The masses silenced: understanding the human rights violations in eSwatini – Report of the Webinar on the situation in the Kingdom of Eswatini (former Swaziland)

In Africa, the use of brutal force against peaceful protestors has become part of the structure of the political domain. Historically and in contemporary Africa, many regimes have resorted to the use of violence to silence citizens from pursuing political transformation and a balanced democratic system. With this, Africa’s pro-democracy movements will continue if absolute monarchical regime powers continue unchecked. This follows the police brutality and government-sanctioned violence in the Kingdom of Eswatini, which was sparked by protests that began in May 2021 following the death of Thabani Nkonyeni, a final year law student.

The rise of Eswatini masses against the injustices in various areas demanding reforms was met with brutal suppression from the police and the military, leading to the citizens’ arrests, deaths, and injuries. Within this context, Africa Unite Youth Assembly1 opened a virtual platform on the 22nd of July 2021, where young people across Africa came together to raise awareness on the plights of Eswatini citizens and mapped strategies on how to challenge human rights abuses. The objectives of the webinar were to understand the causes of violation of human rights leading to killing and injuries of the masses, to explore the impact, implications, and lessons from the crisis, and to map intervention strategies that young people across Africa can take in challenging human rights abuses and promoting peace. 53 participants attended the webinar.

The webinar was moderated by one of our Africa Youth Assembly members, Olerato Keegope, a Youth Advocacy and Communications Officer at Sentebale in Botswana. The opening remarks and unpacking of the objectives of the webinar were given by Thando Gwinji, a member of the Africa Youth Assembly and the Director of Youth Innovation Trust in Zimbabwe. Thando expressed how imperative the dialogue was for young people to find solutions and support Eswatini during this tiresome time in Africa. She also added that the webinar was happening at a crucial time in Africa where COVID-19, unemployment and civil unrest were high. Hence, it was important for Africa youth to devise initiatives to engage meaningfully and find solutions for all of African countries.

On the panelists, we had Maxwell Dlamini, a youth democracy activist and the co-founder at Ubuntu Leadership Academy in Eswatini, who gave the context of what was directly happening on the ground in eSwatini. We also had Mr. Dewa Mavhinga, the Director of Southern Africa Human Rights Watch, who provided a lens on the human rights situation in eSwatini by outlining the importance of pushing forth human rights reforms.

Mr Maxwell Dlamini is a youth democracy activist who has spent over four years in prison in the past decade for demanding democratic reforms in Eswatini. He has been charged with various charges of Treason, Sedition and Terrorism for critising the royal regime. He is Currently a Co-Founder and Vice Chairperson of Ubuntu Leadership Academy, a youth organization mobilising and organising young people to advance youth participation, democracy and Freedom in Eswatini as well as build and train the next layer of leadership in the country. Mr Dlamini is also a Former Student leader and has been honoured with AASU Students Activist Award For 2013, in recognition of the work he has done in improving students welfare and development in Eswatini. Mr Dlamini is currently on indefinite bail for the charges of Suppression of Terrorism Act with very strenuous bail conditions.

Mr Dewa Mavhinga is the Southern Africa Director with the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. Dewa has more than ten years research and advocacy experience on Zimbabwe as well as in Southern Africa. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Dewa worked as the Regional Coordinator for Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition based in Johannesburg. In 2012 Dewa co-founded the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a public policy research think-tank based in Harare. He is a recipient of the British Chevening and Canon Collins Trust scholarship, Dewa holds a bachelor of law honors degree (LLB) from the University of Zimbabwe and a master of law degree in international human rights (LLM) for Essex University, United Kingdom.

In providing the context, Maxwell elucidated that the fundamental freedoms like freedom of economic development have been targeted and looked upon wrongly by the current regime leaving many languishing in poverty. He further added that the environment was volatile as youth participation in demanding change was criminalized. King Mswati III has the absolute power to appoint political leaders within the parliament without the citizens’ input. The Eswatini citizens have long dreamt of a just and prosperous kingdom governed by the rule of law; however, they continue to be denied as King Mswati III has responded with a highly militarized solution. Maxwell explained that in 2005 regardless of the promulgation of the Constitution of 2005, the Constitution was just a smokescreen used by authorities sorely to dispel the perception that not all was well in the Eswatini kingdom. Briefly, the Kingdom remains trapped between a traditional and contemporary form of government which has stemmed in a conflict between the application of democratic values and the conservation of Swazi law and tradition. The Kingdom has a non-party system and has electoral procedures based on Swazi custom.

Within this political landscape, the masses are demanding a multi-party democracy, a concept that remains distant from Eswatini’s political and constitutional dispensation. However, the current system of government does not accommodate political parties, presenting an inroad in so far as the enjoyment of the freedom of political association was concerned as sadly the Constitution of 2005 clandestinely supports the resentment towards a multi-party democracy.

Hence, the absence of participation of political parties in the political arena implies that political parties remain outcasts in so far as governing of the country was concerned.

The aforementioned has been some of the driving factors of protests which were sparked by the killing of a university student by the police. Young people have mobilized and participated in peaceful demonstrations and handing petitions demanding change from the government. However, there have been many arbitrary arrests, shootings with live ammunition towards peaceful protesters leading to death and injuries. Now, the military was looking for those who have participated in the activities and wants to arrest them. Many of the people who are already in custody are facing increased troubles because they are not offered bail or proper legal representation regarding their cases in court. “We need a democracy that will lift the people of Eswatini,” said Maxwell.

In explaining the situation through human rights lens, Mr. Mavhinga noted that there had been protests in the country for a long time. However, the government has engaged in a heavy reaction towards the demonstrations. Many of the military and government responses have involved shooting indiscriminately at the crowds during the protests using live ammunition. He added that there was a shutdown of the internet, which violated individuals’ fundamental right to gain information. In addition, the government is targeting many people by putting them in prison. Mr. Mavhinga also highlighted the importance of providing the youth and people of Eswatini with a voice to demand the end to human rights violations and advocated that solidarity was a crucial part in acting against these human rights violations.

Mr. Mavhinga said that despite the existence of international human rights norms and standards which most African countries acknowledge, no other continent in the world lacks respect for human rights in the way the African continent does. However, he added that there are severe concerns regarding respect for human rights and the rule of law remains an unfortunate reality in the Kingdom of Eswatini. “As much as Eswatini is a signatory of various United Nations Human Rights Conventions, those rights remain empty words in the absence of a legal and political order in which rights can be realized,” emphasized Mr. Mavhinga. “There needs to be a chorus of voices calling for change.” Mr. Mavhinga added. Hence, participants agreed that it was imperative to put pressure on Eswatini as its legal and political order must align and embrace democratic principles to ensure that the principles of human rights and the rule of law are protected.

The panelists called African youth to advocate and speak out that there are serious concerns regarding the use of force towards the people of Eswatini. They also highlighted the need to open more platforms to share the eSwatini experiences to bring forth the conditions to the spotlight. It was also suggested that African youth must mobilize and take the Eswatini government to the African Commission for gross violation of human rights. In addition, to build more robust networks that will push neighboring countries like South Africa, business owners like MTN, civil society organization donors like European Union to act to transform the situation.

It was also raised that young people should point out these violations while also giving the Eswatini youth a space to discuss their stories and testify their experiences. This is crucial to
presenting the need for actions towards the inhumane treatment of the Eswatini government. The Youth of Eswatini and Africa should bring forth these issues of the conditions in Eswatini to the spotlight. They must be demanding more significant reforms while working with human rights organizations to enact change. There needs to be substantial pressure put forth to bring about change for the country of Eswatini to neighboring countries like South Africa and the incoming African Union chairmanship, Malawi.

Recommendations:

To put pressure on the international and regional communities like European Union, United Nations, and African Union to assist Eswatini people set up a new constitutional dispensation
• eSwatini should embark on a constitutional review exercise to amend the Constitution to limit the powers of the King as an executive state official. It was highlighted that to do so. An interim government must be put in place to address these loopholes. Dialogue is a crucial step to setting reforms and a new inclusive government. Economic development is an essential part of helping the people.
• African youth in various countries must advocate and protest for change by sharing the stories of eSwatini widely and submitting petitions to eSwatini embassies.
• To identify critical allies’ countries like neighboring South Africa to act. It was also suggested to use the platform at the incoming Ordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government to be held in Lilongwe, Malawi, in August 2021.
• To build stronger networks as Africa youth and even approaching Malawi to put the situation of eSwatini as the top priority on the agenda of the SADC Summit. There is a need for an urgent lobby and mobilization of the youth of Malawi before the SADC summit happens in their own country
• Protest against MTN following its shutdown of internet in eSwatini
• Sanctions could be another form of putting pressure on the King and his government to end human rights violations and change the political landscape
• Neighboring African countries must offer sanctuary to the activists targeted by the ruling regime
• Africa youth to create a platform that will constantly inform youth about the development in Eswatini but most importantly knowing which forces the monarch uses to suppress the masses outside the Kingdom
• Young people to approach trade unions and explore what kind of assistance and solidarity they could suggest to them
• There is a need to understand the entire problem, so the intervention is most consistent with the requirements of the Eswatini people and comes to tackle the root causes
• Young people were called to utilize media to advocate for the rights of the marginalized.

In conclusion, young people acknowledged that there was a greater need to challenge the eSwatini situation by putting pressure on the ruling monarchy as pressure has a possibility of bringing change. Moreover, the participants acknowledged the need for political intervention,
the voice from other African countries, and targeting the key United Nations and African Union institutions in addressing the crisis.

About lylerb2

Human Rights Development officer at Africa Unite, Pan Africanist, Christian and avid adventurer
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