In unusually blunt language, Swaziland's Roman Catholic Church has accused King Mswati III, sub-Saharan Africa's last remaining absolute monarch, of abusing tradition and failing to alleviate the poverty of his subjects.
"The prime minister is a puppet. The king chooses the most conservative and malleable advisers. The system is open to abuse in that anyone in the royal family or among royal family friends can decide anything to suit themselves," said a pastoral letter released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Swaziland.
The controversial letter, sent out at the weekend, drew a sharp rebuke this week from Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini and supporters of the royal establishment.
The report was authorised by Roman Catholic Bishop Louis Ncamiso Ndlovu, and written by Father Claudio Avallone, a former resident of the kingdom, with Ndlovu contributing.
Ndlovu criticised what he described as the government's inadequate response to the poor, and its silence on issues like human rights abuse and corruption. "I am for those who are in need," wrote Ndlovu. "Very often the government buries its head in the sand. It chooses to remain silent in the face of many problems."
In response Dlamini, appointed by King Mswati in 1996 to head the cabinet, said the church had failed to understand how the country was run. "I wasn't approached as to how I feel to occupy a position that is powerless in their view, hence [the letter's authors] came to a misinformed view of the country's political position," he said.
"One would suggest that before they form their critical analysis of the country's political situation, they should have familiarised themselves with statutes or consulted those in authority to verify how we function," said Dlamini.
Ndlovu's letter said the prime minister had been appointed by the palace to do its bidding. Dlamini retorted that "even the prime minister in Great Britain reports to the queen about what is happening in his government".
But a political analyst, Vusie Xaba, said the comparison was incorrect. "The British prime minister heads a political party chosen to run government by the majority vote of a democratically constituted electorate. Consultations with the British queen are ceremonial, because she does not dictate government policy. In Swaziland, the king controls the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government, appoints all top jobs, and issues policy," he said.
Senator Mpho Shongwe, appointed to the senate by King Mswati, also rejected Ndlovu's concerns. "It was written by people ignorant of the way parliament works. I think they are just trying to stir up trouble, and set Swazi against Swazi," he said. "Who is the church to talk about democracy? Who elected the pope?"
About five percent of Swaziland's one million population is Roman Catholic.
The church's letter was not the first time that Ndlovu has stirred up controversy. The first Swazi to head the kingdom's Roman Catholic Diocese, he is a noted human rights activist. He has allowed political dissidents to hold meetings at his residence in the main commercial town of Manzini.
Two years ago, that led to a late-night raid by armed police. "They were obviously looking for someone," said Ndlovu. "It was a time when pro-democracy groups were planning a big anti-government rally in Nelspruit [South Africa] when government banned labour union meetings here. But there was no one [at] home but me, and the police left."
Ndlovu has also been hijacked at gunpoint, stuffed into his car boot, driven 15 km out of Manzini and dumped in a maize field. The opposition Swaziland Democratic Alliance (SDA) characterised the incident as an act of political intimidation.
The alliance, an umbrella coalition of opposition political parties - which are banned by royal decree - labour unions and human rights organisations, has endorsed the church's letter.
"It is blunt to call the prime minister a puppet, and some Swazis were offended by such straight talk that you never hear in Swaziland, but in terms of the reality of power, the prime minister answers to the powers that appoint him," said Themba Mngomezulu, a teacher with the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, which is affiliated to the SDA.
Ndlovu said his letter was released to encourage debate about good governance in a country where two-thirds of the population live in perpetual poverty. The report assessed the way the royal family runs government, so people would know where responsibility lies, he insisted.
King Mswati has promised a palace-authored constitution, as early as October, which will permanently ban organised opposition to royal rule. "The people have spoken," Mswati said last year when he accepted the recommendation of the Constitutional Review Commission, headed by his brother, Prince Mangaliso Dlamini, that the royal house retain power.
The commission spent five years assembling what it claimed were the views of ordinary Swazis regarding the type of government they want. No record of those submissions has been released, nor has there been an accounting of how many Swazis presented their views or what they said. Groups, like the Swaziland branch of Women in Law in Southern Africa, which reviewed the commission's final report, criticised it as "incomprehensible".
An assembly of pro-democracy forces, comprising human rights lawyers, labour unions and banned political opposition parties, earlier this month laid the groundwork for an alternative national constitution. "We seek an alternative to the royal constitution the palace will issue so it can retain royal rule for ever," Jan Sithole, the secretary-general of the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions, told IRIN.
The blueprint agreed on at the conference called for the retention of the king as head of state as "a symbol of unity". The king's executive powers would be exercised in consultation with an elected prime minister, whose administration would determine government policy.
"The king shall cease forthwith to have legislative and judicial powers, which shall revert ... to the arms of government, to be exercised in accordance with the stipulations of the constitution, as normally is the case in open and democratic societies," stated the alternative document.