Eswatini Youth Demand Justice After Thabani Nkomonye’s Mysterious Death

Protesters run for cover as they clash with Eswatini anti-riot police in 2018 in Manzini during a protest against low wages. Recently, the youth have been protesting against police brutality after the death of law student Thabani Nkomonye.

Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images.

Eswatini Youth Demand Justice After Thabani Nkomonye’s Mysterious Death

Eswatini youth rally up to demand justice for the late law student whose mysterious death reeks of police brutality.

Last week, the youth of Eswatini took to the streets of Manzini, one of the kingdom's major cities, to protest and demand justice for the mysterious death of Thabani Nkomonye (25), believed to have died at the hands of the police. The story of Thabani, a law student at the University of Eswatini (UNESWA), is similar to that of many others who have suffered violence at the hands of local police with no one being held accountable. Earlier in the week, a video of three members of the Royal Eswatini Police strong-arming a bus conductor and hurling insults at him surfaced on social media.

Thabani's family suspected something was amiss when he didn't show up to meet up with his brother on Sunday, May 9. His cellphone couldn't be reached. According to the family's account of events, shared in a Twitter thread, on Monday, May 10, Thabani's sister went to the Manzini and Sigodvweni police stations to inquire if he, perhaps, was in custody or involved in an accident. Both police stations claimed there was no filing of Thabani's description or his car. The police went on to suggest that if he hadn't shown up by lunchtime, then a missing person's report should be filed.

Police foul play

On Tuesday, May 11, Thabani's brother went to report a missing person. A missing person's report with Thabani's description, and the car he was driving, were immediately circulated by the police. On Thursday, May 13, Thabani's mother followed up and was told her son's car had been involved in a car accident on May 8 and was towed by police from the accident scene. However, his body had not been found at the scene.

The police then informed Thabani's family and the public that they had thoroughly searched for the driver at the accident scene, but to no avail. Upon being advised by the police, the family carried out their own search. Within minutes of arriving at the accident scene, they located Thabani's body underneath some shrubs, not more than 30 metres from where the car had allegedly landed after it had veered off the road.

Naturally, the Nkomonye family had numerous questions for the police, as there was no single drop of blood at the scene of the accident and how the police had failed to find his remains when they had been so easy to locate. The car, also, had what seemed like a bullet hole and the front windscreen was caved in, instead of out. The police theorised that the car had veered off the road and Thabani was flung out through the windscreen.

The family also had questions about why the missing person's report was circulated when Thabani's car had been parked in their backyard all along. The family also discovered that the accident was recorded at 22:30 on Saturday, May 8. When they asked to view the vehicle again, they discovered that it had been tampered with and the suspected bullet hole was masked with the car's number plate.

As news of Thabani's inexplicable death and discovery of the car spread, Eswatini youth started demanding justice for him and his family on social media using the hashtag #JusticeForThabani.

UNESWA students, civilians and the youth organised a peaceful protest on Monday, May 17, demanding answers and justice. Over 2000 people marched peacefully from UNESWA to the Sigodvweni Police Station in Matsapha, and the heavily armed Operational Support Services Unit (OSSU) was present at the scene. Infamous for their aggression, OSSU is a police wing that the government often deploys during protests.

During the peaceful protest, OSSU fired teargas and rubber bullets to disperse the unarmed crowd, leading to an innocent bystander who was running work errands being shot in the eye. As videos of the peaceful protest circulated on social media, clearly showcasing police brutality, acting Prime Minister Themba Masuku announced the appointment of Senior Magistrate Nonhlanhla Dlamini as coroner to investigate circumstances leading to Thabani's death.

Police violence during Thabani's memorial service

The youth continued to demand justice and had planned to attend and stage a protest at Thabani's memorial service on Friday. The acting Prime Minister then ordered police to disperse gatherings that undermine COVID-19 regulations. A memo from the national police commissioner was leaked on social media, stating that all police officers who were on leave were recalled to be spread out through Manzini to ensure that the protest didn't take place.

Friday, May 21, was the day set by the Nkomomye family for Thabani's memorial service. Images and videos of numerous OSSU vehicles driving into town circulated, a stern warning that there would be a heavy police presence in Manzini. This was a surprising turn of events given that it's usually impossible to receive immediate police response as they usually cite a shortage of vehicles. But on the day of Thabani's memorial service, there happened to be enough fuel for tons of vehicles to be deployed to disperse peaceful and unarmed protestors.

The police went on to disrupt (video)Thabani's memorial service, firing teargas and rubber bullets at a crowd that was mourning and in the presence of some members of parliament. Thabani's mother and sister had to be rushed to hospital (video) after inhaling teargas. Videos of the ordeal sparked further outrage. Meanwhile in the Manzini CBD, protestors were attacked by the police (video), leading to non-participating civilians getting injured. According to some of the protestors, a four-month-old baby died in the mother's hands after inhaling teargas.

The rife demands for justice are not just for Thabani Nkomonye, but all those who have suffered all kinds of social injustices under the brutal hands of the police — with no one being held accountable. The justice system is broken, the government is corrupt with thousands of citizens living in poverty. The #JusticeForThabani movement is gaining more traction with Eswatini citizens demanding accountability from the government, and action from members of parliament and local artists.

As to how Thabani met his fate at just 25, only the police know.