Eswatini long-time human-rights campaigner Maseko Thulani is dead. A few years ago, he was jailed for his criticism of King Mswati III. Before he was shot dead, the king had given a chilling warning to critics of his government. There is no doubt in the minds of many that this was an assassination.
The killing of a government critic fits in the post-colonial history of Africa. Before return of democracy in the 1990s, killing and jailing of real or imagined critics was part of governing practice in Africa. In Kenya, the government even built made-for-purpose torture chambers at Nyayo House, where hundreds of people underwent horrendous experiences.
In his memoir, Two Weeks in Hell, Prof Ngotho Kariuki, a former political prisoner, recounts the various torture methods used on him and others to extract confessions. When one confessed, he was hauled before a night court and sentenced to years in prison. Those who refused to confess were detained without trial.
To remind you just how painfully surreal independent Kenya — and Africa — had become, those who were tortured and detained were the lucky ones. Many others suffered a much worse fate.
Tortured and killed
In 1975, JM Kariuki, a relentless critic of the government, was kidnapped, tortured and killed. His mutilated body was found in a thicket at the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi.
Kwame Nkrumah, adapting a Bible verse, had thundered: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added unto you”. But nothing pleasant was added. Ghana under Nkrumah, like the rest of Africa, was a despotic hellhole not any different from colonial dictatorship.
In the 1990s, most of Africa regained democracy. However, a few countries like Eswatini remained firmly under the yoke of despotism. The kingdom, formerly known as Swaziland, hides its despotism behind African traditionalism. But behind the façade of a happy people and dancing bare-breasted maidens, thrives one of the last autocracies in Africa.
Over the years, citizens of Eswatini have been agitating for an end to the autocracy. A few years ago, the country was rocked by widespread street protests. The people were calling for end to despotism and the decadent and wasteful lifestyle of the king. Every few years, Mswati takes a young wife at public expense. The newlywed joins a harem who live in ostentatious wealth while most of the citizens remain mired in poverty.
Like any autocracy, the government responded to the street protests with brute force, killing tens of people. After worldwide — excluding African countries and the African Union — condemnation of the bloody government crackdown, many thought the dictatorship would restore some measure of democracy.
The assassination of Thulani is an indication that the autocracy and its murderous ways remain intact. This latest murder of a critic has elicited condemnation from the UN, European Union and the US. Not surprisingly, the AU and African countries have kept a studious silence.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator