the police and of the king. The negligence and lack of police accountability are one issue, but the opulence of the king and his family are another. In a country of 1.6 million people, where 60% live in poverty, the attitude of state leadership has not been conducive towards popular wellbeing. While local-level representatives can be chosen by the people, the king reserves the right to control parliament, appoint ministers, and choose MPs. Opposition parties and dissidents have also been muzzled under terrorism laws.

People are rightly cynical of this call for a national dialogue. Previous protests have been brushed off by the government and 35-year ruling king. For example, the 2011 “Swazi Spring” was mediated by concessions that led nowhere when it came to the ruling of the country and the wellbeing of its citizens. There are some marked differences this time, however.

While past protests have been led by trade unions and other organizations, this one is cross-factional and popular. This means two things. For one, it’s more difficult to suppress and offer concessions to. A popular front wants a wide manner of things, and the king is seen as the problem. Being the last absolute monarch of Africa and presiding over a country where over half the population lives under the poverty line is not a good look for the monarchy. On the other hand, the popular characteristics of this protest offer a disjointed patchwork of goals and objectives. This could potentially work to benefit the protestors since officials will be forced to make more widespread compromises. On the other hand, a movement without a singular voice is only as strong as the emotions behind it.

Whether this is a tipping point will remain to be seen, but the writing is on the walls. The people are more unhappy than ever and in the best position so far to push for meaningful change in Eswatini. What’s lacking is a political imagination in tune with the people’s needs, and as the last monarch of Africa, the blame falls squarely on King Mswati III.