A government crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, has killed dozens after soldiers fired live rounds at protesters, according to activists with banned opposition parties.
King Mswati III has deployed the army in recent days as the landlocked kingdom of 1.5m has been swept by its biggest and most violent demonstrations in years.
Wandile Dludlu, secretary-general of the People’s United Democratic Movement, estimated that about 40 people had since been killed and more than 400 wounded by gunshots, rubber bullets and beatings.
An official count was not yet possible but “all hospitals are full, wards are over-pouring”, after soldiers used “not just live rounds but military bullets” against protesters, Dludlu said.
Neighbouring South Africa called on Thursday for “total restraint” by the security forces and said it was concerned about reported loss of life and destruction of property.
There has long been simmering discontent in Eswatini over the rule of Mswati, who has reigned since 1986 with absolute control over parliament under an electoral system that bans political parties.
Protests ignited last month following the death in mysterious circumstances of Thabani Nkomonye, a 25 year-old law student, and an alleged police cover-up.
The government must allow “the opening of the political playing field” by unbanning parties and replacing a 2015 constitution that is “as good as a love letter to the king”, Dludlu said.
As the unrest mounted last week, the government banned petitions by citizens to their local MPs, closing off one of the autocratic system’s few outlets for dissent. Themba Masuku, the acting prime minister, has told people to email their grievances.
The government said in a statement on Thursday that it was yet to receive official reports of deaths. It warned that it would “continue not to tolerate the looting, arson, violence, and all other forms of criminality”.
There have been reports of looting of shops and businesses in Mbabane, Eswatini’s capital, and indications that local access to the internet is being curtailed.
Thokozani Kenneth Kunene, general secretary of the Eswatini communist party, also estimated the dead at about 40. The government “don’t care how many are killed”, he added.
Masuku denied that martial law had been declared but said the government “had to call in the army to protect critical national infrastructure” and enforce rules to limit coronavirus infections.
This week the government imposed a nationwide curfew starting at 6pm, ostensibly as part of pandemic restrictions.
Alongside the curfew “there were huge numbers of soldiers and police in a joint operation on the streets . . . by all definitions, that is martial law,” Dludlu said.
“It is now openly clear that it is brutality and violence that has been sustaining the system,” Kunene added.
Though his government has denied reports that the king has fled, Mswati has not been seen in public for days. “He does not want to appear involved in the violence,” Kunene said. “But the gunfire is his language, his words.”