Swaziland spends 4.7 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on paying, equipping and barracking the 3,000 soldiers in its army, and now parliament has passed a US$8 million supplementary budget for the force, provoking a rare public reaction in questioning the role or even the need for an army in view of the deepening economic crisis.
Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini’s remark at a recent meeting of newspapers editors that “The army exists so we might sleep peacefully at night”, was the catalyst for an unprecedented debate about the role of the armed forces.
The consistently food insecure country with its predominantly agrarian society, where about 70 percent of the 1.02 million population lives on $2 or less a day, allocates 4 percent of government spending to agriculture, while 17 percent is spent on the security services.
Only the budgets for general administration and education receive a larger amount of money from the donor-dependent government, while health gets a 10 percent share. Swaziland has the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence, with one in four people aged 15-49 infected with the disease.
2011 has seen unprecedented public protests against the rule of sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, sparked by an economic crisis that has led to severe cuts in social services, such as education, pensions and support for orphans and vulnerable children.
“The fiscal crisis in Swaziland has reached a critical stage,” Joannes Mongardini, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Deputy Division Chief, said in a statement after the conclusion of a country inspection earlier this month.
“Government revenue collections are insufficient to cover essential government expenditures. More importantly, key social programmes like the fight against HIV/AIDS, free primary education, the support for orphaned and vulnerable children, and elderly grants are being negatively affected.”
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Swaziland’s financial crisis began in earnest after revenue from the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) - the world's oldest customs union, comprising Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and South Africa, which applies a common set of tariffs and disproportionately distributes the revenue to member states - declined significantly in the wake of the 2008 global slowdown.
Military spending as a ratio to GDP ranks it 18th in the world, according to the CIA World Fact Book. An estimated $40.5 million is allocated annually to the Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force (USDF), excluding supplemental budget requests.
Parliament is forbidden to debate military budgets, and details of specific military spending are cited as a state security matter.
“We actually do not need the army. Most of the army’s resources are spent on the borders and on providing security at royal residences,” said an editorial in the Times Sunday newspaper. “To protect us, that is the duty of the police.”
A letter published in the newspaper asked: “How can we get a peaceful night’s sleep when civil servants are told to take salary cuts, and the elderly are told they will not get their grants? Government says there is no money, so why is there so much money then to feed soldiers? Are they preparing for war? Against whom? The only thing that can cause conflict is the lack of [government] service delivery.”
'The country is not at war'
Vincent Dlamini, secretary general of the National Public Servants and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU), told IRIN the government said it intended retrenching 7,000 public sector workers and reduce the retirement age to 55 years of age, while maintaining the retirement age of 60 in the army.
“The country is not at war and so there is no need to spend 4.7 percent of GDP on the army. Government is complaining about the huge wage bill but is keeping more people in the army,” he said.
Joyce Ndwandwe, a member of the Ngwane National Liberatory Congress, Swaziland’s oldest political party, which is banned, told IRIN: “When I need a soldier for my protection, where is one? They are all at the king’s palaces - they only come out when the workers strike.”
The formation of an army coincided with the banning of political parties in 1973, after Mswati’s father, King Sobhuza, decreed the country’s independence constitution invalid and assumed all executive, legislative and judicial powers for himself and his descendants. Political opposition parties were outlawed, as were public demonstrations.
The British colonial authorities, who administered Swaziland as a protectorate from 1902 to 1968, considered a Swazi army superfluous as the country faced no external threats, and if neighbouring Mozambique or South Africa turned hostile there would be no contest, with or without an army.
Public demonstrations demanding political and economic reform have become more frequent, and the security forces - police, prison officers and a sprinkling of army personnel - have often been heavy handed in response to protesters.
The real enemy is AIDS
“The truth is, when civil servants are not paid they will take to the streets, and then we will see the army in action,” a supervisor in the agricultural ministry, who declined to be named, told IRIN.
The wage bill for public servants, reputedly the largest per-capita public workers’ bill in Africa, has been paid, but there are concerns that the economic crisis will lead to the government being unable to meet its public sector salary commitments in future.
“Swaziland’s security is threatened by AIDS, and AIDS must be recognized as this country’s true enemy” Constance Mdluli, the financial officer of Women for an AIDS-Free Swaziland, an advocacy and HIV/AIDS support group based in the second city of Manzini, told IRIN.
“We have the world’s highest percentage of people living with HIV, and AIDS is devastating our homes and businesses, our schools and our religious institutions. Why do government’s priorities not reflect who the true enemy is and put all our resources into fighting this real and not imaginary enemy?”