Government forces in the southern African kingdom of Eswatini fired gunshots and teargas on Tuesday to break up protests calling for reforms to its system of absolute monarchy, witnesses said. A dusk-till-dawn curfew was also imposed.
The acting prime minister, Themba Masuku, denied media reports that King Mswati III had fled the violence to neighbouring South Africa.
“His Majesty … is in the country and continues to advance the kingdom’s goals,” Masuku said in a statement. “We appeal for calm, restraint and peace.”
Protests are rare in Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy. Political parties are banned, but violent anti-monarchy demonstrations have erupted in parts of the country.
Anger against Mswati has been building for years. Campaigners say the king has consistently evaded calls for meaningful reforms that would nudge Eswatini, which changed its name from Swaziland in 2018, in the direction of democracy.
They also accuse him of using public coffers as a piggy bank, funding a lavish lifestyle off the backs of his 1.5 million subjects, most of them subsistence farmers.
Security forces set up road blocks to prevent access by some vehicles to the capital, Mbabane, on Tuesday. Some banks said they had shut until the unrest – which started on the weekend and turned violent overnight – subsides.
“I can hear gunshots and smell teargas. I do not know how I will get home, there is nothing in the bus rank, there is a strong presence of riot police and the army,” Vusi Madalane, a shop assistant in Mbabane, said by telephone.
Masuku said a curfew had been imposed from 6pm until 5am, and that schools had been ordered to close. This was to curb “violence in several parts of the country perpetuated by an unruly crowd”, hy het gesê.
“The military is on the streets,” said Lucky Lukhele, spokesman for the pro-democracy grouping Swaziland Solidarity Network. “Yesterday was the worst night ever, where a young man was shot point-blank by the army, and some are in hospital as we speak.”
Wandile Dludlu, the secretary general of People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), gesê: '[King] Mswati unleashed armed soldiers and police on unarmed civilians yesterday.”
The 53-year-old king denies being an autocrat, and is unapologetic about the lifestyle enjoyed by him and his 15 wives, who between them occupy several state-funded palaces.
With unrestricted political power and ruling by decree, the king is the only absolute monarch in Africa and one of the few remaining in the world.
Crowned in 1986 when he was 18, die king has come under fire for his expensive tastes and spending while most inhabitants live below the poverty line.
A spate of crackdowns, such as the arrest of opposition leaders and activists in 2019, has done little to discourage anti-monarchy sentiment in the former British protectorate.