TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Reports have emerged of citizens killed and seriously injured by security forces in Eswatini, Taiwan's only remaining African ally, in the chaos following protests demanding a greater voice in the country's autocratic political system.
"On Saturday alone, there had been over 50 people confirmed killed by security forces," a leader of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) told Taiwan News in a phone interview, citing an associate in contact with hospitals. He said the Mbabane Government hospital, the largest hospital in the capital, had admitted over 100 people, including nine sent to the operating theater and four to the ICU.
"In total, we have over 400 people who have been treated, and others admitted for gunshot wounds, so that is the intensity of the situation in the country right now," he added.
A staff member at Mbabane Government Hospital confirmed Friday (July 2) it had received a number of patients wounded by government forces. "The wards are full" in the 500-bed hospital, she said. Of the 299 active cases of COVID the Eswatini government confirmed on June 28, only 32 were being treated in hospitals.
Another staff member confirmed that several of the national hospital's patients had died. Though she did not have access to the official numbers, she believes they were fewer than 20.
Clamor for change
Last month, several pro-democracy legislators called for the government to allow the people to elect their own prime minister, a position currently hand-picked by the king, Swazi News editor-in-chief told Mail & Guardian. Emboldened, many Eswatini citizens flocked to the Tikhundla local government administrators to deliver petitions demanding the vote.
The last absolute monarch on the African continent, King Mswati III of Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, appoints not only the prime minister but also Supreme and High Court judges, two-thirds of the Senate, and 10 of the House of Assembly's 65 MPs, with the other 55 elected by the Tikhundla.
As a wave of petitions swept through the country of 1.3 million, the monarchy-dominated parliament banned them, driving angry protesters into the streets. On June 29, reports emerged of rioting, and footage emerged online of shops and delivery trucks being burned and looted.
"These acts of violence, in the initial stages, were only targeted at businesses and assets that belong to the king himself because he's the one who is responsible for the conditions we are facing," the SNAT leader said. "Depriving the people of their constitutional right to petition their members of Parliament. This is what created the conditions for violence in the first place."
Police responded with both nonlethal as well as lethal force in an effort to disperse the protests. By Thursday (July 1), the nation was under de facto martial law. Public access to the internet was significantly restricted, and a curfew was imposed from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m.
The military was also deployed to help suppress the rioting, and troops began targeting civilians with live ammunition.
Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku denied that martial law was in effect, saying the army had been called in to "protect critical national infrastructure and to enforce COVID-19 regulations." He called for an end to the looting and damaging of infrastructure, adding that his office had yet to receive "official reports about alleged deaths due to the riots."
One Mswati resident, who spoke to Taiwan News on the condition of anonymity, said, "There's been a lot of looting. They've been looting like crazy." Asked if she thought government forces were responding with excessive force, she said, "If a person comes to your house and starts looting, what would be your response? You want to react to chase the person away to stop what he's doing. I suppose it's a similar situation."
In a joint statement on Friday, the U.S., U.K, and EU missions in the southern African country urged it to "exercise restraint and respect human rights" and for protesters to refrain from destroying property and looting.
However, the monarch has not made any statements or appearances during the ongoing crisis. Instead, it has been his eldest daughter, Princess and Cabinet member Sikhanyiso Dlamini and the acting prime minister who have made statements, according to locals.
Life of luxury
Despite presiding over one of the poorest nations in the world, King Mswati has for decades been criticized for the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by him and the royal family, the House of Dlamini.
In 2014, he raised his household budget by over 10 percent to US$61 million per year, per the Guardian. He has also gifted himself two private jets and lavished his 15 wives with dozens of luxury cars.
Over half of the population lives on less than US$2 per day. Eswatini also suffers from the 10th highest income inequality in the world, according to the Human Development Index.