Authorities in Eswatini have promised a full investigation of the murder of a leading pro-democracy activist amid widespread fears that state security agencies may have been involved.
Thulani Maseko, chairperson of a coalition of pro-democracy groups, was shot dead at his home in Luyengo, about 45km from the capital, Mbabane, on Saturday.
The murder has prompted outrage. The United Nations, European Union, the UK and many human rights organisations in southern Africa have condemned the murder and called for a thorough investigation.
“Thulani Maseko was a stalwart of human rights who, at great risk to himself, spoke up for many who couldn’t speak up for themselves,” Volker Türk, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, said.
“His cold-blooded killing has deprived Eswatini, southern Africa and the world of a true champion and advocate for peace, democracy and human rights.”
The tiny state, landlocked between South Africa and Mozambique, is the last absolute monarchy in Africa and has been hit by waves of unrest in recent years, prompting successive crackdowns.
Hours before Maseko’s death, King Mswati III told a parade at the Engabezweni royal residence that activists had “started the violence first” and “more trouble was coming for them”.
“People should not shed tears and complain about mercenaries killing them,” the king said.
Mswati has ruled Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, since 1986 and faced regular allegations of human rights abuses. Authorities are known to have hired South African private security companies to train security forces.
Alpheous Nxumalo, a government spokesperson, denied any involvement of security forces and said that an investigation was under way.
“We have no doubt the truth of this matter will be revealed … and the culprits brought to account,” Nxumalo said.
Maseko, 52, was a leading figure in the push for Eswatini to transition into a multiparty democracy. He was imprisoned in 2014 for allegedly criticising the judicial system’s lack of independence, though acquitted on appeal and released a year later.
Opposition spokesperson Sikelela Dlamini said “assassins shot [Maseko] through the window while he was inside [the] house with his family”.
The Swaziland Solidarity Network, an opposition forum based in South Africa, described the murder as “the clearest indication of the lengths to which Mswati will go to cling on to power”.
At the time of his death, Maseko was working as a lawyer for two people facing trial for offences allegedly committed during the unrest in 2021, the UN said.
In May 2021, protests by mainly young people started when a law student was murdered in circumstances that suggested police involvement. But unrest intensified dramatically when authorities said they would refuse any further “petitions” to the king, closing one of the few ways in which complaints and grievances could be expressed in the kingdom.
The protests that followed led to a more general breakdown in law and order, with sporadic arson and looting.
Observers say there are echoes in Eswatini of protests and violence elsewhere in Africa which have pitted educated and connected urban youth against longstanding rulers and elites
The country’s median age is 21 and unemployment is at more than 40%. Though the king lives in ostentatious luxury, with a fleet of luxury cars, private jets, numerous palaces and 15 wives, almost 60% of his subjects live in poverty, according to the World Bank. A large royal family also enjoys an opulent lifestyle, and members have unashamedly posted images of their extravagance on social media.
Though some local-level representatives are elected, the king effectively choses MPs, controls parliaments and appoints ministers, analysts say. Dissidents have long been silenced by a raft of repressive laws, with the largest opposition party, the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo), banned under terrorism laws.