Thousands of Swazis marched on the prime minister’s office on Friday in a rare protest to demand the resignation of the tiny southern African kingdom’s government. Swaziland is in the grip of a serious financial crisis and civil servants fear they will not be paid this month after Africa’s last absolute monarchy suffered a huge drop in income from the Southern African Customs Union.
Protesters have drawn inspiration from uprisings in north Africa. Trade unions and opposition parties, which are officially banned, are demanding the government resign. “Government corruption is draining our country,” said Masuko Mario, President of the People’s United Democratic Movement. “We are here to demand the unbanning of political parties. We have no confidence in the government and want a new interim government to be put in place and for political parties to be unbanned.”
Around 2,000 protestors, including civil servants, students and unionists, marched to the office of Prime Minister Barnabus Sibusiso Dlamini in the capital Mbabane. Armed riot police guarded entrances to government ministries. Some student leaders encouraged protestors to break through police barricades and confront Dlamini. Others said the protestors had the support of some police officers.
“Plainclothes policemen are marching. They know they are in the same situation as us. We know we have their support,” said one protestor who only gave his name as Senzi.
Unemployment in the nation of 1.4 million people is about 40 percent, with 70 percent of the population living below the national poverty line. In contrast, King Mswati III — who has 14 wives — has a personal fortune of $200 million, according to Forbes magazine.
Hundreds of police officers and special armed units deployed on the streets of Mbabane and roads leading to a park where protesters were blocked off. “We are inspired by the events in the Middle East and North Africa. This regime must be removed,” said Sarah Dlamini, one of the protesters.
The International Monetary Fund said this month Swaziland faced big fiscal challenges in the current financial year, with its budget deficit soaring to a whopping 13 percent of GDP. Salaries of civil servants have been frozen after the country — Africa’s third-biggest sugar producer — suffered a 60 percent drop in income from the Southern African Customs Union, which accounts for two-thirds of state revenues.
Government sources told Reuters that 7,000 of the country’s 35,000 civil servants would be retrenched in the next three years in an attempt to cut state spending on salaries. A $145 million loan from the African Development Bank will only be granted if some IMF criteria, including reducing the state’s wage bill, are met.
If the AfDB loan is not granted, the government, which has been dipping into central bank reserves to pay state wages, could be bankrupt by June or July. The IMF expects economy to grow by a mere 0.5 percent in 2011 while inflation is likely to increase to around 8 percent.