Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. He can be reached on [email protected]
The Biden administration said on Friday that no American citizens or embassy personnel were injured by gunshots that were fired at an embassy vehicle in Eswatini on July 1.
“The shots were fired at an embassy vehicle on July 1st, 2021. In Eswatini, however, there are – no embassy personnel were injured at the event, and the embassy – U.S. Embassy Eswatini is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Kingdom of Eswatini to address the incident,” Jalina Porter, Principal Deputy Spokesperson at the U.S. State Department, told reporters in Washington D.C. “Of course, the safety and security of U.S. citizens and, of course, our employees is our highest priority.”
Ms. Porter said the United States has a long and enduring relationship with the Kingdom of Eswatini, “and, of course, in this moment of crisis we encourage all parties to resolve the situation peacefully and productively through inclusive dialogue.”
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The same day the gunshots were fired at an embassy’s vehicle on July 1, the Biden administration advised Americans not to travel to Eswatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, which has been rocked by days of violent protests triggered by the king’s decree banning petitions to the government calling for democratic reforms. Eswatini has been ruled by King Mswati III since 1986.
The U.S. Department of State raised the travel advisory level for Eswatini to Level 4 (Do Not Travel), replacing the previous travel advisory issued on June 16, 2021.
“Eswatini is experiencing dangerous civil unrest and protests across the country. The government of Eswatini has announced a nationwide curfew from 1800 – 0500. KMIII International Airport has suspended operations. Communication disruptions, including internet and cell phone service, are occurring. The U.S. Embassy has limited ability to assist U.S. citizens in Eswatini,” the Department of State said.
The Department also allowed for the voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and their family members.
For Americans still in Eswatini, the U.S. government advised them to avoid demonstrations and crowds, monitor local media for breaking events and be prepared to adjust your plans, keep travel documents up to date and easily accessible, and have evacuation plans that do not rely on U.S. government assistance.
On July 2, Amnesty International warned that the government of Eswatini has launched “a ruthless crackdown on human rights in response to pro-democracy protests, with dozens killed and many others tortured, detained or abducted.”
“The government of Eswatini has launched a full-frontal assault on human rights in response to ongoing pro-democracy protests. Dozens of people have been killed for daring to demand that their government respects human rights, many of them human rights defenders and activists,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“We are urging authorities in Eswatini to end this escalating crackdown, and ensure that people can peacefully exercise their human rights including by allowing them to freely express their opinions without fear of violent retaliation.”
The rights group said at least 20 people were confirmed to have been killed by state security forces as of July 2, and six others who participated in the protests were unaccounted for. At least 150 protesters had been hospitalized for injuries, including gunshot wounds sustained from live ammunition fired by the police.
“While there have been acts of violence associated with the protests, authorities should have responded in a differentiated and proportionate manner and respect and protect the right to peaceful assembly of those who are demonstrating peacefully,” Amnesty said, adding that since protests erupted last month, human rights defenders and activists have been subjected “to an orchestrated campaign of intimidation, including being placed under unlawful surveillance with state helicopters hovering over their homes.”
“Dozens of protesters died at the hands of security forces who were deployed to crush pro-democracy protests. Police and soldiers used excessive force, including live ammunition to deal with protesters,” it said.
Citing official sources, Amnesty International said it was aware of the names of more than 20 people who had been killed by state security forces so far, while at least six others were unaccounted for. Some bodies at Dups Funeral Home and Crematorium, in Manzini, had not yet been identified. More than 150 people have been hospitalized and are being treated for gunshot wounds in Mbabane and Manzini hospitals.
It called on Eswatini authorities to allow independent pathologists and medical doctors access to those who have been killed,and ensure they can conduct full medical examinations to ascertain the circumstances around their deaths.
“Authorities must carry out a prompt, thorough, impartial, independent and transparent investigation into reports of use of excessive force, and bring to justice anyone suspected to be responsible in fair trials.”
Internet shutdown and victimisation of dissent
Since the start of the protests, Eswatini authorities have worked with independent telecommunications companies like multinational corporation MTN to impose a blackout on communication and internet to curtail the sharing of information online. Amnesty International is calling for an end to the telecommunication blackout, which is a brazen violation of the rights to freedom of expression and information.
Hundreds of protestors have been detained and are facing criminal charges, including malicious damage to property, and a prison capacity crisis is looming amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Authorities are weaponizing the law to crush dissent, a deliberate attempt to silence calls for human rights reforms,” said Deprose Muchena.
Protests began last month in the Kingdom of Eswatini, following the mysterious death of 25-year-old law student, Thabani Nkomonye in May, allegedly at the hands of the police. His body was found on a field in Nhlambeni, about 10km outside Manzini. Protesters, led by young activists, are demanding reform in a country where political activism has been suppressed for years.
Eswatini is the last absolute monarchy on the African continent, and authorities use repressive laws, including the 1938 Sedition and Subversive Activities Act (SSA Act) and the 2008 Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA), to silence critics. Journalists, human rights defenders and political activists have been jailed simply for speaking out against this repression of dissent for many years.