Thousands of people marched against the appointed government in Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, a day after clashes with riot police in which several protesters were arrested and beaten, an activist and local media said.
As a week of protests against King Mswati III came to a head, Sikelela Dlamini, coordinator of the Swaziland United Democratic Front, said more than 3,000 people were marching in provincial town of Siteki.
A further 5,000 were in a standoff with police at a bus station in Manzini, the landlocked southern African nation’s main city, he added. There were no reports of violence, Reuters reports.
However, on Wednesday police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse crowds demanding an end to a political system that allows the king to run the country of 1.4 million people as a personal fiefdom.
“Some people were beaten to a pulp,” Dlamini told Reuters in neighouring South Africa, adding that several campaigners were arrested.
The Times of Swaziland quoted a police spokeswoman as saying one officer was hurt in a “skirmish” with demonstrators in Siteki.
More trouble is possible on Friday when activists inspired by uprisings against autocratic rulers in north Africa deliver a petition to the government in the capital, Mbabane.
As well as anger at the UK-educated Mswati, who was described in a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks as “not intellectually well-developed”, the protests are being driven by the parlous state of the Swazi economy.
Historically, two-thirds of Swazi government revenues have come from a regional customs union dominated by South Africa.
That money dried up in a 2009 South African recession, but Swaziland refused to cut spending — especially on the royal household or military — causing its budget deficit to balloon to a Greece-scale 14 percent of GDP.
The International Monetary Fund has demanded reforms to what is officially Africa’s most bloated bureaucracy before it lends any money, while an emergency $340 million bailout from South Africa also appears to have hit the skids due to Swaziland’s refusal to accept the need for political change.
On the verge of bankrupcy, the government has been keeping its head above water by eating into central bank reserves and running up arrears of at least $180 million, although there are fears civil servants may not be paid this month.
Mswati, who has been on the throne for 25 years, has at least a dozen wives and a fortune estimated at $200 million.