The world will be watching Swaziland today (18 March 2011) to see if the state forces of King Mswati III brutally attack prodemocracy campaigners as they try to peacefully march in Mbabane.
The protestors are so scared that they will be attacked and beaten by police and paramilitaries that yesterday they issued a plea to the world’s media to be present to witness what happens.
Labour unions and student groups hope to deliver a petition to the office of Barnabas Dlamini, who, though unelected to the kingdom’s sham parliament, was appointed prime minister by King Mswati, sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
They want a number of reforms, including the unbanning of political parties and the restructuring of the whole system of government. The students are demanding an end to King Mswati’s ‘misrule’.
Since February, the political temperature has soared in Swaziland. It is now generally believed among ordinary people that the government is broke and is stealing workers’ pension funds to pay daily bills. Public sector workers believe they soon won’t get paid at all.
King Mswati continues to ignore the plight of his subjects. To rub salt into their wounds, in last month’s national budget while public spending in most departments was slashed by 20 percent, he took a 23 percent INCREASE on last year (and 63 percent increase on the 2009/2010 budget) for himself and his royal family.
Nurses have been on strike against the government, demanding and winning payment of allowances the Ministry of Health owed them, but had not paid. Teachers are threatening to bring down the government if they are made to take wage cuts. Students forced a climb-down over a new policy that would have seen scholarships replaced by loans and food and accommodation allowances scrapped.
A Facebook site has been gathering support for an ‘uprising’ to start on12 April to ‘topple’ the king.
There is reason to be fearful.The Swazi Police have a long, inglorious history of intimidation. The torturing of dissidents and even ordinary crime suspects is routine and often goes unremarked by magistrates and judges when victims of police brutality are paraded before them.
But the police, who are badly trained and ill-disciplined, are even worst when protestors take to the streets. They have no idea how to control a crowd without resource to teargas. Whereas police in a civilised country would simply move the crowd along, in Swaziland the canisters fly – and so do the batons.
Then come the rubber bullets: and before long the live ammunition.
Time and again we have seen Swazi police over-reacting when they have to deal with a mass of people. They break up student protests, labour union gatherings and even legally held strikes.
When students marched in Mbabane in February, teargas filled the air. And all the youngsters were trying to do was to deliver a petition.
But this time it will be different. There is evidence from activities over the past few days that police and paramilitaries are preparing to attack the demonstrators. Some of the protestors’ demands are so specific in their calls for the overthrow of the government and the monarchy that they pose a threat to the very existence of the state.
The king and his hangers-on will not allow change: at least not without a battle.
Many Swazi people have been encouraged by the wave of protests for democracy across the Middle East and North Africa that has seen tyrants overthrown. They believe something similar could be achieved in Swaziland.
But beware. It hasn’t all gone well for pro-democracy supporters. In Libya, ruled with an iron fist by Col Muammar Gaddafi, troops (many of them mercenaries) have brutally put down dissent.
King Mswati is a great friend of Gaddafi. He likes him so much he sent his eldest son Prince Sicalo to Libya for intensive training as a military pilot. In 2001, when King Mswati was struck down with a mystery illness, Gaddafi flew a team of doctors to Swaziland to treat the king. In 2009, Gaddafi sent the king six camels as a token of friendship.
If the king follows Gaddafi’s example, there might well be the blood of innocent Swazi protestors on the streets of Mbabane today.
After the protestors’ plea, we can expect representatives of the world’s largest news agencies to be in town: along with the BBC and many journalists from South Africa. Also, there will be the growing posse of Swaziland’s ‘social networkers’ who blog, tweet and Facebook to readers across the globe.
The world is watching you King Mswati.
SWAZI STUDENTS: ‘END ROYAL MISRULE’
POLICE ‘PLAN TO ATTACK PROTESTORS’
PROTEST ‘WILL HALT SWAZILAND’
S AFRICA THREAT TO SWAZILAND KING