Thursday, January 20, 2011


King Mswati III, Swaziland’s king and the last absolute monarch in sub-Saharan Africa, must be jumping at shadows after the recent events in Tunisia that saw the overthrow of its dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

It happened in the blink of an eye and showed that even a fairly small event could spark a national uprising that a carefully constructed state apparatus was powerless to stop. Within a month of the start of protests, Ben Ali had to flee the country into exile.

There are two lessons for the Swaziland pro-democracy movement from this: (i) dictatorships can be overthrown; (ii) social networking – that is Internet sites such as Facebook, Twitter, You Tube – were important tools in mobilizing action and opinion against the dictatorship.

The first lesson (and most worrying for the Swazi regime) is simple: people can overthrow tyrannical governments. In Tunisia’s case the protests were sparked when a 26-year-old impoverished college graduate set fire to himself in front of a government building to protest that the authorities had confiscated his only way of making a living: an illegal vegetable vending cart.

Demonstrations spread throughout the country. Ordinary Tunisians who were fed up with unemployment and corruption took to the streets and were later joined by labour unions, lawyers, students, professionals and youths.

Tunisia, according to Amnesty International, under Ben Ali had one of the Arab world’s most repressive governments.

The similarities between Tunisia and Swaziland are uncanny, with both ruled by dictators who came to power in a bloodless coup. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, began his presidency in 1987, while Swaziland’s King Mswati came to power in 1986 on the back of the 1973 Royal Proclamation delivered by his father Sobhuza II. The proclamation banned political parties and created a state of emergency that (despite a new constitution) for all practical purposes exists today, making King Mswati an absolute monarch.

Both Tunisia and Swaziland have a large over-educated, under-employed, population, many of them young people. Public dissent in both nations was almost unheard of, with free speech and free assembly routinely quashed by state forces. Many protests are met with violence by police and a top priority of government is to disrupt anyone or any group seen as opponents to the regime. Because of the lack of Western journalists in Tunisia or Swaziland, hardly anything about this gets into the international media.

Tunisia and Swaziland have many of the same social, economic and political problems, including a high rate of youth unemployment (with graduates very often unable to get anything but menial work); a general lack of economic opportunity; elections viewed as a political farce; the state’s credibility lost; members of the government more concerned with their own welfare and operating a jobs-for-the-boys policy when government jobs are allocated; widespread corruption (but, often unacknowledged); and unemployment becomes a medium of expression on the streets for want of another means of expression.

President Ben Ali blamed ‘foreign elements’ for stirring up trouble. In Swaziland, the blame goes to people who are ‘un-Swazi’. Barnabas Dlamini, Swaziland’s illegally-appointed Prime Minister, wants foreigners who speak out against his government tortured.

On a more personal level, Ben Ali's daughter, Nesrine, aged 23, was perceived as ‘friendly and interested, but naive and clueless’. She reflected the very sheltered, privileged and wealthy life she has led.’ (Shades here of King Mswati’s eldest daughter, the rapper, Princess ‘Pashu’ Sikhanyiso).

There was anger in Tunisia that President Ben Ali and his family lived in opulent style. US Ambassador Robert Godec, in a cable published by Wikileaks said, ‘The opulence with which El Materi [Ben Ali’s son-in-law] and Nesrine [Ben Ali’s daughter] live and their behavior make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali's family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.’

In Swaziland, the excesses of King Mswati and his family are well documented in international circles, but mostly unmentioned in the Swazi media.

The second major lesson to be learned from the Tunisian experience is that ordinary people can use ‘social networking’ as a way of organising protest and letting the world know of their grievances.

In Tunisia, as in Swaziland, state-controlled television and radio is a propaganda tool of the government. Tunisian state television reported that the protests were ‘isolated events.’ This lie was completely shattered when Al Jazeera satellite television aired Facebook and YouTube videos, as well as Flickr images, showing that the demonstrations were anything but isolated. Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks broadcast social media videos because non-state media were banned from reporting from Tunisia.

Tunisians used videos, pictures and words to show the world what is going on in their country. And by putting those messages online, they spurred individuals and media organizations around the world to take a closer look at their cause.

CNN journalist Tim Lister told CTV's Canada AM that Twitter and Facebook were ‘the real motors’ of the protest movement. ‘The scale of the protests became very quickly noticeable to the outside world on Flickr, on Twitter, on Facebook and that attracted the attention of some of the Arabic news networks…and they began to cover this.’

During the protests, Tunisians constantly uploaded videos and up-to-the-minute Twitter feeds of street demonstrations. Some of the images of police brutality were gruesome, which probably served to outrage international opinion even further.

Twitter helped spread the information about what was happening in Tunisia, as demonstrated by the tweets and videos and other media collected by Andy Carvin at National Public Radio (in the United States) while the events unfolded.

And at least one Tunisian revolutionary, who runs a website called Free Tunisia, told a Huffington Post blogger that social media such as Twitter — along with cellphones, text messaging and various websites — was crucial to the flow of information and helped protesters gather and plan their demonstrations.

Turning to Swaziland, protests are brutally repressed by state forces,but people continue to demonstrate. The economy is in collapse and even the Prime Minister has warned of social unrest.

With social networking, it is impossible to calculate exactly how many people in Swaziland use Facebook, Twitter and the other Internet sites, but the number is growing by the day, most obviously among young, educated people, living in urban areas. Many Swazi people online only use the Internet for social chit-chat, but there is also a sizeable pro-democracy community online. Even now, while Swaziland remains relatively peaceful, these sites are valuable at getting information about human rights and civil liberties abuses out into the wider world.

We know that social networking worries the Swazi Government, because it blocked the website of the People’s United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO) and is making plans to expand its propaganda operations outside of the kingdom.

Social networking will be important in the Swazi uprising, but one thing must be clear: it was the Tunisian people who toppled Ben Ali, and social networking helped. In that order.

So, in a nutshell: any small event can spark off the uprising and the ordinary people of Swaziland can get support for their cause from social networking.

Social networking is in place. All we need now is the spark.

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