ECONOMY

Banks Shut, Phones Cut Amid Eswatini Anti-Monarchy Protests

Banks and stores were forced to close and mobile-phone services disrupted as violent pro-democracy protests prompted Africa’s last absolute monarchy to declare a curfew and send soldiers onto the streets.

Shoprite Holdings Ltd., the Johannesburg-based retailer, shut most of its shops in Eswatini, where demonstrations against King Mswati III’s 35-year rule have been the worst in years. Lenders, including the units of South Africa-based FirstRand Ltd., Nedbank Group Ltd. and Standard Bank Group Ltd., closed branches and MTN Group, the biggest mobile operator, warned its services were cut.

“We are highly concerned about the malicious damage” to property that occurred during the protests, Shoprite said in an emailed statement Thursday. It has “disrupted the food supply chain in the country and puts the livelihood, lives and safety of others at risk,” it said.

The violence escalated this week, prompting the state to announce a curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. Acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku denied a statement on the U.S. embassy’s website that martial law was declared.

“The government has tightened security to regain the rule-of-law, peace and to protect all emaSwati,” he said in an emailed statement. “We have had to call in the army to protect critical national infrastructure and enforce the Covid-19 regulations.”

Masuku said he’s yet to receive an official report regarding reported deaths linked to the riots and will investigate these allegations.

The government of neighboring South Africa, whose border almost completely surrounds the kingdom, expressed concern about reports of loss of life and the destruction of property, and called on the security forces to exercise restraint.

Known as Swaziland until 2018, Eswatini has been led since 1986 by 53-year-old Mswati, who controls parliament and appoints ministers. The landlocked country of 1.3 million people is the last African nation that recognizes Taiwan as independent, and an ally.

Less than half the size of Switzerland, it produces sugar cane and forestry products, and is known for its scenic nature reserves. More than half its people live on less than $1.9 per day, according to the World Bank.

Earlier in the week, police fired tear gas and water cannons at groups of people demanding democracy in the country that has banned political parties since the early 1970s. The government denied reports that the king had fled the country.

Protesters are demanding the country shifts to a constitutional monarchy where citizens elect their prime minister, but are also angry about the vastness of the king’s interests in major companies in the country, according to Khulekeni Msweli, an artist and community activist.

“The feeling is his majesty has to take a side step and for us to have a prime minister who we know seeks to directly represent us and is fully accountable to us,” he said by phone from Vuvulane in the northeast of the kingdom. “It’s got to a breaking point where the younger generation have nothing more to lose.”

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