Afrobarometer measures citizens’ perceptions of freedom to assemble by asking: “In this country, how free are you to join any political organization you want?” Survey participants could answer completely free, somewhat free, not very free or not at all free.
On average, across the 36 African countries where Afrobarometer conducts its nationally representative public opinion surveys, a majority (58 percent) reported that they feel “completely free” to join any political organization they want.
But citizens’ perceptions of freedom to assemble varied across the continent. While 85 percent of Senegalese felt completely free to join political organizations, only 7 percent felt that same way in Swaziland.
Why is Swaziland so far below its peers in Africa in protecting its citizens’ freedom to assemble?
Plainly, Swaziland is not a democracy. It holds elections and has a parliament, but real power is vested in the last absolute monarch in Africa, King Mswati III. King Mswati III has ruled Swaziland since 1986, a couple of years after the death of his father, King Sobhuza II.
While nondemocratic, Swaziland’s 2005 constitution enshrines the freedom to peaceful assembly in its list of “fundamental rights and freedoms” — what analysts have dubbed the Swazi bill of rights. Although Swazis have these rights and freedoms in theory, in practice they do not.
In a briefing published earlier this year in the “Review of African Political Economy,” Bongani Masuku and Peter Limb report on multiple violations of citizens’ freedoms in Swaziland. Specific to the Swazi government’s limitations on the freedom of association, they cite police surveillance of labor and student movements and the banning of unions.
One example Masuku and Limb share is the violent attack by police of a leader in a teachers’ union at a union meeting. As the union was assembling for the meeting, the police ordered participants to disperse, and so they retreated to a bus. Police forced entry into the bus and removed the leader, who reported:
… they grabbed me and pulled me out of the vehicle. They then dragged me for about 20 metres from the bus before they started kicking me all over the body. While sprawled on the turf, someone kicked me in the mouth.
Harassment and violent repression by the state in Swaziland has been a clear signal to Swazi citizens. It is perhaps even a wonder that as many as 7 percent feel completely free to join any political organization they want.
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