According to activists from the banned opposition party, the government suppressed democratic protests in Eswatini, Africa’s last autocratic monarchy, and dozens of people died after soldiers fired live ammunition at protesters.

King Mswati III has deployed his army in recent days because this inland kingdom with a population of 1.5 million has been swept by the largest and most violent demonstrations in years.

Wandir Drewdrew, secretary general of the People’s United Democracy Movement, estimated that about 40 people have since been killed by shooting, rubber bullets and beatings, and more than 400 people have been injured.

Drew Drew said that official statistics are not yet possible, but after soldiers used “not only live ammunition but also military bullets” on protesters, “all hospitals are full and wards are overcrowded.”

Neighboring South Africa on Thursday called on security forces to “complete restraint” and expressed concern about the reported loss of life and property damage.

For a long time, Eswatini has been dissatisfied with Mswati’s rule. Mswati has ruled since 1986 and has absolute control over the parliament under an electoral system that prohibits political parties.

Last month, the protests began when Thabani Nkomonye, ​​a 25-year-old law student, died under mysterious circumstances and was accused of covering up the incident by the police.

Drew Drew said that the government must allow “opening up the political arena” by lifting the party ban and replacing the 2015 constitution, which is “as good as a love letter to the king.”

As the riots intensified last week, the government banned citizens from petitioning local members of parliament, thus shutting down one of the few channels for dissent from the autocratic system. Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku has told people to express their dissatisfaction via email.

The government said in a statement on Thursday that it has not yet received an official death report. It warned that it “continues to not tolerate robbery, arson, violence and all other forms of crime.”

There are reports that shops and businesses in Mbabane, the capital of Eswatini, have been robbed, and there are signs that local Internet access is being restricted.

The Eswatini government denies that King Mswati III fled during the protests

The Eswatini government denies that King Mswati III fled during the protest © Themba Hadebe/AP

Thokozani Kenneth Kunene, general secretary of the Eswatini Communist Party, also estimated that the death toll was about 40. He added that the government “does not care how many people are killed”.

Masuku denied that martial law had been declared, but said the government “must call in the army to protect critical national infrastructure” and enforce rules to limit coronavirus infection.

This week, the government imposed a national curfew at 6 pm, ostensibly as part of the pandemic restrictions.

In addition to the curfew, “there are also a large number of soldiers and police jointly operating on the streets… As the name suggests, this is martial law,” Drew Drew said.

Cunene added: “It is now clear that the system is maintained by brutality and violence.”

Although his government denied reports of the king’s escape, Mswati has not appeared in public for several days. “He doesn’t want to appear in a violent incident,” Kunene said. “But gunshots are his language, his words.”

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