JOHANNESBURG—A week of nationwide protests has left dozens of people dead in the tiny nation of Eswatini, raising the prospect that Africa’s last absolute monarchy could fall.
Soldiers deployed to restore order have fired live rounds at protesters who attacked government-affiliated buildings and businesses, according to video footage, rights groups and opposition leaders. Hospitals are filling up with the wounded. The internet has been shut down and a 6 p.m. curfew has been imposed.
The government says the demonstrators are criminals who have looted property and contravened Covid-19 restrictions.
Whether the protests succeed or fail in ending the 35-year-rule of King Mswati III, whose lavish lifestyle has long angered many of his impoverished subjects, is being closely watched across the continent, where a clutch of aging autocrats have held power by violently suppressing protest for decades.
Eswatini, about three-quarters the size of New Hampshire, was known as Swaziland until 2018, when the king unilaterally hanged the country’s name in his 50th birthday speech. An estimated 200,000 of the country’s population of 1.2 million are living with HIV/AIDS, according to the United Nations. Political parties have been banned since 1973, but opposition groups long seeking democratic reform point to indiscriminate and extravagant spending by the royal family as infrastructure in the country crumbles. Pandemicrelated lockdown measures have magnified these grievances, hitting an already weak economy and fueling unrest.
“The situation here is worse than apartheid. It is a black knee on top of a black neck,” said Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, a group that advocates for democracy.
On Tuesday, rumors swirled that the 53-year-old king, in power since 1986, had fled to neighboring South Africa. Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku issued a statement to clarify that the king remained in Eswatini. But the monarch, who is unapologetic about the lifestyle he enjoys with his 15 wives, who between them occupy several state-funded palaces, has yet to address the nation.
Analysts said the breadth of the protests, which have expanded from cities into rural areas, suggests the opposition has momentum.