Police armed with batons blocked a road in Swaziland to stop a petition rejecting the national budget being delivered to parliament.
It happened in Lobamba on Thursday (15 March 2018). About 100 members of civil society groups, community organisations and political parties under the banner of the Swaziland Economic Justice Network marched from Somhlolo National Stadium heading to the Parliament gate.
The Times of Swaziland, the only independent newspaper in the kingdom where King Mswati III rules as sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, reported the march was halted because it 'would disturb Labadzala'. Labadzala is a group of Royal elders.
The newspaper reported, 'the participants resolved to march and force the police out of their way to deliver the petition.
'However, immediately when they got into the road towards the traffic circle, the police, who were mostly armed with batons, formed a line across the road while those carrying guns watched from a distance.
'The participants tried to divert from the main road and marched across the traffic circle but more police officers joined their colleagues to extend the barrier. Thereafter, the participants sang provocative political songs while dancing and toyi- toying in front of police officers.'
A representative of the Clerk to Parliament came out and received the petition.
The national budget has been controversial for a number of reasons, mainly because it raises Value Added Tax by 1 percent to 15 percent. A plan to impose 15 percent VAT on electricity prices for the first time has been shelved pending a review.
Freedom of speech and assembly are severely curtailed in Swaziland. Political parties are banned from taking part in elections and King Mswati chooses the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers. Advocates for multiparty democracy have been arrested under the Suppression of Terrorism Act.
Meetings on all topics are routinely banned in Swaziland and the kingdom's police and security forces have been criticised by international observers. In 2013, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) reported that Swaziland was becoming a police and military state. It said things had become so bad that police were unable to accept that peaceful political and social dissent was a vital element of a healthy democratic process, and should not be viewed as a crime.
These complaints were made by OSISA at an African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) meeting in The Gambia in April 2013.
OSISA said, 'There are also reliable reports of a general militarization of the country through the deployment of the Swazi army, police and correctional services to clamp down on any peaceful protest action by labour or civil society organisations ahead of the country's undemocratic elections [in 2013].'
As recently as September 2017, police stopped a pro-democracy meeting taking place, saying they had not given organisers permission to meet. It happened during a Global Week of Action for democracy in the kingdom. About 100 people reportedly intended to meet at the Mater Dolorosa School (MDS) in the kingdom's capital, Mbabane.
In 2013, after police broke up a meeting to discuss the pending election, the meeting's joint organisers, the Swaziland United Democratic Front (SUDF) and the Swaziland Democracy Campaign (SDC) said Swaziland no longer had a national police service, but instead had 'a private militia with no other purpose but to serve the unjust, dictatorial, unSwazi and ungodly, semi-feudal royal Tinkhundla system of misrule'.
In April 2015, a planned rally to mark the anniversary of the royal decree that turned Swaziland from a democracy to a kingdom ruled by an autocratic monarch was abandoned amid fears that police would attack participants. In February and March, large numbers of police disbanded meetings of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), injuring at least one union leader.
In 2014, police illegally abducted prodemocracy leaders and drove them up to 30 kilometres away, and dumped them to prevent them taking part in a meeting calling for freedom in the kingdom. Police staged roadblocks on all major roads leading to Swaziland's main commercial city Manzini where protests were to be held. They also physically blocked halls to prevent meetings taking place. Earlier in the day police had announced on state radio that meetings would not be allowed to take place.
In 2012, four days of public protest were planned by trade unions and other prodemocracy organisations. They were brutally suppressed by police and state forces and had to be abandoned.