Picture: BLOOMBERG/NADINE HUTTON
Picture: BLOOMBERG/NADINE HUTTON

It was a matter of time before MTN was tossed into the storm of negative publicity for dancing with dictators. 

For about two weeks its customers in Eswatini were cut off from the internet after the SA mobile phone operator was ordered to pull the plug to repress pro-democracy protests marred by rioting and looting. 

What began as protests against police brutality after the death of a law student, allegedly at the hands of the police, morphed into a wider movement against King Mswati III, an autocrat who has held a tight grip on every branch of the government for more than three decades.  

Perhaps what annoys demonstrators the most is that Mswati, who began ruling the country when he was 18 in 1986, uses public money to fund his lavish lifestyle: he has 15 wives, each of whom has a palace paid for by an administration, and in 2019 he was reported to have bought 15 Rolls-Royces and other luxury vehicles for his wives. In 2009, Forbes estimated his personal wealth to be about $200m, making him one the richest monarchs in the world.

In a country where nearly 60% of the 1.2-million population live in poverty, it’s easy to sympathise and stand behind a critical mass of citizens that took to the streets in the past two weeks. 

Given that his opposition, which counts a growing number of young people, cannot take him to the ballot box as he presides over a sham democratic system that bans political parties, the logical step for fed-up citizens is a mass protest to demand reforms.

In the age of rapidly expanding internet access for just about everyone with Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook now occupying ubiquitous status across the world, one would think grass-roots opposition movements such as the People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) and the Swaziland Solidarity Network would have a greater ability to organise and take on Mswati.

But after unleashing his army on protesters, ostensibly to enforce a dawn-to-dusk curfew to curb resurgent Covid-19 infections, Mswati ordered MTN to shut down internet access — a cynical act that ensured nobody was able to document potentially deadly clashes between demonstrators and law-enforcement agencies, let alone mobilise demonstrations. 

It’s unclear whether 40 or 60 people were killed when the protest, according to Eswatini journalists, was met with police brutality and deadly force from security forces. According to Human Rights Watch, which spoke to youth activists on the ground, soldiers shot at protesters indiscriminately, while Pudemo issued a statement saying it had seen the army shoot at protesters with live ammunition in Matsapha and critically injure five people. 

MTN’s presence in Eswatini is emblematic of the company’s risky strategy to do business in war-torn, unstable and totalitarian states.  

For shareholders, and pro-democracy activists, the strategy was paying off as it propelled the company into one of postapartheid SA’s biggest commercial successes while also making it easier for politicians, activists and citizens to talk and organise quickly via smartphones.

But for despots such as Mswati, assured by their fallacious virtues of preventing the planning of potentially violent protests, shutting down the internet has become a new tool of repression. 

Inevitably, mobile phone companies like MTN get thrown into the controversy. The company has faced a public backlash over internet blackouts elsewhere in Africa, from Cameroon to Uganda, accused of helping autocratic governments that want to control the flow of information online especially during protests or elections.  

To be fair, MTN had little choice but to adhere to its licence conditions and pull the plug when instructed by regulators in  Eswatini, and elsewhere where governments have ordered it to flick the off-switch.

But the company is empowered, under the UN and AU resolutions that condemn internet shutdowns as a violation of human rights, to push back and advance its moral duty to protect customers’ freedom to communicate.

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