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, the IRIN news agency reports. The consistently food insecure kingdom 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.
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.
Vincent Dlamini, secretary general of the National Public Servants and Allied Workers Union (NAPSAWU), told IRIN, “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.”
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.
To read the full IRIN report, click here.