With the internet shut down and under the cover of darkness, government forces went after protestors in Africa’s last absolute monarchy of Eswatini. All this while Eswatini’s dominant neighbor, South Africa, remained silent in the midst of former president Zuma’s court sentencing trials.
The shutdown of the internet in Eswatini was confirmed in the past week by telecom operators there, with MTN stating that its subsidiary together with other telcos in the country “received a directive from the Eswatini Communications Commission to suspend access to social media and online platforms” until further notice. This move was immediately criticized by pressure and lobbying groups advocating for free access to the internet and other online platforms.
Business operations for local and international companies in the country “were disrupted by protests in Eswatini’s largest cities and industrial areas” in addition to “targeted attacks of businesses with supposed links to the monarchy,” said Aleix Montana, Africa analyst at risk advisory firm—Verisk Maplecroft—in a statement to Quartz. He added that this will likely further impact risk perception of the country. The country ranks very poorly in global ratings on political rights and civil liberties, with Freedom House considering it, “not free.”
“Shutting down the internet is a bad decision,” said Felicia Anthonio, a campaigner with the lobby group, Access Now in a statement to Quartz. “But time and time again, these bad decisions get made. Authorities in Eswatini claim they want peace, but are in fact flaming tensions. Shutting down the internet is absurd.”
King Mswati III, in power since 1986, has been under pressure to quit from pro-democracy protestors who took to the streets starting May after the death of a law student reportedly at the hands of police. Protests have intensified over the past weeks.
Eswatini is now among a list of African countries such as Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Niger, and the DRC that have shut down the internet or disabled online platforms in 2021 during protests and elections. As a result of the latest internet shutdown, Eswatini has been shut out from the rest of the world and there has been sluggish information flow from the country. Eswatini government’s decision to shut down the internet has already been challenged in court. Internet shutdowns come at a great economic cost to African countries.
With the protests continuing during an internet blackout and a crackdown on journalists inside the country, Johannesburg based head of operational risk for Fitch Solutions, Chiedza Madzima says she believes that the current outbreak of protests in the country reflects a generational conflict.
This is in part “a generational conflict where the youth—weighed down by youth unemployment rates of near 50% in 2019 (and) likely worse with Covid-19 impact—have long-waited for economic opportunities, that have been further thinned out” by the impact of Covid-19, she told Quartz.
She added “The call now, from the youth, is for political representation in an effort to change a system that they feel benefits the few elite classes in the country. These protests are a de facto vote of no confidence in the government.”
The ruling ANC party in neighboring South Africa is facing its own troubles as its own leaders battle an emerging revolt over the graft court case of former president Jacob Zuma. This emerging crisis in South Africa has dampened expectations of them intervening in Eswatini’s crisis despite the deaths of scores of protestors.
In a statement to Quartz, Neil Thompson, Africa research analyst at the Economic Intelligence Unit, said “the South African government (will likely) do its best to ignore the situation in Eswatini.”
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