Eswatini

Swaziland: King fails to address key issues

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MBABANE, 7 February (IRIN) - King Mswati III delivered a much anticipated speech on Friday when he opened the Houses of Parliament, but his briefest State of the Kingdom address ever avoided mentioning the on-going political crises, and offered only one new initiative to combat AIDS, poverty and the current food crisis.
"We all bear individual responsibility for our health," the king said of the root cause of the kingdom's HIV adult infection rate, which stands at 38.6 percent.

Mswati thanked the United States for its contribution of R500 million (US $60 million), announced this week, which will be allocated to AIDS prevention, education and treatment efforts. But he committed no new government resources, even as he declared: "There is a very real possibility that the Swazi nation will cease to exist (because of AIDS)."

The initiative Mswati announced to the applause of the 65 assembled members of parliament and 30 Senators was a US $7.2 million fund to assist AIDS orphans.

A report last year by the UN Children's Fund predicted that by 2010, Swaziland will have a population of 150,000 orphans, which might constitute one-eighth of all Swazis. Some 17,000 children are orphaned annually.

But the financially hard-pressed kingdom - Swaziland has been in an economic recession for three years, according to the Central Bank - can do little to alleviate several simultaneous crises, other than "rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic", political activist Maphadlana Shongwe told IRIN.

Shongwe was reacting to Mswati's announcement that he was shifting unused poverty alleviation funds to assist drought-stricken families.

The king began his speech discussing the food crisis that presently affects 287,000 Swazis. He called for the creation of new irrigation schemes, but did not unveil any. He blamed the food crisis on a lack of rainfall, but did not acknowledge calls for land reform.

Eighty percent of Swazis are peasant farmers who reside on communal Swazi Nation Land under palace-appointed chiefs, and cannot secure bank loans to purchase irrigation equipment because they do not own title deed to their properties. Agricultural experts say this has hindered agricultural production and compromised food security.

Mswati called upon communities to identify their members in need, and take care of them. Similarly, the king spent a long portion of his speech calling for respect for the elderly, many of whom are destitute. But he offered no programme to address the needs of the elderly.

Instead of relying on visiting foreign health care specialists, the king said: "We need to develop our own health care specialists." But he specified no programme to accomplish this.

In an unprecedented move, Mswati finished his speech, and then spoke extemporaneously for another 30 minutes, without translation, leaving a gallery of foreign envoys confused. His remarks seemed aimed at the conservative peasant majority that constitute his chief constituency.

That constituency will be called upon to approve a national constitution, a burning issue Mswati dismissed in a few sentences. Although the king commissioned a constitution in 1996, with a delivery date set for two years later, the process is now in its seventh year. The king gave no timetable for its completion.

Mswati was similarly dismissive of a major controversy over the "rule of law" in the kingdom. The attorney-general and police commissioner are among those either convicted of contempt of court or facing those charges. They are among the palace appointees who have thwarted decisions of the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

In November, Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini said the government would refuse to implement an appeal court ruling that removed Mswati's power to rule by decree. The six appeal court magistrates resigned in protest. The European Union (EU), United States, Amnesty International and the International Bar Association expressed their concern. US and EU envoys told the government that trade links could be jeopardised if a commitment to rule of law was not demonstrated.

In his speech, Mswati waved away such concerns by declaring: "We abide by rule of law, and we will continue to do so."

Members of the Swaziland Democratic Alliance, which seeks a constitutional monarchy within a democratic government, said the monarch had failed to tackle the key issues.

"I am disappointed that key issues like rule of law, land reform and the purchase of a R720 million [US $86.7 million] luxury jet for the king's private use were either glossed over or not mentioned at all," Constance Nxumalo of the Swaziland Youth Congress said.

King Mswati gives two major addresses annually. The second will be in September at a celebration combining his 35th birthday, a national holiday in Swaziland, and the country's 35th year of independence.

[ENDS]

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