What’s Going On: Civil unrest in South Africa & the pro-democracy protests in eSwatini

Also includes Nigeria's clampdown on secessionist figures

Our Latest Column, “What’s Going On”, Will Tally Notable News Headlines From Across The Continent — The Good, The Bad, And The Horrible — As A Way Of Ensuring That We All Become A More Sagacious African Generation. With This Column, We’re Hoping To Disseminate The Latest Happenings In Our Socio-Political Climate All Over The Continent, Whilst Starting A Conversation About What’s Important For Us To All Discuss. From Political Affairs To Socio-Economic Issues, ‘What’s Going On’, Will Discuss Just That. 

Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment leads to civil unrest

On June 29, Jacob Zuma became the first South African president, post-Apartheid, to receive a prison sentence. The country’s constitutional court handed Zuma a 15-month sentence for contempt of court, after repeatedly flouting orders to appear and testify before the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture—popularly referred to as the Zondo Commission. Headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the commission was set up in January 2018 by the former president, on recommendations from the Public Protector’s Advocate Thuli Madonsela, to investigate allegations of gross corruption and fraud.

Ironically, Zuma has found himself and his 9-year presidential term as the focal point of the commission’s investigations. A month after the commission was launched, he resigned following years of corruption allegations, especially due to suspicious ties with the affluent Gupta family. Even though he initially claimed to be interested in a single 5-year term, he stood for re-election and despite loud grumblings of misappropriation of state funds and mishandling of state structures, with financial reports estimating that Jacob Zuma’s presidency cost South Africa around one trillion rand. After being recalled by his political party (ANC) and facing a motion of no confidence from the Parliament, Zuma resigned.

In the time since exiting office, the state has brought up dozens of charges for corruption, fraud, money laundering, and more, dating back all the way to similar charges that led to him being ousted as Vice President in 2005. In addition to multiple court dates to answer for these charges, he’s been summoned to testify before the Zondo Commission, where he started his testimony on July 15, 2019. In this testimony, he claimed innocence and accused the commission of being a ploy to push him out of office and tarnish his name. After refusing to voluntarily re-appear in front of the commission, Zuma’s testimony was court-ordered and his constant refusal to submit to the ruling led to his prison sentence.

On July 7, Zuma turned himself in to the police, three days after the court’s deadline to do so. At his rural homestead in Nkandla, hundreds of his supporters gathered and were armed to prevent his arrest, showing how much goodwill he still garnered amongst many South Africans. A freedom fighter during the anti-Apartheid movement, Zuma was sentenced to ten years in prison, serving his term on the infamous Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela and several ANC leaders. This, alongside his rise from humble beginnings, has continuously endeared him to many who deem these charges and court trials as needless persecution fostered by current president Cyril Ramphosa and former allies turned foes.

Jacob Zuma’s arrest immediately led to protests in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the country’s capital, Johannesburg. In KZN especially, the protests morphed into violent civil unrest, leading to vandalism, looting, arson, and the death of at least 45 persons. The chaos has affected shops and shopping centres, with many videos involving vandalism being shared on social media. To combat the unrest, the South African government sent in military forces to KZN earlier this week and there are videos of the police shooting at protesters and rioters with rubber bullets.

President Ramphosa has appealed to South Africans to stop the chaos, as it’s already spreading to the parts of Jo’burg, stating that “the path of violence, of looting and anarchy leads only to more violence and devastation. The next few days and months are crucial to bringing calm to KZN and all of South Africa, with the tussle being between Jacob Zuma’s popularity and the country’s ability to enforce the rule of law. It’s also indicative of a country with a rupture that needs wholesome healing.

Pro-Democracy protests in eSwatini met by state-sanctioned violence

King Mswati III of eSwatini is the last of an extinct class, he’s the only absolute monarch in Africa. In practice, though, he’s at home on a continent of dictators and autocratic rulers. Since succeeding his father in 1986, Mswati III has continued to uphold a system that keeps it foot firmly on the necks of its citizen. The landlocked kingdom of eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is subject to the decision and whims of the king, giving him ultimate political power to appoint prime minister and cabinet members, helping him, his family and those in inner circles to benefit lavishly at the expense of the larger impoverished population.

For decades, the people of eSwatini have been agitating for a right to determine their leaders, but these calls to dilute the power of the monarchy have been done under repressive laws, including the banning of political parties since 1973. In late June, the latest bout of pro-Democracy protests took place, spurred by the death of law student Thabani Nkomonye allegedly at the hands of police. As is routine of oppressive regimes, brutality by state security agencies have been reportedly prevalent under King Mswati III, keeping citizens in a constant fear of state-sanctioned violence.

In addition to that fatal incident, the government announced a stop to the delivery of petitions calling for democratic reforms shortly after. Unsurprisingly, the government has issued contradictory replies for why it stopped the petition process. This catalysed people to take to the streets in protests, and flout the government orders to stop submitting petitions. Almost immediately, the regime implemented draconian measures, with security forces taking to the streets to use forceful and fatal measures to quell the protests. Several protesters, and even bystanders, were shot at, some gravely injured and others dead. Many other protesters were physically assaulted, including two journalists with South Africa-based publication, New Frame.

The government generally barred foreign journalists from entering the country’s borders, and an internet shutdown was instituted to restrict information. During the protests, it was reported that Mswati had fled to Johannesburg to wait out the protests, to which the eSwatini government denied, same way it’s continued denying that security agents are responsible for mass brutality towards unarmed protesters. Currently, the country is in an uneasy calm, a tense stalemate between the king’s men and the citizenry brought about by the excessive, lethal use of force by the former.

The (re-)arrest and intimidation of secessionist leaders in Nigeria

On June 29, Nigeria’s Attorney General Abubakar Malami announced the re-arrest of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). After being initially arrested, jailed and granted bail, Kanu fled Nigeria in September 2017 after soldiers invaded his home during a military operation. His location since has been unknown, which made his re-arrest a shock to many Nigerians. Malami stated that the arrest came about from “recent steps taken by the federal government [that] saw to the interception of the fugitive Kanu on Sunday, June 27, 2021.”

Following his re-arrest, Nnamdi Kanu’s trial on an eleven-count charge, including treason, illegal possession of firearms and terrorism, will resume at a federal high court in Abuja on July 27. Currently, there are questions on whether Kanu’s trial will be free and fair, especially with the murky details surrounding his re-arrest. The Nigerian government is still mum on how they managed to bring Kanu into custody, with reports alleging that he was abducted in Kenya with help from the East African government—the Kenyan government denies any involvement. According The Guardian, there’s evidence that Kanu entered Kenya earlier this year with his British passport on a visa expiring in June, and Sahara Reporters claim the passport is still in Kenya which would be damning evidence on both governments allegedly involved.

According to Kanu’s lawyer, Barrister Ifeanyi Ejiofor, he was tortured for up to eight days by the Kenyan government at a clandestine location after being abducted, before being handed over to the Nigerian government. If true, the circumstances of Kanu’s re-arrest are gross violations under international law. Considering the President Buhari’s track record with due process and the rule of law, these allegations don’t seem far-fetched. On a few occasions, including during Kanu’s first arrest, his administration has disregarded court-ordered releases and bail grants.

Even going all the way back to his regime as a military dictator, he oversaw the attempted abduction of Umaru Dikko, the Transport minister in the Shagari administration that overthrew via a coup on the last day of 1983. Dikko fled the country shortly after General Buhari took power and found asylum in the UK, however, the dictator was adamant on bringing him back into the country to face corruption charges. The kidnap attempt was botched, and it soured diplomatic relations with the British government for a few years. Nnamdi Kanu is a British citizen, and the alleged circumstances of his arrest might be another Buhari déjà vu moment.

Days after Kanu’s re-arrest, Nigerian’s again woke up to news of the government going after another secessionist leader, this time it was Sunday Igboho. An advocate for the self-determination of the Yoruba people, mainly concentrated in the country’s south-west region, Igboho has emerged as a prominent figure in parochial politics, especially with regards to his role in commandeering Amotekun, the para-military outfit created in the region to stem attacks from armed herdsmen. In the early hours of July 1st, armed men of the State Security Service (SSS) raided Igboho’s Ibadan residence, destroying valuable assets, allegedly killed two and took their bodies aways.

After initial denial, the SSS declared Sunday Igboho wanted—even though he was in the house during the raid. In a statement by the president, he commended the SSS for the raid, claiming Igboho had “been conducting acts of terror and disturbing the peace under the guise of protecting fellow ‘kinsmen’.” The raid was roundly condemned, especially for its timing, with human rights activist Femi Falana noting that no Nigerian law allows for an arrest in the dead of night, unless a crime is being committed. At the moment, Igboho’s whereabouts are unknown, but we can be sure Buhari and his administration will continue their attempts to clamp down on him—rather than direct some of that energy towards raging national insecurity—through legal and alleged illegal means.

[Featured Image Credits: Reuters]

@dennisadepeter is a staff writer at the NATIVE.