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Events of 2023

Candles burn in Nakuru Town, Eswatini, formerly Swaziland, beside posters decrying the killing of Human Rights Lawyer, Thulani Maseko who was brutally and fatally shot on January 21, 2023 in front of his wife and two young children by unknown assailants.

© 2023 Sipa via AP Images

In Eswatini, an absolute monarchy ruled by King Mswati III since 1986, the year 2023 started with the brutal killing of Thulani Maseko, a prominent human rights lawyer and opposition activist. More than two years after a series of protests, there has been no accountability for the security forces’ crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. As in past elections where political parties were banned from participating, general elections were held in September with little expectation that they would bring about any meaningful change in the country. Two members of parliament, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, who were arrested in July 2021 were found guilty of all charges against them, including murder and terrorism.

Civic space continues to be under threat as the expression of dissent is routinely restricted. There has been no progress toward instituting the much-awaited multi-stakeholder national dialogue, despite recommendations from regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

Conduct of Security Forces

Eswatini authorities have failed to ensure accountability for the security forces’ crackdown on pro-democracy protesters that began two years ago, which led to the death of at least 46 people as well as other serious human rights abuses. Since pro-democracy demonstrations began in May 2021, the government has intensified its clampdown on dissenting views by arresting government critics on bogus charges, interfering with peaceful assembly, and resisting calls for democratic reforms. It has failed to conduct a transparent, independent, and impartial investigation into the killings and other human rights violations resulting from the security forces’ excessive use of force. Despite repeated calls by Eswatini’s international partners and other actors for rights reforms, the government has made no progress in addressing the country’s deteriorating human rights record.

Rule of Law

On January 21, Thulani Maseko was fatally shot through the window at his home, where he sat with his wife and two children, in Luhleko, Bhunya, 50 kilometers from the capital, Mbabane. Hours earlier, during an address to his Traditional Regiments at Engabezweni Royal Residence in Matsapha, King Mswati warned those calling for democratic reforms that mercenaries would deal with them, adding that pro-democracy activists have made the country unstable. Human rights activists, on the other hand, accused the government of having a hand in the killing of Maseko, the chairperson of the pro-democracy Multi-Stakeholder Forum (MSF), a coalition of civil society groups and political parties leading the campaign for democracy in Eswatini. The government has denied the allegations of involvement in Maseko’s killing. However, nearly a year on, no independent investigation has been initiated and his killers have not been apprehended.

Political dissent and civic and labor activism are subject to harsh punishment under the Terrorism Act of 2008 and the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act of 1938. In July 2021, the authorities arrested two members of parliament, Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube, on spurious charges of terrorism for supporting pro-democracy protests and calling for democratic reforms. The government also charged them with two killings. Their trial concluded on January 31, and on June 1, they were found guilty of all charges against them, including murder and terrorism. Mabuza and Dube, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, face up to 20 years in prison. A sentencing date has yet to be announced at time of writing.

The murder convictions relate to the deaths of two men, Siphosethu Mntshali and Thando Shongwe, who were hit by a car on June 29, 2021, at one of a number of roadblocks around the country where residents were stopping vehicles and demanding money. Critics have described the verdict as baseless and aimed at stifling dissent in a context where the judiciary is neither impartial nor independent.

Freedoms of Assembly and Association

General elections were held in September as part of the country’s Tinkhundla constituency system, under which political parties are banned from participating and nearly all individual candidates are loyal to the king and have his support. King Mswati exercises absolute authority over all branches of national government and controls local governance structures through his influence over traditional leaders. Political parties have been banned in the country since 1973, which does not meet regional or international standards for the conduct of democratic elections.

While political activists are divided over whether to contest or boycott the elections, what has become apparent is that the MSF, once led by Maseko, has considerably weakened and is unable to speak with a united voice. In early August, the Swaziland Liberation Movement (SWALIMO) and the Swazi Democratic Party (SWADEPA) withdrew from the MSF, accusing the forum of “bullying” and siding with members calling for a boycott of the elections.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

While section 28 of the constitution protects women’s rights, in reality, women and girls experience cultural norms that marginalize them in a patriarchal society. In 2023, the global Gender Gap Index for Eswatini recorded an index of 0.73. This index quantifies the gap between women and men in four key areas: health, education, economy, and politics and gives them a score from 0 to 1. A score of 1 indicates full equality between women and men, and a score of 0 indicates full inequality.

Eswatini has the highest HIV rate globally, reporting a prevalence of 19.58 percent, and is confronted with many challenges contributing to this rate, including limited availability of stigma-free sexual and reproductive health education, low condom use, the normalization of polygamous marriages and multiple intimate partners, limited access to healthcare services, and HIV/AIDS-related stigma. Disproportionately affected by HIV, girls and young women in Eswatini are five times more likely to be living with HIV compared to boys and young men. This can be attributed to girls and women having limited power to negotiate safe sex practices. Violence against women and girls remains a persistent challenge in the country, with approximately 1 in 3 women and girls experiencing some form of sexual violence by age 18, and 48 percent experiencing some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. In November, a local women’s rights group called on the government to declare violence against women a national emergency due to rising incidences of brutal intimate partner violence, rape, and femicide.

Sexual harassment at work remains prevalent. Eswatini has yet to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention (C190), which requires comprehensive protections to end violence and harassment, including gender-based violence, at work.

Key International Actors

On May 23, 2023, the ACHPR adopted Resolution 554 on the political crisis in Eswatini and the ongoing extrajudicial killings by King Mswati’s security forces and mercenaries. The ACHPR expressed concern about the violent killing of Maseko and allegedly many other human rights defenders in Eswatini. The resolution also raised concerns about allegations of the violations of the rights to life, dignity, and freedoms of movement, assembly, and expression, enshrined in the African Charter and international instruments.

Among its recommendations to the Eswatini authorities, the ACHPR called on them to “refrain from any form of victimization, harassment, intimidation and targeting of human rights defenders, political parties, protesters, pro-democracy leaders and campaigners through the arbitrary use of the police and security forces”; withdraw all politically motivated charges and release all political prisoners, including Mabuza and Dube; and establish an independent panel of inquiry to conduct a thorough, transparent, and expeditious investigation into the violence committed against human rights defenders, particularly Maseko’s assassination. Other international actors, such as the United Nations and the United States, also condemned Maseko’s killing and the targeting of other human rights activists in Eswatini.

The special envoys established in 2021 by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as chairperson of the SADC Organ on Defense, Politics, and Security have not shown any sustained engagement or concrete progress in mediating the crisis in Eswatini. King Mswati agreed to hold a national dialogue under the advisement of President Ramaphosa with the aim of deliberating on the democratic challenges confronted by the country. However, two years later, the dialogue still has not taken place and there appears to be a lack of political will to hold this much-awaited dialogue.

The king decided in 2021 that the national dialogue would be held through the Sibaya or “people’s parliament,” an annual traditional gathering of the nation. Human rights activists in the country argue that the Sibaya format has traditionally been a monologue where the king talks down to his people while they sit in silence, rather than a meaningful and constructive dialogue. They have also argued that the royal kraal, where the Sibaya takes place, is not a neutral venue for a national conversation about the country’s democratic future.

At the special summit of SADC’s Organ Troika in Namibia in January to discuss, among other issues, the deteriorating political and security situation in Eswatini, King Mswati was represented by his prime minister, Cleopas Dlamini, who said it would be impossible to hold a national and inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogue in the current climate of ongoing violence in the country.