By Lunga Masuku
MBABANE (Reuters) -Government forces in the southern African kingdom of eSwatini
fired gunshots and tear gas on Tuesday to break up protests calling for reforms to its system of absolute monarchy, witnesses said.
A dusk-till-dawn curfew was also imposed.
Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku denied media reports that King Mswati III had fled the violence to neighbouring South Africa.
“His Majesty…is in the country and continues to advance the Kingdom’s goals,” Masuku said in a statement. “We appeal for calm, restraint and peace.”
Anger against Mswati has been building for years. Campaigners say the king has consistently evaded calls for meaningful reforms that would nudge eSwatini, which changed its name from Swaziland in 2018, in the direction of democracy.
They also accuse him of using public coffers as a piggy bank, funding a lavish lifestyle off the backs of his 1.5 million subjects, most of them subsistence farmers.
Security forces set up road blocks to prevent access by some vehicles to the capital, Mbabane, on Tuesday. Some banks said they had shut until the unrest – which started on the weekend and turned violent overnight – subsides.
“I can hear gunshots and smell teargas. I do not know how I will get home, there is nothing in the bus rank, there is a strong presence of riot police and the army,” Vusi Madalane, a shop assistant in the capital Mbabane, said by telephone.
Masuku said a curfew had been imposed from 6 p.m. until 5 a.m., and that schools had been ordered closed. This was to curb “violence in several parts of the country perpetuated by an unruly crowd,” he said.
Earlier, Reuters saw school children hurrying home on the outskirts of the capital. Witness Meluleki Simelane, 29, who is unemployed, said he saw two helicopters flying low over a protest to scatter a crowd in the town of Manzini.
The 53-year-old king denies being an autocrat, and is unapologetic about the lifestyle enjoyed by him and his 15 wives, who between them occupy several state-funded palaces.
A spate of crackdowns, such as the arrest of opposition leaders and activists in 2019, has done little to discourage anti-monarchy sentiment in the former British protectorate.
(Reporting by Lunga Masuku, Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Peter Graff and Angus MacSwan)