Swaziland braces for protests that would defy odds

12th April 2011, Comments 0 comments

Swaziland is bracing for mass protests Tuesday against King Mswati III, Africa's last absolute monarch, but so far sub-Saharan countries have failed to replicate uprisings in the Arab world.

In countries stretching from Djibouti to Zimbabwe, activists and opposition groups have tried to harness the spirit and tactics of the Arab uprisings to launch their own demands for reforms.

They have publicised their calls for protests with cell phones and social media like Facebook, but so far few have managed to take off due to pressure from leaders willing to arrest dissidents and deploy heavy security.

In sub-Saharan Africa's deadliest protest so far, two people were killed in Djibouti on February 18 when security forces quelled unprecedented protests against President Ismael Omar Guelleh.

The protesters were demanding the ouster of Guelleh, who has been in power since 1999 and had the constitution amended last year to allow him to seek a third mandate in elections last Friday.

He won re-election easily after the opposition boycotted the polls.

Omar, a young trader in Djibouti, said he joined the protests to call for democracy, but also to complain about unemployment and the lack of running water in his neighbourhood.

"There are these Arab countries in the same situation as us, but they had the courage to bring down their presidents. So we ask ourselves, 'why not us?'" he said.

It's a sentiment heard in many countries south of the Sahara, where the few protest calls that have arisen have simply failed to materialise.

In March, a Facebook page named "The Angolan People's Revolution" had called on Angolans to march to demand the resignation of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, in power since 1979.

On March 5, the eve of the planned protest, government rallied its own supporters into the streets for a show of force. Police also arrested 15 activists and journalists, and the protests never happened.

In Uganda, allegations of poll rigging around the re-election of President Yoweri Museveni in February raised talk of street protests, but the plans were scuppered by a strong security presence.

"To go for a protest against a military regime like of Museveni, requires courage, which our partners lack and that's why we could not be part of the protests," said Ibrahim Kasozi, an opposition youth leader.

When opposition leader Kizza Besigye tried to stage a protest Monday against rising prices, he was arrested and charged with inciting violence.

In Zimbabwe, where political freedoms are supposed to be guaranteed under a power-sharing accord, 46 activists were charged with treason for simply watching a video of the Egyptian protests that led to the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Lawyers for the arrested said some of the 46 people were tortured.

Even Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, a rival to veteran President Robert Mugabe, was twice denied permission to hold rallies in the capital.

Swazi activists say theirs is a different case.

Unions last month already staged the largest protests in years, to denounce government efforts to cut the salaries of civil servants. Since then, police have raided the homes of activists and detained several of them.

The protest call for Tuesday is backed by unions and student leaders, who accuse Mswati of bankrupting the state coffers while he finances his own lavish lifestyle and provides for his 13 wives.

"We are well aware that Swaziland security forces may use force to disperse the protest," said Lucky Lukhele, the spokesman of Swaziland Solidarity Network, an umbrella group of activists.

"But the people are motivated and there is no turning back."

© 2011 AFP

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