MTN, which has absolute monarch King Mswati III as a major shareholder, and is the sole mobile phone company in Swaziland, has been attacked for sponsoring registration for the kingdom’s controversial national election.
It comes at a time when a campaign by pro-democracy groups to get people to boycott the election appears to be succeeding.
MTN is giving away T-shirts, caps and other products imprinted with its logo, to people who register for the election.
The phone company that has been accused in the past of blocking calls made on its network by pro-democracy campaigners in Swaziland has entered into a deal with the kingdom’s Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC), the Swazi Observer newspaper reported.
The Observer, a newspaper in effect owned by King Mswati, reported that the sponsorship was an incentive to get people to register for the elections.
The elections which are due to be held on 20 September are mired in controversy. The EBC at first announced it was targeting 600,000 people to sign up for the election, but with 18 days of registration still to go had registered only 210,000 people.
Then, as it became clear it was unlikely to reach its target, the EBC back-tracked and denied its target was 600,000. This figure was the total number of people eligible to register, not the Commission’s actual target, the EBC chair ChiefGija Dlamini told the Observer.
The increasingly discredited EBC has been travelling the kingdom trying to get people to sign-up for the elections. Places it has visited include work places, media houses and hospitals. It has also been criticised for failing to stop sitting cabinet ministers from illegally giving gifts, including money and food, to constituents to entice them to vote.
But, the EBC and the Observer have failed to report that a campaign by pro-democracy groups to get people to boycott the election appears to be gaining ground.
Opponents of the election say the poll is valueless because political parties are not allowed to take part and the parliament that is selected has no real power and works as a rubber-stamp for King Mswati.
The Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN), one of a number of pro-democracy groups banned in Swaziland by King Mswati, said in a statement the sponsorship by MTN was a ‘desperate’ move by the EBC to get people to register.
The SSN said, ‘Fearing that [the boycott] call was resonating within the population, the EBC resorted to some extremely desperate measures to ensure that they registered as many of those who normally do not vote because they saw no importance in participating in this useless exercise.
‘This resulted in hospitals being invaded, with sickly patients disrupted from their recuperation as King Mswati’s PR [public relations] agents sought to create the impression that the majority of the population is fully behind his absolute grip of power.’
It added, ‘MTN Swaziland has since shamefully joined the fray, sponsoring this sham exercise, knowing well that poor Swazis will not pass the opportunity to have free T-shirts and caps. We ask a simple question to these friends of dictatorship, “Does this mean that the company does not value those amongst its subscribers who wish to live in a democratic country?” Surely if it valued them then it would not plough the profits it makes from their patronage into sustaining their oppression.
‘If this gesture is innocent and has nothing to do with pleasing the king then MTN should also give out its products to those organizations who called for a boycott of the elections, failing which the Mass Democratic Movement is rightly advised to boycott this company, difficult though this may be, since it is a total monopoly thanks to the fact that its “esteemed shareholder” [King Mswati III] pulls the strings to ensure that there is no competition in the mobile telephone industry.’
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